a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mr. Conductor enjoys fun side of the tracks

Bryant Schmude of Pittsburgh entertains a group attending a child's birthday party  at Pennsylvania Trolley Museum. Scott Beveridge photo.

By Scott Beveridge

WASHINGTON, Pa. – The green and silver Car 2711 with colorful balloons waving out its windows approaches a trolley stop, preparing to pick up a load of people attending a child’s birthday party.

Shown in the destination window above its windshield is the number 7, beside the letters NICO, – the age and name of the boy who’s hosting this party at Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Chartiers Township, Pa.

“He’s really into it,” said museum worker Alison Gregg, referring to the man operating the trolley built for Philadelphia in 1947 by the St. Louis Car Co.

“He wants them outside at the right time so they can see the car arrive,” Gregg said. 

Otherwise, the children would become bored, she added.

In real life, the trolley operator is Bryant Schmude of Pittsburgh. But, on many weekends throughout the year, Schmude transforms himself into Mr. Conductor, a boisterous child-like character he invented to keep children interested in trolley history.

Schmude has been doing this routine for 18 years, having raised a considerable amount of money to support the museum.

In the weeks before Christmas, he redecorates the trolley in tinsel and with animated holiday characters to host rides on the Yuletide Shuttle to the South Pole, as opposed to visiting Santa at the North Pole. He does a little act then as Mr. Conductor, reminding children they might receive a lump of coal for Christmas if they behave badly. He changes the schtick a bit every year to keep it fresh.

He arrives here Friday nights before weekend birthday parties and sleeps in an old, retired Monongahela Railways caboose, which holds a bed, desk and small pot belly stove.

He awakens the next day about 3 a.m. to give himself time to make each birthday sign and decorate the trolley for the party about to arrive.

When the time comes to greet the children, he pulls the vehicle into the station bearing a wide smile, repeatedly sounding the vehicle’s horn and waving to the crowd.

“Would you like to take a ride on the Nico Express?” Schmude yells, receiving a resounding “Yes!” from the children and their parents.

“Well, the door’s right here,” he says, welcoming them aboard for a short ride to the museum’s car barn, all the while pretending to be taking them across the plains of Montana before taking a wrong turn to a dead-end in Kansas City.

Nico and three of his pals are huddled together on one seat behind the conductor.

The boy loves everything about trains, said his father, Ralph Castelucci, who also is a big fan of Mr. Conductor.

“He’s the greatest,” Castelucci said before Schmude reaches for a tool to reverse the trolley’s gears to back out of the end of the line, turn around and head back to the museum.

“I’m astonished that people come here as a result of something I created,” said Schmude, who prefers not to discuss his life outside of his museum act.

“I wear many hats in many places,” he said.

Birthday parties at the museum at 1 Museum Road are on hold until spring to allow the staff to host trolley rides with Santa Nov. 23-25, and Saturdays and Sundays in December through Dec. 16., events that coincide with the Yuletide Shuttle.

(This article first appeared in the November/December 2012 edition of Living in Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.)

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