a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Andy Warhol, let's talk

Artist Dave Olson performs today at the grave of pop artist Andy Warhol while being recorded by reporter Travis Larchuk for an upcoming NPR segment. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

BETHEL PARK, Pa. – Andy Warhol's otherwise plain tombstone stands out from the road wrapped in colorful paper and lined with bouquets of silk flowers, gifts left behind as more and more of his fans make pilgrimages to his grave.

Some visitors offer gifts of small plastic skulls while others come to dance or "talk" to the pop artist  buried in St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church off Route 88 in Bethel Park.

"There is something significant going on here beyond Andy's grave," said Dave Olson, a retired art professor from Rostraver Township, while stopped by the grave today to play bagpipes for Warhol.

"They're paying homage, satisfying their curiosity and people are having fun. We've danced on his grave, literally," said Olson, who taught at California University of Pennsylvania.

He's been coming here regularly for three years as part of a project named "Figments: Conversations with Andy," undertaken by Madelyn Roehrig, a program manager at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

As a personal endeavor, she stops by Warhol's grave every day as an obsession to document the site for films she produces, once of which aired recently on WQED in Pittsburgh. Warhol, who died Feb. 22, 1987, of complications from gallbladder surgery, is buried at the feet of the graves of his parents, Andrew and Julia Warhola.

"He's inspiring," Roehrig said. "He gives me something to do."

Tagging along with Roehrig is Travis Larchuk, an NPR journalist from Washington, D.C., who is creating a segment for a show on the graves of famous people and is much too shy to say anything to Warhol.

Aside from the gift of music, Olson has brought along a toy pistol he molded with rubber for Warhol.

"Knowing how much he hated gun violence It motivated me to make this rubber gun. It's much less dangerous," Olson said.

Roehrig said she likely will take home the gun and add it to her collection of weird things people leave behind at the grave. The oddest thing she retrieved from here is a small plastic penis, she said.

The family likely made the choice to mark the grave with a small, nondescript tombstone, Roehrig said.

"He liked ordinary things. I don't know," she said.

But, since  April, Paul LeRoy "King of Art" Gehres of Millvale has been framing the grave marker with wrapping paper, first in shades of red and white, and now with stripes of blue, white and lime green.

"It's pretty ordinary, or it used to be. It's just what it needed," Roehrig said.

Scattered on the ground are plastic easter eggs and one playing card, a four and "a half" of hearts. Whatever that means. Atop the stone are three unopened Campbell's tomato soup cans, a can of chicken noodle soup, a 10-oz. bottle of Coca Cola and a golf ball.

At the graveside is a plastic folder, in which visitors leave behind letters to Warhol.

The most-recent one is written by Ellis, a 9-year-old who seeks the meaning of the wrapping paper. Ellis signed the note beside a drawing of a small red skull and crossbones.

Nearby the Siberian Iris are ready to bloom.

"There are a lot of references to what he did, who he interacted with," Olson said.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Bully" reminds us to talk about this problem

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. – The school bully should have had a field day with a kid like me.

I was cross-eyed, had ears of corn growing out of my ears and didn't live in one of the "better" tree-lined neighborhoods in the Belle Vernon Area School District south of Pittsburgh during the 1960s and 1970s.

To say I was chubby would have been an understatement, having tipped the scale at 250 pounds in the 10th grade while standing less than 5 feet, 10 inches tall. I also was drawn to the arts, whose stereotypes need not be regurgitated to make a point.

But, surprisingly, I wasn't taunted or beat up by my classmates, and, why that never happened has remained a mystery to me to this day.

These thoughts about my childhood resurfaced today after I watched the troubling new documentary, "Bully," which has just about everyone talking about this subject.

My best guess as to why I escaped bullying as a child would involve my having had the fortune of being among a grade of kids with decent parents and schoolteachers who had the skills to keep bullies within arm's reach.

While my parents lacked socioeconomic status, if nothing else, they paid attention to their children's lives. That, in itself, did a lot to scare off bullies.

Mom often drilled into my head one of her favorite sayings, "People only make fun of you because they are jealous of you."

And, if I mentioned a problem in school in which that advice didn't solve, she usually acted promptly to address the situation with administrators, often behind my back.

That said Belle Vernon did tend to ignore bullying problems. And the teachers there sometimes joined in the problem. I remember one junior high school teacher making fun of an overweight girl by adding syllables to her last name, and doing nothing when boys in his class would put two or three chairs behind her desk to suggest she needed more support when she sat down.

The older kids on my school bus were so mean en route home that, each day, they would snort loud oink sounds in chorus from the time one poor, short and round girl stood from her seat and until she exited the door to the street. That behavior sometimes motivated me leave the bus at the next stop and walk the long way home to get away from those abusers.

The jealousy issue didn't seem to apply to her, or appear to have involved the boy who is repeatedly abused on his school bus in "Bully."

It broke my heart to see the assistant principal in this documentary react to one bullying case by blaming the victim and another by attempting to intimidate a boy's parents who complained about him being repeatedly roughed up on the bus. If nothing else that school administrator needs to immediately be enrolled in anti-bullying training.

It also bothered me that some critics of "Bully," including Roger Ebert, have criticized its director Lee Hirsch for not offering in the documentary any solutions to the problem.

The reviewers are wrong, if for no other reason, than this movie reminds us that we really need to discuss this problem. A lot.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The iconic Fiesta dinnerware isn't just for the table

Pickled beet eggs
By Liz Rogers

NEWELL, W.Va. – Handpainted on a Sunflower Fiesta dinner plate perched high atop a shelf in the Homer Laughlin China Co. museum: "Jill, will you marry me? Jim."

And you thought the iconic Art Deco ware was just for serving up some meat and potatoes.

For the past 75 years, the vibrant hues of Fiesta have been part of kitchen table settings everywhere. Vivid colors bearing names of Scarlet, Plum Shamrock, Lemongrass and Paprika have helped to make Fiesta the most collected china in the United States.

And, it's made in the United States, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. In fact, an easy hour's drive from Washington.

"That's part of the appeal of Fiesta," said Dave Conley, director of Homer Laughlin China's retail sales and marketing. "This is the only thing they can find anymore made in the U.S."

Another selling point: It's lead free, and says so on the product line's back stamp, he added.

Nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, the pottery put the tiny town of Newell on the map – literally.

Founded in 1871 in East Liverpool, Ohio, by Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin, the company's steady growth led to its move to an undeveloped tract of land across the river in West Virginia. Utilities were installed, a suspension bridge built and a trolley line created to transport pottery workers over the Ohio. Newell was established in 1905, and the new Homer Laughlin plant became the largest of its kind in the world at the time.

As demand for the pottery grew, more plants were built, and in the mid-1920s, the company hired English potter Frederick Hurton Rhead. Rhead created glazes in colors of red, blue, green, yellow and old ivory, deviating from the traditional white. Plus, a concentric circle design was imprinted on each piece, lending to the appearance of pottery handcrafted on a wheel. Fiesta became Rhead's legacy.

To date, Fiesta has launched 42 colors, and 15 remain in production. Each year, a color is retired and a new one introduced. Evergreen retired in 2010, and Chocolate is about to follow suit, ending production in March. The 2012 color will be announced at the International Trade Show in Chicago in March.

And the most popular color of all?

"Scarlet," says Conley without hesitation. Introduced in 2004, the color is the runaway favorite with collectors. The original Fiesta red was not a true red, he added, but more of an orange.

"For years, we couldn't do red," he explained. The pigments could not withstand the 2,300-degree firing temperature without burning out the color.

And the high temperature is necessary to ensure the product's durability.
The least popular color was Pearl Gray, which was produced for only two years.

Fiesta was taken out of production from 1973 until 1985, when Fiesta was reintroduced with lead-free glazes and vitrified china in five updated colors: White, Black, Rose, Apricot and Cobalt Blue.

Over the years, the company changed hands, and today is owned and operated by Joe Wells III, and his sisters Jean Wickes and Elizabeth McIlvaine, the fourth generation of the Wells family to run Homer Laughlin.

The company employs 965 people, most of whom are second- third-fourth-and fifth-generation employees.

The factory is open for tours twice daily by appointment, and is well worth the drive.

Barb Watson, who spent 30 of her 48 years with the company as a "handler" – someone who attaches handles to cups – came out of retirement to conduct the tours. She's familiar with every nook and cranny of the sprawling factory and knows everyone by name.

She proudly tours a visitor through the factory in late December, starting at the end of the production line and working her way to the beginning, where rolls of clay are cut and molded into the familiar shapes of Fiesta.

Among tour highlights: watching bowls move along a conveyor through a spray of glaze; artisans applying decals on plates and hand-painting gold trim on cups, and the imposing 350-foot-long main kiln, which bakes china at a blistering 2,300 degrees for eight hours.

The tour ends in the Homer Laughlin China museum, which features pieces of china manufactured throughout the company's history.

Also on display is a commemorative bowl marking the company's production of its 500 millionth piece of china in 1997. Only 500 pieces were produced, and the remainder was presented to dignitaries, the governor of West Virginia and the Smithsonian. Fifteen were donated to charities for auction, fetching an average of $5,200 apiece.

This year, in honor of the 75th anniversary of Fiesta, a special tureen and platter in this year's anniversary color, Marigold, are being produced. The 75-week production ends in November, or when the company reaches 10,000 pieces, whichever comes first.

The adjacent retail store features open stock of Fiesta, but the biggest draw is the seconds room, where pieces containing imperfections in glaze or color are sold at reduced prices.

Collectors look forward to the company's twice annual tent sales, held in June and October in the outlet store parking lot at the factory.

"The day it opens, we have 400 people standing in line waiting to get in. It's like Black Friday. They think they are getting something no one else is going to get," Conley says with a chuckle.

As for the plate bearing the marriage proposal?

"She said 'yes,'" Watson said.

For factory tour appointments, call 800-452-4462.

(Liz Rogers is editor of the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. This story first appeared in the January/February issued of newpaper's Living Washington County magazine)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The new Stooges rock as grapeheads

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Movies always hypnotize me in my seat once the lights dim at big-screen theaters so heavily that I often don't know where I am by the time the credits begin to roll.

They take me to a place where I don't even notice rude theatergoers who talk, text or tip-toe in and out of their seats for popcorn refills.

But it was impossible Saturday to avoid breaking out of that spell to say, "Why I oughta...." while taking in the new "The Three Stooges" at SouthSide Works Cinema in Pittsburgh.

The many children in the audience pulled me back to life every time they collectively let out those wonderful, uncontrollable and spontaneous laughs that seem to originate in their toes.

It "soitenly" was a joy to my ears, loud laughter that I hadn't heard since I was a kid and in similar stitches decades ago at movie theaters watching the same antics performed by the original Stooges.

The new actors in the roles of Moe, Larry and Curly, respectively, Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes and Will Sasso, have delivered nothing short of a perfect recreation of the original act. Sasso is especially spot-on as that  knucklehead Curly, the lovable "victim of soicumstance."

This movie succeeds in every way, even when this trio of old-school vaudeville players time-travel into the 21st Century, where Moe upstages and slaps around Snooki and her "Jersey Shore" costars.

Oddly, though, the addendum to this flick includes a paranoia-inspired demonstration of the hammers Moe used to strike Curly to explain the tools were fake, made of rubber, and their blows had been amplified by sound effects. 

That dialogue also took me back to my childhood, reminding me of my post-Victorian-era grandmother's drama that played out while our television was tuned into The Three Stooges. She was convinced those shows would inspire my siblings and me to poke each others eyes out in copycat crimes.

The new movie reminded me that, before the age of five, I had already figured out Larry still had eyes after Moe had "poked them out" again and again and again.


It's acting.

And it's also a blend of funny that this new movie from the Farrelly brothers proves has lasting power.

Don't make the mistake of walking out of the theater during the credits because you'll miss these wise guys in altogether new rolls.

These grapeheads rock at the tail end while accompanying Jennifer Hudson, who portrays a nun in the flick, in a delightful version of "It's a shame."

That little gem will leave you still smiling as the only intelligent imbecile left in the room with the staff sweeping up the popcorn on the floor. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Tales told by Titanic survivors from Pennsylvania

The Titanic prior to its deadly voyage a century ago.

By Scott Beveridge

MONESSEN, Pa. – Survivors of the Titanic interviewed by local newspapers a century ago told stories every bit as dramatic as the Oscar-winning movie, which will be rereleased in 3D Friday

Mrs. John Panula of Coal Center, Pa., had a much more tragic story to tell than young Rose, a role in the movie played by Kate Winslet, who was passed over for best actress in the 1998 Oscars.

Mrs. Panula and her children had returned in 1910 to Finland to sell off family real estate to purchase a new home for her family in Coal Center. She survived the ship's sinking but her five children, who were between the ages of 1 and 17, were buried in the depths of the sea, The Reporter of Washington reported April 23, 1912.

She was among five Finlanders aboard the doomed Titanic who made it to Monessen, Westmoreland County, eight days after being rescued at sea.

The mother, who also was identified in the newspaper as Mrs. Peter Panula, had little to say in the article. About half of the $4,000 raised in the property sale went down with the Titanic, she told a reporter

"She could scarcely remember how she lost her five children...she was unconscious for a time but states she rallied in time to see the Titanic go down," the newspaper reported.

Another member of the party, Ellen Ajkarainer, said she saw men don women's clothing to secure places on lifeboats.

The five Finlanders were among a party of 45 from that country headed for the United States, but only 20 were listed among the Titanic's 711 survivors.

Another survivor from the group, Eino Lindquist, had the most thrilling story to relate, The Independent of Monessen reported.

Lindquist said waves washed him into the ocean just before the ship sank and he said good-bye to his companion, Mr. Hakkarainen.

"Being a fairly good swimmer, I exerted myself to the utmost and was able to reach the last lifeboat which was about 200 yards from where the ship went down and was taken on board," Lindquist, who was about 25 at the time, told the former Monessen newspaper.

Before the ship went under water, he said he watched the last lifeboat put off and "many men make a vain effort to find a place on it, but they were clubbed by sailors in charge and some fell to a watery grave before the ship took its final plunge." The band was not playing until the very end, as was reported at the time, he stated.

There were numerous false reports in local newspapers in the days after the ship sank about 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912.

A day after the Titanic sank, the first report in The Reporter in Washington had all passengers surviving and the great ship being towed to Halifax, Canada.

"The Titanic is practically unsinkable...of such construction that she is virtually indestructible and would float indefinitely even with her bow smashed," P.A. Franklin, vice president of the company that owned the ship, was quoted as saying in the former newspaper's April 15, 1912, afternoon edition.

The headline on the front-page story published about 12 hours after the vessel sank and buried 1,513 people at sea read: "All of her passengers were taken off in lifeboats."

A day later, the newspaper wrongly reported that no men had survived the tragedy. The death toll also changed daily.

The means of communication at the time was primitive and it was common for news stories to change from minute to minute, said Alan Natali, an assistant professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania.

"There was a tendency at that time to fill column inches, even if that reporter had to make that information up," Natali said.

He said reporters had to wait for the survivors to make it home before learning more about what happened when the Titanic struck the iceberg just before midnight April 14, 1912, about 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada.

The other survivors who made it to Monessen were listed as Mrs. Mathew Hirvonen, her daughter, Hilda, and Eric Jussila.

(This story has been edited since it first appeared in 1998 in the Observer-Reporter.)