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Cover story: 'Hidden Pittsburgh A to Z' plucks some of the city's standout symbols

Heinz Center creates an exhibit that's also a game

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Perusing the new exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center may leave you spellbound.

 
    'HIDDEN PITTSBURGH
A TO Z'

WHERE: SEN. JOHN HEINZ REGIONAL HISTORY CENTER, 1212 SMALLMAN ST., STRIP.

WHEN: OPENS TOMORROW AND IS TO RUN FOR AT LEAST A YEAR. HOURS ARE 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. DAILY.

ADMISSION: $6; $3 FOR AGES 6 TO 18, $4.50 FOR SENIORS AND STUDENTS WITH ID, AND FREE TO CHILDREN 5 AND UNDER. GO TO WWW.PGHHISTORY.ORG OR CALL 412-454-6000.


CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS ON AN ACCOMPANYING WQED-TV SPECIAL

 
 

It's titled "Hidden Pittsburgh A to Z," and is a whimsical alphabet soup of many quirky ingredients that make this region so delicious, arranged in order using all 28 letters.

That's the special alphabet staffers came up with so they could include even more offbeat treats. "We cheated a little," jokes project director and chief curator Anne Madarasz.

Her bumping into producer Rick Sebak led to an unprecedented partnership between the History Center and WQED Pittsburgh. Sebak concocted his own alphabet to create a "Pittsburgh A to Z" program, which the public television station will air tomorrow as the exhibit opens.

This is how the exhibit is set up: The fifth floor of the Strip District museum has been literally blocked off into spaces artfully designed to look like toy blocks. Each is marked with a letter, and each letter stands for an aspect of the city or region. These are depicted inside and outside each block in artifacts, photographs, maps and other images.

S, "A" stands for "Arsenal of Democracy," which our steel-making region was during World War II. "B" stands for "Bridges." "C" stands for "Celebrities." "Cz" stands for -- "Czech Puppets"? OK, it strays a bit from the letters of the law, but it allows the staging of a special set of puppets that a local family, the Gettings, mail-ordered from their native Czechoslovakia in the 1920s.

Traditionally used in the old country to express opposition to Austrian control, the puppets were used in performances by the Gettings across the United States to promote Czech political goals. Madarasz says they're among many "fabulous pieces that haven't seen the light of day before."

Building the exhibit was a lot more work than just deciding what each letter would represent, but that wasn't easy either. "B" originally was for "Breweries," but our post-Prohibition thirst wound up being slaked by "K" for "Kegs." "M" became "Millionaires' Row," so they invented "Mc," as in "McAandrew to McZurra," to cover just as the phone book does the region's super-concentrated Scot Irish heritage.

Curators did original research to unveil "hidden" stories, such as the one under "F." It tells how the town of New Castle is home to several booming companies run by Italian-American families besides the Zambellis, making it the "Fireworks Capital of the World." Even more below the surface is "L," for "Lowering the Hump," which explains why up on Grant Street you enter the Allegheny County Courthouse from its former basement.

Under "Q," which stands for "Quarterbacks," you could expect to catch Joe Namath and Dan Marino. But you might know little about the two dozen other local products who went on to the pros. Especially New Kensington's Willie Thrower, who in addition to having a really perfect name was "the Jackie Robinson of football," Madarasz says, since he was the first African American to QB in the NFL (for Chicago in 1953). "He is really the hidden Pittsburgh story," says Madarasz, who savors such surprises. So we won't tell what "T" stands for, but two teases are the Tacrolimus drug made from a fungus dug at Tsukuba.

Researching "V is for Veterans," for the Vietnam part, Madarasz was moved by the family of Michael Estocin of Turtle Creek, a 35-year-old Navy pilot who earned the Medal of Honor before he was declared missing in action in 1967. This block includes his poignant story as well as his POW/MIA bracelet and other items his family loaned, as well as uniforms and other artifacts going back to the Civil War.

Going through the exhibit is meant to be highly interactive and activity-based. Pop into "P," for "Polka and Pierogies," and you can follow the feet on the floor to dance the "History Center Hop Polka" to a dozen tunes, as well as order the proper steps in preparing pierogies.

"X" marks the spot where children can play with puppet pals of Mister Rogers, including who else but X the Owl? When you make it to "Z," for "Zombies," you -- or "Yunz" as you'll say in "Y" -- can vote for best and worst performances by Pittsburgh in movies that have been shot here, such as "Night of the Living Dead."

"H" is the only letter that's missing, but its police-taped and chalk-outlined absence is an integral part of the history this exhibit spells out. Of course, there are alternate ways of arranging the building blocks of "Pittsburg" -- for instance, Sebak's TV "T" is "Tailgating." You'll be invited to make and tell the History Center your own alphabetical list, and Madarasz knows, "Everybody's going to have his own idea of what it should be."

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