Uncharted Territory: Researching Pittsburgh’s Changing Image in Film

Westinghouse Auditorium entrance at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. George Westinghouse Museum Collection, c.1864-2007, MSS 920, Thomas and Katherine Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

Uncharted Territory: Researching Pittsburgh’s Changing Image in Film

Author: Zoe Creamer, Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellow at the Senator Heinz History Center – Summer 2019

How many movies can you name that were filmed in Pittsburgh? I could only think of a few (actually, just two: The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Dark Knight Rises) before starting my internship at the Heinz History Center, and now I’ve gotten to know several of them on a frame-by-frame basis. For a few years now, the Heinz History Center has been in the midst of a long-term collecting initiative regarding Pittsburgh film history, and guided by dedicated curators, Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl, I quickly became invested in the project. 

Some of the world’s first movie theaters were established in Pittsburgh, and several early film stars and directors came from the area. This includes Lois Weber, America’s first female film director, who was born in Pittsburgh’s North Side. Near the beginning of the summer, I attended the unveiling of the historic landmark plaque in front of the Allegheny Library to commemorate her birthplace. Pittsburgh’s vibrant film history continues its journey to this day: close to the end of my internship, I also had the exciting opportunity to visit the set of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, an upcoming film produced by Netflix based on the August Wilson play of the same name. 

Because of the many interesting possibilities in considering Pittsburgh’s history of film, I settled on two research areas: representations of Pittsburgh in movies, specifically since 1980, and the city’s early film industry. I began by watching about 30 films while compiling data on them to note common trends. For one part of my project, I focused on four contemporary movies filmed in and set in Pittsburgh to research their locations and differences in the portrayals of Pittsburgh. I used these data points to create a digital map prototype based on the four films. I mapped out Flashdance (1983), Striking Distance (1993), Dominick and Eugene (1988), and Fences (2016). Each of these films highlight different aspects of Pittsburgh’s image, and I wanted to track these changes while providing physical locations on a map that may serve as a future walking tour. 

To obtain data points for my maps, I re-watched the films carefully to identify significant locations, such as local landmarks or areas of change. Some places were easily recognizable, such as Carnegie Music Hall in Flashdance, but others, such as a historic church in Dominick and Eugene, took some dedicated digging through archived newspapers and virtual exploration with Google Street View. Imagine my surprise when I confirmed that this church, once home of the Lithuanian parish of St. Casimir, had been turned into luxury condos that I’d passed by countless times before in South Side! Click here to open an interactive online map of Dominick and Eugene and explore the setting for yourself. 

My second project centered around Westinghouse Electric’s  connection to early film history. In reading about early Pittsburgh film, I learned that the Westinghouse companies had made a series of 21 short films shot inside four factories around Pittsburgh. These were actuality films, movies lacking a central narrative that showed people in action as they would be if there were no camera recording their movements. The Westinghouse Works films were made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Missouri. 

Advanced for their time, these were among the first interior films ever made—early cameras required a great deal of light to reach a shutter speed capable of creating a “moving” picture, and the only way to do this was to film in natural light or gather bundles of hundreds of incandescent lamps indoors. The latter option was not desirable because of the amount of electricity needed to power many inefficient incandescent bulbs, but the Westinghouse films utilized a new light source. 

Inventor and electrical engineer Peter Cooper Hewitt, with financing from George Westinghouse, invented a mercury vapor lamp which emitted abundant light and was much more efficient than the common incandescent lamps. The mercury vapor lamps gave off a strange bluish green light which made them undesirable for home use, but the color of the light was unimportant with black and white filming. Learning that it was these lights that made the films possible, I looked with renewed interest at photos of the Westinghouse exhibits at the 1904 World’s Fair and realized that the lights pictured lighting the exhibits were mercury vapor lamps. Other photos depicted the aptly named Westinghouse Auditorium that the films were shown in. I found a scan of a daily program for the World’s Fair from the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. As the Westinghouse Films have not received much scholarly attention, any seemingly small finds aids the understanding of Westinghouse’s connections and contributions to early film. 

These projects helped me understand that museum research takes many forms. While I felt out of my element at first, I began to realize that curatorial research does not always have to result in securing a three-dimensional artifact for exhibition, as my projects focused on creating a digital resource and conducting archival research. I gained valuable knowledge regarding navigating careers in the museum field, and got an inside look at Pittsburgh film, both past and present. I am thankful for this opportunity and hope to see an exhibition on the Hollywood in Pittsburgh project in the near future so more Pittsburghers and visitors from around the world can learn about this intriguing subject.

  • Academic Interns
  • Undergraduate Work
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh