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Lights, Camera ... Passion

Network of Believers Turns Pittsburgh Into Movie Town

June 23, 2013
By PHYLLIS R. SIGAL - Design Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

What is it that makes Pittsburgh a "movie town"?

Is it the diverse scenic possibilities ... rivers, bridges, hillsides, cityscape?

Is the proximity to an international airport?

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Heinz Field was a huge part of “The Dark Knight Rises,” where the field imploded and the mayor’s suite was blown up.

Is it the available crew to build elaborate film sets?

Is it the tax credits for those who film?

It's all that.

But more importantly, it's the network of passionate people who care deeply about the city and who want major motion pictures to choose their town.

Like Steve Bittle of the Pittsburgh Film Office and Jim Mahathey who scouts out the perfect locations for films to be shot.

And Chris Breakwell who moved back to Pittsburgh to invest in 31st Street Studios, the largest sound studio outside of Hollywood.

And Sherris Moreira of Rivers of Steel, who works to promote resources associated with steel and steel-related industries.

And Ron Baraff, director of museum collections and archives at Rivers of Steel Heritage Tours, who can talk for hours about the history and future of the Carrie Furnace site.

And Becky Rogers from Neighbors in the Strip who knows the Strip District inside and out, backward and forward.

And Chad Hunter, managing director of the Hollywood Theater in Dormont.

And Visit Pittsburgh's entire communications staff, Connie George, Lynne Glover and especially Kristen Mitchell, our guide for a 48-hour whirlwind tour of Pittsburgh's starring roles.

It is their excitement about Pittsburgh that has made it into a movie town.

More than 120 movies and television shows have been filmed in Pittsburgh, since 1990.

"We let the place sell itself," Bittle said.



- The Enrico Biscotti Co., located at 2022 Penn Ave. in the Strip District, is not only the site where the 2002 release, "The Bread, My Sweet," was filmed, but also the inspiration. Larry Lagattuta opened the business in 1995, and his role at the pasticceria is to keep old Italian recipes alive as well as sell the best biscotti.

The movie is about a couple who live upstairs of the bakery; she's dying and wants her daughter to get married before she dies.

They decide to do a sham wedding, but the daughter really does fall in love with the baker downstairs.

"Parts are true, parts are spot-on true," Lagattuta said. "But my life is not a movie."

Scott Baio played the baker, and Lagattuta spent hours teaching him how to bake bread and biscotti.

- The Allegheny Jail, located at 440 Ross St., has been the setting for 10 movies, including "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1990 and "Mrs. Soffel," in 1984. "Mrs. Soffel" is based on a true story of the Biddle boys, who were sentenced to hang in the jail for the murder of a Mount Washington grocer. Mrs. Soffel, the warden's wife, came to read to the prisoners and helped the Biddle brothers escape. They were chased by a posse, and the Biddles were shot and died. Mrs. Soffel was shot, but survived, and was imprisoned at the jail for 20 months.

Some of the other movies filmed at the historic jail include "The Next Three Days," "Bridge to Nowhere," "Death Penalty," "Bob Roberts" and "Darrow."

Visitors can tour the now-closed jail to see a portion of one of the cell blocks that has been preserved as the Old Allegheny County Jail Museum.

- Market Square, located in downtown Pittsburgh, is the site of several movies. Scenes from "Unstoppable," "A League of Their Own" and "Inspector Gadget" have been filmed there.

- The Grand Concourse, at Station Square on the South Side, had a scene from "The Next Three Days," starring Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks, filmed at one of the tables at the restaurant. Bittle noted that when Crowe was filming, he'd hang out at the 34th Street Pub and he'd bicycle to Peewee games. He also was quoted as telling people to "look up and appreciate the architecture" of the city.

The William Penn was the sight of "The Clearing," "Smart People," "Love and Other Drugs," "Those Who Kill" and "Abduction."

"The Pit and the Pendulum" was filmed in the sub-basement of the hotel. The bracket still exists where the pendulum was hanging, Bob Page, area director of sales and marketing at the William Penn, said.

A "very prominent" shot of the outside of the hotel can be seen in "The Dark Knight Rises," he noted.

Page has enjoyed the interactions with those involved in filmmaking, he said. His best memory is a phone call from actress Julianne Moore, while she was filming "6 Souls."

She was staying at another Pittsburgh hotel when she called him, asking if she could come look at the rooms there. "She was so nice ... I started showing her suites. 'I just need two connecting rooms,'" she told him. "She is one of the nicest people of that caliber I've met."

On display in a glass case in the William Penn's lobby is the original Lawrence Welk bubble machine.

It actually was created for the premiere of the Cecil B. DeMille film, "The Unconquered" at the William Penn in 1947. DeMille was known for his bathtub scenes, and there was an ice carving of a bathtub. "He wanted bubbles," Page said. One of the hotel employees took a shoeshine box, a bread pan, an old fan, a clock and a tuna can lid and fashioned it into a bubble machine, Page explained.

"Lawrence Welk discovered this later and adopted it," Page said.

- Heinz Field was a huge part of "The Dark Knight Rises," where the field imploded and the mayor's suite was blown up. The first day of shooting involved 10,000 extras with around 2,000 on the second day.

- The Carrie Furnace in the Homestead area of Pittsburgh is a new, hot locale for filming. A once thriving steel site, the Carrie Furnace is bringing in money once again.

Baraff said solar panels have been added to the furnace, which supplies power for lights for a gift shop, reception center and a small theater. "It's a little rough, but light years beyond what it was," he said.

One of the biggest films shot at the Carrie Furnace is "Out of the Furnace." Just a couple of scenes were supposed to be filmed there, but writer/director Scott Cooper liked it so much, they used the site for about three weeks of shooting

Baraff related a story about a big fight scene between Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson that was filmed at Carrie Furnace. The production people asked if they could use a building on the premises to paint rocks.

"'We're importing rocks from California,'" he said they told him. "We need to paint them." Baraff was confused. There were plenty of rocks at the site; why on earth would they need to spend more money on rocks?

But the imported rocks were made of rubber - so that when Bale and Harrelson fell on them during the fight, they wouldn't get hurt.

The film, which is set to open later this year, also stars Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard.

The A&E series, "Those Who Kill," movies "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Mrs. Soffel," as well as several commercials have been filmed at the Carrie Furnace site.

- The Hollywood Theater in Dormont was the site of scenes from "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." The film's writer/director, Stephen Chbosky, grew up in nearby Upper St. Clair, and spent nights there watching "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." In fact, there is a scene from that cult film in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."

It's not easy for a single-screen venue such as the Hollywood Theater to survive, but Hunter, managing director of the theater, who has a vast knowledge of film history, thinks creatively to keep the theater open.

Special series, concerts, exhibits, literary events and more help to entice patrons to come back and to support the theater, he said. "The only way we'll survive is to be a multi-use facility."

The theater seats 280, with couches and coffee tables in the back two rows. Hunter also pointed out the restrooms are "authentic vintage art deco," and it is one of the last theaters in the area with a balcony.



- The Dor-Stop Diner in Dormont was featured in Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" with Guy Fieri.

Lori Raab, whose parents Vicki and Bob Lawhorne, own the diner said the show recently re-aired, which gives them a little boost in business, just as it did when it ran the first time about four and one-half years ago.

They shot for two 12-hour days, she said, but Fieri was on the scene from 9 a.m. to noon on the second day. His parents came to the shoot, she said, because his aunt and uncle live in Upper St. Clair.

"He was very down to earth," Raab said.

Her mom's pancake recipe was the featured item prepared for the show, she said.

- Emil's Restaurant and Lounge in the blue-collar Rankin section of Pittsburgh is a place where documentary filmmaker Rick Sebak has been eating "as long as I can remember," Krissy Kochis said. Her dad, Emil Luzaich, who opened the business decades ago, passed away in 2009. Emil's is one of "25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh" produced by Sebak for WQED.

"No one comes to Rankin anymore," she said. It's hey-day was when the mills were humming. "But since we offer good food, they come. It's a destination. ... Since the show, people come from everywhere."

Emil's, an old steel-workers' bar, claims to be "the home of Pittsburgh's best fish sandwich." Sebak featured the fish sandwich and Emil's reuben sandwich on his show. The fresh-cut fries and hamburgers are another menu favorite.

"Good hunky American food," is how Krissy describes the huge portions. Three big hunks of fried cod on a sub bun could feed a family of four.



- 31st Street Studios, situated on a former steel mill site in the Strip District, has been involved with "Jack Reacher," "Supah Ninjas," "The Dark Knight Rises," "Locke & Key," "Abduction," "Warrior," "Love and Other Drugs," "The Next Three Days," "Unstoppable," "Justified," "Owl City" and "The Veer Union."

"From steel making to filmmaking is our motto," Breakwell said. Breakwell, an investment banker, moved back to his hometown when he saw the opportunity to invest in the sound studio.

"31st Street Studios," he said, "is the final piece of the puzzle" in the already bustling film industry in Pittsburgh.

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