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TV Review: Sebak finds more to love about the region in latest special

Wednesday, December 01, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

He doesn't mention it in his latest documentary, but WQED producer/writer/narrator/station linchpin Rick Sebak is among the "Things That Are Still Here." And for that, viewers should be grateful.

Sebak has been making TV at WQED for more than 12 years, and he proves his worth once again in "Things That Are Still Here" (tonight at 8 on WQED/WQEX), an 80-minute documentary about Southwestern Pennsylvania's hidden gems.

Sort of an anti-sequel to Sebak's early 1990s productions, "Things That Aren't There Anymore" and "Stuff That's Gone," this one de-emphasizes what's been lost and introduces or refamiliarizes viewers with what remains.

WQED producer Rick Sebak's "Things That Are Still Here" takes a look at one of the area's greatest mysteries: the Belt system.; (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette) 

From dinosaur bones at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to the first permanent Warner Bros. movie theater in New Castle, Sebak goes mining for cultural highlights and comes up with ancient artifacts, coke, old newsreels and a giant mobile.

Best of all, interview subjects from the show's early segments contribute to the final thing that is still here, one of the area's great mysteries: the Belt system. You know, the Orange Belt, Green Belt, Blue Belt, etc.

"I've seen those signs all my life and never understood it," one woman says. "And when you ask other people they don't know either."

Funding for the special was provided by the Buhl Foundation, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation and The McQuade Family with promotional support from the Columbia Gas Co. of Pennsylvania. Kudos to them all for pitching in on this excellent concept for a PBS special. It's a theme anyone could make a documentary out of, but few could do it like Sebak.

There's much talk in the TV industry about how non-fiction writing is at an all-time low (just check out the local newscasts on commercial stations), but Sebak takes time to craft his programs. Writing for TV doesn't just involve the words spoken by the personality, it also involves the editing and placement of clips and sound bites, and Sebak excels at this.

In a segment on the annual Fiesta dinnerware sale in Newell, W.Va., Sebak cuts between various shoppers and a woman who rattles off a list of animals on her farm who eat off the colorful china. It's entertaining and funny, but more importantly, it's incredibly human. The same goes for a scene at Ligonier Beach where two young boys argue about diving skills.

"I didn't know you knew how to do a flip," says Boy One.

"I do," says Boy Two.

"Things That Are Still Here"

When: Tonight at 8 on WQED/WQEX.

Producer/Writer/Narrator: Rick Sebak.


"Then why did you say you didn't?" says Boy One, getting indignant.

"I don't," Boy Two says, laughing nervously and trying to extricate himself from his own exaggeration.

"Well which was it? You do or you don't?" Boy One says, not letting Boy Two off the hook.

It's a wonderful moment that's utterly believable and true-to-life. And that's the continuing charm of Sebak's documentaries. He captures people being real, honest and unguarded. Given how much time Sebak spends editing these specials, I have to imagine there's a lot that ends up on the cutting room floor.

"Things That Are Still Here" isn't perfect. My continuing concern about Sebak specials is they sometimes feel a little bloated (two pledge breaks in tonight's telecast won't help matters). A couple of the segments were less interesting and could have been cut. Perhaps when WQED's evening newsmagazine show premieres, Sebak can tighten up his documentaries and the segments that fall out can air as features on "On Q."

Some viewers might be put off by the number of commercial establishments Sebak highlights in "Things That Are Still Here." There's Oram's Donut Shop in Beaver Falls, J. H. Shoop & Sons men's clothing store in Freeport and Nicholas Coffee in Downtown Pittsburgh's Market Square.

But we're a capitalist, consumer society and we develop favorite places to shop or dine. When those places are around long enough, they become part of a community's heritage and deserve to be lifted up as they are in "Things That Are Still Here."

Local organizations trying to generate interest in this area should simply send out "Things That Are Still Here" to prospective residents and businesses. There's no better salesman/chronicler of Southwestern Pennsylvania than Rick Sebak.

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