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Sebak celebrates holidays in the 'Burgh

Sunday, November 17, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Writer/producer/narrator Rick Sebak's latest local special stays home for the holidays, which seems like a no-brainer. What better way to sell video tapes (and now DVDs) than with a holiday special, which WQED hucksters can easily market as the ultimate Christmas gift for one 'Burgh resident to give another?

TV Preview
"Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh"
When: 8 p.m. Saturday on WQED.
Starring: Rick Sebak.

You'd think someone would have thought of it sooner.

Sebak said there was talk of him making a holiday show when he first came to WQED more than 15 years ago, but instead another producer at the station made "A Child's Christmas in Pittsburgh."

"That was primarily a music show with these kids over-singing a lot of songs," Sebak said. "They were coached to enunciate and make their mouths really exaggerated. It was a very bizarre show, and having done that, there wasn't any call for another local holiday show."

Until now.

Sebak and his crew began filming "Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh" on Light Up Night 2001, shooting and editing about half the show before putting it down to make the national show "Sandwiches You Will Like" that premiered on WQED this fall and airs on PBS in January.

"Happy Holidays" clocks in at 60 minutes, although with pledge breaks it will run an hour and a half the first time it airs. An extended, 90-minute version will be sold on VHS, but only if ordered through WQED (tapes sold at stores will contain the 60-minute show). Only the 90-minute version - through the station or in stores - will be issued on DVD.

Sebak's program doesn't limit itself to Christmas and Hanukah, but also explores the customs of Ramadan and Kwanzaa and secular celebrations like shopping in Downtown and the Strip, First Night and Chinese New Year.

"These things are universal, global, international and there are many more than we touch on, but I thought it was kind of cool how specifically those things play out in Pittsburgh," Sebak said.

Another segment in "Happy Holidays" looks at how people decorate their houses. Sebak and crew drove around Brookline looking for brightly decorated homes to film.

"We didn't want to find mega-displays, just good ones," Sebak said. "One of my favorite sound bites is you hear me ask, 'Why do people do this?' And this man replies, 'Because we're psychos.' We all sort of revel in it. I like to think it could be primal, some sort of genetic need to cast light into the darkness."

Music plays a major role in many holiday celebrations, but music rights are a constant frustration for Sebak. If he interviews someone who sings a classic carol, whose rights are in the public domain, that's fine. But if someone breaks into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," he can't use the clip.

"That's always a hassle," Sebak said. He filmed a house tour segment for "Holidays" and was taken by the performance of a woman in her late teens, but the songs she sang prevented him from including the clip. "She had a David Lynchian quality. We tend to get 'American Idol,' overly emotive singers, but she was flat. Her singing wasn't flat, but emotionally she was flat. It was cool and weird."

Sebak picked the photo on the cover of TV Week to be the image for the "Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh" poster and the packaging on the home video. It features an array of Santas standing on the steps of the Syria Mosque in Oakland. He got the photo from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department.

"I love the unhappy faces of so many of the Santas, and I love the fact it's on the steps of the Syria Mosque," Sebak said. In early November, as he continued to edit "Happy Holidays," he had yet to find a way to work the photo of the Santas into the program.

"If nothing else, we'll put them in the credits."

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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