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Light Up Night 2001: Warm and bright

Saturday, November 17, 2001

By Tom Barnes and Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Here's a surefire formula for a successful Light Up Night: First, order unseasonably warm weather for mid-November. Then have Mayor Tom Murphy light as many Christmas trees as possible -- at the City-County Building, PPG Plaza, Oxford Centre and other places.

Crowds enjoyed fireworks off the Point last night as part of Light Up Night festivities. Click for more photos. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Bring in a thunderbolt-throwing Santa, two chainsaw-wielding ice sculptors, a steel drum band, strolling elves, department store window displays and other things to wow the crowds.

It helps if you can open a new Light Rail Transit station and slice up a 1,000-pound cake for guests, followed by a parade down Forbes Avenue to Point State Park, where you light up still another tree and top it all off with -- what else? -- a fireworks spectacular.

The holiday bash planned by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership went off more or less like clockwork yesterday afternoon and night. Things started at noon, with Murphy lighting a 40-foot tree at the City-County Building and Christian leaders dedicating a life-size creche three blocks away at USX Plaza.

Late last night, the partnership capped off the spectacular day with a crowd estimate that was equally spectacular -- 200,000, or double what organizers have guessed for previous Light Up Nights.

A more reserved Pittsburgh police estimate was that the crowd exceeded 10,000.

Here's how the rest of the day and night went:

Noon -- Nuns often don't get a lot of credit for what they do, but sisters DeChantal Serwinski, Virgilyn Lukasziewicz and Stephanie Morholz are having their brief moment in the sun of USX Plaza.

They had sewn the costumes for the three wise men, the holy family, shepherds, an angel and other figures in the huge creche depicting the birth of Christ.

When Sister DeChantal saw the costume of the angel that hovers over the creche -- which got torn when strong winds damaged the creche last December -- she knew it just wouldn't do.

"We couldn't put up the angel in that torn costume this year," she says. "We decided to give her a new dress."

She spent six hours one day this week sewing a new white costume trimmed in pink, with orange and yellow sashes.

"She inveigled me, too, by saying I was artistic and had good taste," says Sister Virgilyn.

"I am tickled pink," adds Sister Stephanie. "Pittsburgh is No. 1 for the creche."

1 p.m. -- Art students from Alison Zapata's class at St. Sebastian's School in Ross are thrilled to be patting the noses of Bix, Salem and Donnie, handsome Morgan horses ridden by police officers Jean White, Connie Diulus and Carole Duffy, respectively.

The three officers are sitting on their horses at Grant Street and Fourth Avenue, across from the City-County Building, keeping the peace. They're doing a heck of a job, with no civil unrest in sight.

Duffy's horse has joined the holiday celebration by wearing a red hat and antlers.

"Omigosh, he keeps smelling me," shrieks one teen.

"Take my picture with the horse," another pleads to Zapata.

White and Diulus are sisters and have been riding horses since they were girls 20 years ago. They've both been in the mounted patrol since it started in 1994.

"We ride around Downtown to deter crimes, write parking and traffic tickets and assist in arresting shoplifters," White says.

2 p.m. -- A few blocks south, at the new LRT station on First Avenue, four Giant Eagle bakers, Kathy Leahy, Patty Lyttle, Barb Marshall and Donna Nicholudas, are putting the final touches on a 1,000-pound yellow, chocolate and marble cake in the shape of a T car.

Cake technicians Kathy Leahy, left, and Donna Nicholudis finish decorating a cake shaped like an LRT car at the Port Authority's new First Avenue station yesterday. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

It's 16 feet long and 4 feet wide, with 400 pounds of icing in addition to the 600 pounds of cake.

The women have been at work for five hours putting 48 sheet cakes together in the form of a train on a platform and then putting little icing figures around it. The foot-high T car is supported on the inside by a series of plastic pillars and plates to keep it from imploding on itself because of its weight.

"We decided to do something different, rather than just have a flat cake," says Doug Murphy, a Giant Eagle bakery supervisor.

The cake was sliced into pieces that were handed out to people who came to inspect the new T station on First Avenue last night.

3 p.m. -- Ice sculptors and brothers Richard and John Bubin of Wilkins are wielding chainsaws with 12-inch-long blades in Market Square, carving 20 300-pound blocks of ice into a sculpture of Pittsburgh's skyline with three doves of peace flying over. They spray the audience with "snow" that flies off the ice chunks.

"That's art -- that's what that is," says an admiring onlooker, Dan Ruckman of McKees Rocks.

"I tried doing ice sculpture a couple times at home. I tried making a bird. But I've never used a chainsaw to do it," says John Bohannon of Brookline.

John Bubin plans to compete for America in the ice sculpture contest at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in February.

Even though she's only 16, Ericka Mosley of the Hill District says she wants to have a unique ice sculpture at her wedding in 2004. "I want it to be different so nobody has one like it," she says.

4 p.m. -- Rich the street philosopher, aka Rich the homeless guy on Forbes Avenue, is stretched out on the sidewalk in one of his familiar locations, across from Kaufmann's, saying he likes Light Up Night but, with this warm weather, it doesn't seem like Christmas yet.

He defines Light Up Night as "the spirit of holiday shopping."

He isn't exactly looking forward to colder weather, since he owns only a sleeping bag and jacket and usually, he said, sleeps outside somewhere, such as a Downtown alley or Mellon Square.

"You can't get into the holiday spirit without snow," he says.

Rich picks up a few quarters he's been given as a reporter kneels down to talk. A passerby throws a dollar bill into a small cardboard box that Rich calls his "beggar's box."

"Thank you, brother," Rich says.

5 p.m. -- Abby Sekulich, age 6, is thrilled to watch the 65-foot tree in PPG Plaza turn on. She's there with her mom Tracy, grandmother Shirley Guley and two younger siblings.

"How did they get way up to the top of the tree to turn those lights on?" Abby asks. "It's so tall."

Guley tells her it's done with a switch thrown by Mayor Murphy. "You know Mayor Murphy--he's the one they show on TV," Guley says.

As Abby is about to toss a tissue on the sidewalk, her mom tells her not to. "Mayor Murphy will put you in jail," she jokes, referring to the mayor's new crackdown on littering.

6 p.m. -- In front of Fifth Avenue Place, members of the University of Pittsburgh's "Sounds of Pleasure" choral ensemble sing traditional Christmas songs, while back over at Market Square, it's fun, fire and funk.

The warm weather, music and throngs of people make it feel like a summertime gathering. On the street, a burly bearded man on the street swallows fire kabobs for spectators, while the band Airborne gets the crowd on its feet by covering K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Play that Funky Music."

Wearing a black cape and gold mask and a black sweatshirt with a gold B emblazoned across it, "Burghman" juggles for kids. By day, he's mild-mannered Mark Bedillion, a counselor who works to prevent drug and alcohol abuse among kids.

"I'm down here to support the city," Bedillion says, "What can I say? I love Pittsburgh."

7 p.m. -- The man of the hour, Santa Claus, leads a sing-along atop a stage in Gateway Center and ignites an impressive pyrotechnic display, including a sparkling fireball that zips through the air, hitting the star atop the Unity Tree on the former Horne's building, now Penn Avenue Place, illuminating the lights and bulbs on a Pittsburgh seasonal landmark.

The Christmas shopping season also gets off to a bang. Downtown shops and eateries are doing a brisk business. At Old Navy, General Manager Diana Jarosz says Light Up Night is the second-busiest day of the year, but adds that the unseasonably warm weather impacted last night's sales, and not always for the better.

"Last year people came in and bought out all of our gloves, scarves and hats because it was so cold."

8 p.m. -- As Pittsburgh police Officer Regis Lattner directs traffic on Stanwix Street, he warns a group of wide-eyed tykes that Santa is listed as questionable for the rest of the evening.

"I don't know," Lattner says with a wink. "I hope he makes it."

"But he was just here," one boy protests.

"Yeah, but he's stuck in traffic at the airport."

"Why did he have to go to the airport?"

"Had to send an elf back to the North Pole. He's sick."

Lattner adds that the crowd was very well behaved and that no injuries were reported.

Meanwhile, the mayor, making haste to light the tree at Point State Park, is seen scaling the Fort Pitt ramparts with son T.J. to get past the crowds.

"This exceeded our expectations," Murphy says of the evening. "People want to celebrate what it means to be part of the community, especially after Sept. 11. That's the strength of this city."

9 p.m. -- As boaters and kayakers line the Point State Park shore and the crowd gathers in the park, the large Christmas tree near the fountain is lit. But this year, the tree is festooned in red, white and blue, rather than traditional Christmas colors.

Preston Johnston and his family came from Penn Hills to enjoy the evening. His precocious stepson, Darnell Davis, dons the 3-D glasses that were given to kids to watch the fireworks and fidgets in anticipation of the show.

As a star-spangled fireworks display illuminates the sky in front of him and the city's skyline sparkles behind, Johnston can only look upon the scene and grin.

"The city sure lit up well tonight."

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