a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, June 30, 2008

Her best friend's wedding

By: Amanda Gillooly

My friend Ean Gensler is getting married Saturday. I’m happy for him and can’t wait to see him tie the knot with someone I know he loves very much.

He moved to Chicago a few years back to take a fantastic job, and admittedly, we don’t talk as much as we used to.

But through the wonder of social networking sites such as Myspace.com, we are able to keep up with one another’s lives via the Internet.

The other day I checked a new blog post, and it was plain old depressing.

Instead of checking the “I won’t be able to make it” box on the reservation, the aunt of his fiancĂ© wrote a long, painful letter about how she would not be in attendance at the “event” because she just didn’t believe in their romance.

I took offense immediately. Who the hell is Aunt Bertha to judge Ean?

He was one of my best friends in college, and although we went out nearly every evening, there was never any attraction between the two of us.

Ours just wasn’t that sort of relationship.

But even though we never became intimate, I can see where someone could fall head over heels for the guy.

In addition to being a hottie, he’s hilarious; I don’t think I was ever in Ean’s presence without, at some point, laughing so hard I thought I was really going to wet myself.

Maybe Aunt Bertha just doesn’t see Ean the way I do. But then, we went on many outings. And every outing was an adventure.

She didn’t go to Pittsburgh Steelers games with the dude.

His father, who had the season tickets we gladly mooched, asked us earnestly if we’d like to take his “hollowed-out hoagie” to sneak in a bottle of liquor.

Of course we said no, even though said hoagie had been a reliable accessory for the family for years. But the seed was planted. If Ean’s dad could sneak in the hard stuff with a silly sandwich, what could we come up with?

Actually, nothing too creative. We just stuck a bottle of Southern Comfort in Ean’s boot and walked in, taking secret swigs between plays, and telling ourselves that it wasn’t exactly smuggling as much as trying to stay warm.

We went to Punxsutawney our senior year and ended up teaching the bloated white guy playing Elvis how to give the traditional “rock on” hand gesture. If you need proof, we have a picture.

When Ean walks down the aisle with his fiancĂ©, John Hreha, next Saturday, I’ll surely shed a tear – I’m a closet romantic. I cry at every wedding.

Yes, my friend Ean is gay. And I’m sorry if I didn’t let you in on that tidbit earlier. I just wanted you to see him as I do: a dear friend, not simply “my gay friend.”

I wouldn’t want anyone to make the same mistake as Aunt Bertha.



Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Celtic birthday

Bagpiper Dave Olson ushers my baby brother, Kelly Beveridge, to age 50.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Rooster Song, last verse

Jim of Backroads Bluegrass charms the audience at a farmer's market in Washington, Pa.

A library shines in the ghetto

The blighted city of Aliquippa took its name from a mysterious Indian queen who likely never stepped foot in the area 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad liked the name of the Seneca or Mingo tribal leader and used it to christen a train station in Woodland, Pa., before its name was changed to Aliquippa.

The real gem of this community was Elisabeth M. Horne who, on Nov. 9, 1926, gave Aliquippa the gift of an ornate library in the heart of town. Horne was a daughter of Benjamin Franklin Jones Sr., a founder of Jones and Laughin Steel Corp. that built a steel mill that stretched more than four miles and employed 11,000 men along the Ohio River.

The mill was most famous for a labor dispute in 1937 that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ordered the company to reinstate its steelworkers who were fired for attempting to organize a union. The ruling was considered to be the most important on behalf of labor in the United States.

The city in Beaver County, today, is among the bleakest of the old steel towns in America’s Rust Belt that began to crumble from the collapse of the industry in the 1980s. As a result, much of Aliquippa’s downtown storefront buildings and neighborhoods has fallen in disrepair.

However, the B. F. Jones Memorial Library has undergone extensive restorations to remove decades of black soot that covered its decorative interior walls and ceilings.

A larger-than-life bronze statue of Jones, created by New York artist Robert Aiken, is perched atop a Vermont marble base inside the front door. The lobby reveals itself to reading rooms, one of which has a carved entry to the former children’s reading room. That room is graced with a fantastic stained-glass window depicting 10 color portraits of Mother Goose rhymes.

This library at 663 Franklin Ave. survives, thanks to hearty volunteers who cater to underprivileged children, unlike those of immigrant steelworkers who this library was designed to serve.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Used undies worth keeping

By Amanda Gillooly

As a high school student, I went through a phase where I wanted to buy all my clothing at thrift stores.


No matter the thrift store, there was always a section of used undergarments, and I always thought to myself, “Is there anyone out there who REALLY thinks buying a pair of yellowed briefs is a good life choice?”

Apparently, I’m just not hip enough because some people with money want them. The Associated Press reported Monday that former boyfriend and baby-daddy of the late Anna Nicole Smith, Larry Birkhead, bought up $3,000 worth of her old undies.

OK. Maybe that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s not like he paid $3K for those old yellow briefs. These unmentionables were worn by Smith during a Playboy shoot for which she was propelled to fame.

So, is he just a weirdo who collects the bedroom clothes to smell in the privacy of his own home, or something? Actually, the reason why he’s a weirdo is because he bought them to ensure that the pair’s 1-year-old daughter, Dannielynn, would have a piece of her mother’s legacy.

Indeed, Birkhead told the AP: “I have a lot of history I have to put together that she doesn’t really know about. Playboy was such a big part of her life.”

I don’t know – but if all I had to remember my late mother by were a pink bustier and a white negligee from a Playboy shoot, I’d wonder what kind of legacy she left in the first place.

But after a moment’s thought and a brief Internet search, it appeared that Birkhead’s idea of buying worn gutchies as collectors’ items can be downright noble.

At an estate sale at Pam Anderson’s house early last month, for example, the former “Baywatch” star sold a chain mail bra amd satin negligees and stripper heals along with other household items to hungry buyers. The items sold, but at least she donated the cash to her favorite charity, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I just feel bad for whoever bought the underwear. Do you think Hepatitis C can live on chain mail? Let’s hope not, for the buyer’s sake.

Smog show on horizon

DONORA – Devra Lee Davis never tires of talking about the Donora smog tragedy of 1948.

She used the story about that foggy weekend that trapped mill pollution in the deep valley for three days, killing 20 people, to introduce her critically acclaimed 2002 book, "When Smoke Ran Like Water."

The Donora native also has done countless interviews on the subject and was back in her hometown June 18 to tape a documentary about it for the Weather Channel.

"The story is more that they recognize the issue," Davis said before going on camera at a stage set in Donora Public Library to talk once more about the nation's deadliest air pollution disaster.

The Weather Channel is producing the show for its series, "When Weather Changed the World," because a stagnant weather pattern contributed to the smog that led to the nation's first clean-air law. It is expected to air in October during the 60th anniversary of the tragedy.

Many people have placed the blame for the smog, which also sent thousands of people to local hospitals, on the Donora zinc works.

Although the plant burned coal and mixed it with calcium chloride to produce zinc, the company also used it to produce alloys that were never made public. On the zinc end, the plant smokestacks released plumes of toxic fluoride gas that was strong enough to etch glass and damage the teeth of children and cow's hooves, Davis said.

"They did blame it on the weather, a perfect storm," she said. "We still don't know what went wrong. We never will."

The zinc mill closed in 1957, followed by the steel mill in the 1960s, giving Donora the distinction of having the first major steel mill to close in the United States.

The borough has been giving its blighted downtown a makeover for the smog commemoration. With the help of California University of Pennsylvania, giant reproductions of news photos from the event have been hung in abandoned downtown storefront windows. The commemoration committee also is developing a smog museum.

"This is a chance for Donora to step out of the gloom, the supposed stain that this had on the community, and commemorate those who passed," borough Councilman Don Pavelko said Wednesday.

He said the smog victims need to be credited for creating an awareness in America about the need for clean air.

"We're hoping this is the springboard to bring some pride back to the community."
(Caption: Devra Lee Davis, shown in Donora, is a professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Casey and the two Jakes are rocking Pittsburgh

The new garage-rock band, Donora, is putting on a bashful front as it heats up Pittsburgh’s music scene.

“We don’t like to talk about ourselves much, really,” drummer Jake Hanner said Sunday while the trio from Gibsonia, Pa., took the mini-stage at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

And they don’t. It takes some digging into Google to find a reference that Hanner and his sister, Casey – the lead vocalist – are the children of Dave Hanner of the Corbin-Hanner Band, a local country group that became popular in the 1980s.

The new band likes the name Donora, which is a gritty, blighted former steel town south of Pittsburgh that is famous for having had an air pollution disaster, Jake Hanner said in a e-mail to this blog.

Another Jake – Jake Churton – plays the bass behind the music that tends to replay in your head long after the plugs are pulled from the band's Fender Musicmaster.

Casey Hanner is particularly spellbinding when she drops her voice to a sexy, quiet range for one of the group’s signature songs, “Shh,” before she notches it up to a rocking finish.

Locals agree that this group turns out a great sound, as readers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette voted it the second best band in the city in a newspaper/Web promotion this spring.

A video of the band featured on the blog, PostSecret, held the number one spot on YouTube for two consecutive days in February. And MTV likes Donora’s sound, too, enough to include two of its songs in the show, “I Remember Chloe.” This group also does a fantastic cover of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded.”

Casey and the two Jakes have arrived with gusto, but they should come out of their shells and do more to promote themselves with slick bios, photos and videos.

They are worth noticing in a bigger way. Remember, some 20 people died from air pollution over a smoggy 1948 Halloween weekend in Donora, an episode that practically wiped the borough off the map. The band using that name deserves a better legacy.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Author steals your heart and leaves you hungry

It wouldn’t be a good idea to read “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” on an empty stomach.

Author Bich Minh Nguyen uses food deliciously to set the stage for her memoirs of childhood adjustment as a tiny Vietnamese refugee living among a sea of tall, blue-eyed and blond white children in Grand Rapids, Mich.

While pondering whether she should keep practicing her Vietnamese or share her family traditions with her classmates, she took a bite from a sticky sweet rice cake and felt like an outcast. “It tasted like a secret long kept, old and familiar and unspeakable,” she noted in the 2007 book that is new in paperback form.

Her father married a Mexican immigrant, further complicating the tensions in her overcrowded home. She longed for her new mom to bake pies like the perfect mothers in television commercials for Duncan Hines products. But, hers baked overcooked blueberry pies in store-bought shells that no one ate.

A times, she recalled her childhood between bites of shrimp and pork spring rolls and sweet, juicy fruit pulled from the family altar to Buddha and ancestors. Other days, she reflected her struggles to become an American between trips to a Ponderosa steakhouse.

She won the battle in her first book, not only by coming to terms with her individuality but by delivering a wonderful story about a family’s survival of the painful Vietnam War era in a land of junk food.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Griller claims to be one hot "hawg"

If you ask expert griller C. L. Hallam what his initials stand for, he will respond by saying, “cute lovable hunk.” His humor is open for discussion, but he does sport a happening look.

One thing is for sure, Hallam will easily make you fall in love with his menu, which includes beef brisket and pulled pork ladled with barbecue sauce.

The Monongahela, Pa., cook, otherwise known as Mr. Hawg Heaven, is the feature food vendor this growing season at a farmers' market in Washington, Pa.

The event runs each Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. through the end of October in a city parking lot along the west bank of the 100 block of South Main St. Sponsored by the Washington Business District Authority, this market has live music and become one of the best of its kind in the region.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not your ordinary prom flowers or escort

A good friend asked me over a few weeks ago to take some photos of her daughter, shown above, dressed for the high school prom.

Several days later, when I showed this photo around the newsroom where I work, everyone said the girl was lovely before being immediately drawn to her unusual bouquet of flowers.

“Those are so different,” most of them said. That was followed by questions about what her date had on his head.

The boy was among several at Belle Vernon Area High School in Southwestern Pennsylvania who chose to wear baseball caps backwards rather than crown their heads with top hats to match their tuxedos. Weird fad, I thought, before asking him to remove the hat for some shots to keep when he grows up.

That said, it’s nice to know there is one florist in this hard-pressed Mon Valley owned by someone with an imagination. So if you’re looking for something different to mark a special occasion, consider placing an order at the place that delivered the arrangement, Monessen Florist.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Car magnets gotta go

By Amanda Gillooly

So I’m pulling into my driveway when I get a gander at my neighbor’s new car. After noting that he is a male, and that the little red car is decidedly a “girl car,” I observe one of those magnetic ribbons on his bumper.

It read: "Support the Pens."

What the … ?!?

While I have been accused by the publisher of this very blog for having some anger-management issues, I can’t hold this rant in. Sorry, Scotty.

To my knowledge, the American Cancer Society originated the pink ribbon as a symbol of solidarity against breast cancer – one of the leading causes of death among women. The little ribbons, originally worn on the lapel to show support for the cause, is also a fundraising mechanism for the nonprofit.

Now the idea of a ribbon as a fundraising tool has gone from poignant to pitiful.

There are “Support the Troops” ribbons, which I can almost understand, but then there are the “Go Stillerz” (I honestly saw that one, spelling intact) and even “P.O.W.”

I mean, what’s next? Ribbons that say, “Go Britney, get sober!” or perhaps, “Support your local strippers”?

You tell me. In the meantime, take the stupid damn magnetic ribbons off your car. If you feel that strongly about a cause, get off your ass and take action instead of putting some lame ribbon on the ass-end of your car.

OK. Rand is over.

Friday, June 13, 2008

My late father is hot stuff on the Web

Talk about a late bloomer. My father, James Robert Beveridge, has become hot property on the Internet more than a year after his death from old age.

The photo of him, seated at left on a car bumper while stationed during World War II in Danville, Ill., has been viewed more than 11,500 times on my photo-sharing site. It's the most popular photo, by far, among the more than 1,000 that I have posted on Flickr in the past two years.

Dad recognized his growing popularity on the Web before he died March 5, 2007, at age 84, without learning how to turn on a computer. He would get excited when I pulled up his photos on the computer at his house to show him what people on the Web were saying about him. (Now approaching 79, Mom regularly surfs the Web.)

He chuckled because young women, as well as openly gay men, had said they liked his face in another photo from the war that I dusted off and shared on the Net. That one has been viewed more than 1,000 times.

So hats off to you this Father’s Day for being the stud who still brings people to my blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The periodic post card

It's interesting how this photo was posed, with an old-fashioned horse and carriage on the left, diminished by the bulking Pennsylvania Railroad train arriving in Donora, Pa.
(circa 1908)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The case of the mysterious courthouse eagle

WASHINGTON, Pa. – The Washington County Courthouse is scary enough on days when hardened criminals face a judge and the gruesome details of murders are played out before juries.

It's even more frightening when an innocent man or woman has to face a judge without any exonerating evidence in this county seat in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

And then there is the creepy, dirty black eagle encased in glass, just inside the front door, that has been known to frighten children – as well as me.

At first, I wanted to go on a mission to force the president judge to hide the bird in an attic, preferably at the local historical society, where it wouldn't stir up nightmares of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

But then again, the investigative reporter in me first wanted to know who put the bird there to begin with and why ...

The adventure first led to the armed deputy sheriff on duty at the courthouse security gate who looks a bit like Vice President Dick Cheney. His co-workers call him "The GeneraI." However, I was glad to learn that he has a sense of humor.

"It's just a dirty old eagle," said the deputy, Bill Forgie, before referring me to a history buff in his department, Wesley Hartman, who supposedly knew the origins of the stuffed bird.

It turned out to be a bad lead.

"I'm really not sure where that came from," Hartman said.

So I decided to turn to Phyllis Matheny, the prothonotary whose staff collects all the incoming lawsuits, and often seems to know the entire workings of the courthouse.

But the longtime court official held no secrets about the bird that has even scared her grandchildren when they visited her office in the 108-year-old Beaux Arts landmark.

"I think the kids were a bit leery of it from the beginning," she said, before offering up a hearty laugh and directing me to the law library in a far corner of the basement.

"They must know what it is and why it's there," Matheny said. "It has to be there for a reason."

Assistant Law Librarian Pat Stavovy theorized the eagle belonged Washington County Historical Society before it relocated from the courthouse attic to the historic LeMoyne House.

So, unfortunately, the bird stayed behind, as did a creepy oil painting portrait of Judge Alexander Acheson, whose piercing eyes stare down from the wall in an out-of-way corner of the library.

"Is that the scariest thing?" Stavovy asked, noting that she has even found an occasional bat perched on the law books in the cavernous library.

For the record: The historical society doesn't want the bird back. It has an attic full of stuff that needs to be cleaned out, said Jim Ross, its director.

Taking a stab in the dark, Stavovy said the bird was probably a mascot for the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War.

"It's hard when nobody leaves you a paper trail," she said.

She then pointed me to Clay Kilgore, the historical society curator who was asked four years ago to restore the bird, whose feathers were filthy and falling off its body.

But he didn't turn up any new clues after he took it to the museum and pulled it out of the glass case and ran a tiny vacuum cleaner over the ugly thing.

"Usually on a memorial, you'll see stuff," Kilgore said, referring to labels or other identifying marks.

So he flattened some feathers and glued them back to the body, trying to make it look better.

"So why hold onto the bird if it's ugly and has no historical value?" I asked.

"That was my question, too." Kilgore responded.

"It's kind of freaky. It really is," Kilgore said. "It's just a weird thing to have up there. I'm not sure why it's there."

)Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter)

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Gamble on Donora Steel

Part II: Yellow smoke and big money

Few could believe their eyes at how fast Donora was growing to life beside a giant steel mill under construction in 1901 on what had been rolling hills dotted with farms.

Yet businessmen as well as the folks who worked that soil for more than a century looked on with some doubts about the mill’s promise of thousands of new jobs and prosperity. They lost the bet.

The “wheels were turning in the rod mill” for the first time at noon Aug. 9, 1901, the local newspaper, Donora American, announced.

“Almost every one of the local officials has lost a suit of clothes or two or wages as to the starting of the works.”

The new Union Steel Co. mill soon outpaced projections that it would produce a million kegs of nails and 200,000 tons each of rods and wire within a year.

Developer Frank Donner and partner Henry Clay Frick further proved themselves to have been an industrial powerhouse when their company absorbed Sharon Steel Corp. in November 1902, earning them $50 million in combined assets. Union Steel then had the capacity to produce 850,000 tons of steel by controlling 6,000 acres of coal reserves in the region.

But a month later, U.S. Steel reacted by purchasing Union Steel for $45 million, solidifying the world’s then largest manufacturing corporation, and Donner turned his attention to philanthropy.

U.S. Steel was putting a lid on a major competitor, and in return, it took possession of Donner’s valuable ore field. The Donora mill would become known as American Steel & Wire Corp.

By August 1902, there were 5,082 people living in the crowded new town, and it was hard-pressed to keep pace with the growth.

Newcomers eager for jobs faced severe housing shortages. Real estate with a combined value of $75,000 was sold that year in another rush for land.

Meanwhile, the first billets of steel were produced in an expansion three years later at Margaret Furnace, the second $2-million new blast furnace to go up in town.

Immigrants needed to be strong to survive Donora. Many of them worked a second job to build a family home after toiling long hours under the smokestacks, according to modern scientist and environmental author Devra Davis.

A typical laborer dug his home’s basement and lined its floor with concrete while his family lived in the foundation until he could afford to build additional floors, the Donora native stated in her 2002 book on air pollution, “When Smoke Ran Like Water.”

“Those who made it to the elite rank of machinist, master molder or welder could build three stories, enough for their kids, their parents, their grandparents and usually some newly arrived cousins from Central Europe,” Davis wrote.

That room-and-board problem turned into a housing famine in 1915, after U.S. Steel announced it was building a $3 million zinc mill at the northern end of town.

The local newspaper reacted by pleading in a headline: “Have You Rooms to Rent?”

Local health officials were even concerned about the spread of disease with as many as three families sharing cramped quarters alongside borders.

The zinc mill was going to become the largest and most modern such plant in the world, and employ 2,100 workers. The resulting housing crunch became so serious that some men were quitting their jobs and leaving town because they could not find a bed. The borough’s population soon swelled to its peak of nearly 15,000 residents.

Like neighboring Monessen, Donora was populated mostly by Italians and Slavs. Donora also was home to many immigrants from Poland, Croatia, Hungary, Russia and Scotland.

But the work was especially tough in the zinc mill, which employed a large number of Spanish immigrants because they had shown greater tolerance to the extreme heat at other zinc smelters in the United States.

While laborers spent between eight and 12 hours a day in the steel plant, the workers who turned out zinc could withstand just three hours a day beside the smelters. The temperatures there hovered around 120 degrees, and the men had to take turns lifting 60-pound ingots in order to keep their jobs.

“It was really backbreaking work in intolerable heat,” Davis said, while speaking in Donora in April 2004.

Former Donora resident Betty Dickie said her husband, Robert, went through clothes almost overnight when he worked next to the smelters in the 1950s. She said the acid there made his work clothes fall apart so quickly that they never lasted long enough to be washed.

The zinc plant’s chief byproduct was sulfuric acid to craft wartime explosives and to pickle steel, a chemical process that removed impurities during steel production. In addition to zinc, the zinc site also processed cadmium and lead exclusively for corporate interests. That reportedly included the turnout of “top-secret” alloys strong enough to bulletproof U.S. Army tanks during World War II.

While the zinc mill brought new, pungent yellow clouds of smoke to that end of Donora, few people seemed to care as long as money was rolling in and winds tended to carry the smoke off to the east.

Click here to return to Part I, A borough rises from hell's bottoms.

Click here to read Part III, The mill is sued over sickening air.

(Caption: The office of Real Estate Broker G. L. Neel promised results after people flocked by the thousands to Donora only to face a housing crisis during the early 20th Century. Post card courtesy of Casey Perrotta)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure (Remember Abu Ghraib?)

War brings out the worst in people, as this incredible documentary points out. It's now showing at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

So this is art .............

Art "heisted" from Three Rivers Arts Festival

The schedule of events tab for this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh opens with a welcome message from Elizabeth Reiss, its executive director.

In it, she reminds readers that they might not like what they see, but that it’s important to take time to reflect on the experience and attempt to understand the art. Reiss also urges folks to “fundamentally respect the humanity of the effort.”

Art is supposed to be an invitation for viewers to feel free to say whether they love or hate a painting or pot or an artist’s pretense. So that said, it’s perfectly fine for me to say that I pretty much hate this year’s party that opened Friday and runs through June 22.

The showcase exhibit is called "Contained." It’s a series of installations by local artists that can be found inside rectangular steel shipping containers otherwise used to move goods on railroads.

One artist spread around some sand and square concrete pavers and called in feng shui. Another set about animal bones on the floor, and it’s labeled a fantastic archaeological dream world. Meanwhile, it’s so intensely hot, confined and stuffy inside the ugly boxes that few people seemed to be venturing inside them, and those who did, didn’t linger long.

Attack Theater did pull through Friday with an interesting dance number, "The Heist," staged atop one of the boxes. The troupe’s cutting edge contemporary dancers acted out a story about the theft of a priceless work of art.

Criticism of this festival is nothing new, as it has taken heat from the visual arts community for drawing too much attention to the musical performances. That shift didn't do well, either. A few years ago, organizers parked the main stage up against a freeway overpass, allowing noise from tractor-trailers to drown out Joni Mitchell and everyone else on the lineup.

Reiss does mention herself 30 times in her eight-paragraph message so it seems to be obvious where she is focusing her attention. It’s long overdue for her to urge the festival board to devote its energies to involving more painters and sculptors in this event.

Attack Theater has one thing right; someone did steal the art from the festival.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"Young @ Heart" is a song for the soul

An old lady with long white hair and a cane in her hand leads off the rockumentary, “Young @ Heart,” singing a punk song.

"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh," Eileen Hall, 92, shouts in a craggy voice while introducing the Clash’s signature number to the audience. The camera zooms close to her wrinkled face and lips, and then down into her wide-open mouth.

"Darling, you gotta let me know," she continues in a lovely British accent as the shot backs away to reveal an aged chorus dressed alike in white dress shirts. “Should I stay or should I go?”

Hall’s part of an ensemble of New England senior citizens with the average age of 80 who are behaving badly in a hot chorus, the subject of the new flick directed by Stephen Walker.

Hall is a former stripper who normally listens to Broadway show tunes, but like her friends, she is trying to expand her horizons rather than knit scarves or piece together jigsaw puzzles.

The chorus performs to sold-out crowds around the world. Deemed the “oldest cover band in the world," the group is choreographed by Bob Cilman, who doesn’t always have the patience to work with people who have 30 years on him.

In the documentary, he assigned them a handful of new songs to learn in seven weeks for a performance at the Academy Theater in Northampton, Mass., including "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones.

At first, the singers hate the new songs. They stumble over the words, forgetting them often. Then, they warm up to the music.

"There is something wonderful about that process," Cilman says.

Of all things, he has even assigned them to learn Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” a tongue twister that requires the memorization of lyrics containing the word, "can," more than 70 times.

“We used to sing songs like, “Yes, we have no bananas”,” Hall quips.

Yes, this is a movie that will make you laugh out loud. And it also will leave you with a lump in your throat if you are human, especially after watching Fred Knittle steal the show with Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

He’s an overweight baritone who was invited back for a command performance after leaving the chorus because he became too weak to stand for long, dependent on oxygen and slowed by congestive heart failure.

Two members died before the big show, and they were rehearsing their tunes up until the time they saw the light at the end of the tunnel. At least two others rejoined the chorus after having been that close to death. “I was afraid to look,” one woman said after being asked if she saw that bright light before recovering.

Thank goodness for survival in show business. This is shock rock that delivers a song for the soul about keeping the adventure going during retirement.

(Caption: That's Eileen Hall in the photo. She died a year before the documentary was released in early 2008 at select theaters.)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Time to stuff the Pirates pierogis

My podmate in the newsroom, Amanda Gillooly, thinks the racing pierogi characters are cool attractions to the Pittsburgh Pirates home games. They pay homage to mighty fine Polish dumplings dripping in butter and onions that are pretty much exclusive to the Pittsburgh food market, she said.

Gillooly’s right about the half moon noodle wraps that can be stuffed with sauerkraut, potatoes or cottage cheese. They are worth their weight in cholesterol.

In case you don’t know, animated characters shaped like big blobs of dough named Oliver Onion, Sauerkraut Saul, Jalapeno Hannah and Cheese Chester hold silly races after the fifth inning of home games. Boring.

It’s long overdue to come up with a fresh idea to replace those ridiculous mascots with something that doesn’t perpetuate the notion that Pittsburghers are a bunch of no-necks. Send the pierogis to the new all-you-can-eat seats, and pass around the yellow lard otherwise known as nacho cheese.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

At one with Guinness

It’s possible for a town guy like me to catch a bit of Zen on a horse.

That was the playing card a friend drew to sell me on going horseback riding today near Pittsburgh, Pa.

I hadn’t been on a horse since the early 1980s, when a cousin lured me to what turned out to be a poorly run equestrian center. My horse there clearly understood that I had no horse sense and decided to stop dead on the trail and stay put. No kicking, whistling or other forms of coaxing could get him to move more than 50 feet from the barn. I felt like a complete loser.

So I wasn’t expecting a moment or two of peace and silent meditation at some place off Hartz Road called Rolling Hills Ranch in Bridgeville.

To my surprise, the ranch really has it together. It employs experienced cowpokes who take the time to match a horse’s temper to the age, size and experience of each customer. Others are posted along to trail to make sure that everyone is moving along at the right pace.

Further into the woods, by some miracle, I felt as if the world really was moving a bit more peacefully as my horse appropriately named Guinness hauled my butt up a steep hill.

The horse ahead of me then decided to leave behind a load of poop without flinching, and I took it as a weird sort of reminder of life’s basic needs and the path to fulfillment.

(Caption: Guinness is shown, at far left, re-energizing after an hour's romp)