Senator John Heinz History Center

  • The work station in the Library and Archives includes with needle nose pliers, which help to remove the nails from the picture frames. The gloves protect from the dirt that has accrued over the years since the theater's closing. The deframed photographs are separated into two piles: those that are fused to the glass and those that are not.

     

    Identifying Movie Stars of Yesteryear: Historical Photos of Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theatre

    Museum Studies Intern at the Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History – Spring 2018

    When the Nixon Theatre, a “Gilded Age” theater in downtown Pittsburgh, closed in 1950, Katharine Hepburn requested some brackets from the building’s marble columns so that she could remember her fond times at the theater. The manager sent Hepburn the hooks she wanted, as indicated in a telegram that came to the Detre Library & Archive, at the Senator John Heinz History Center. It came with a collection of photographs of musical and comedy stars, c. 1900s-1950s. The photographs were contained in their original frames, which is why about half of the pictures have fused to the glass of the frames. Additionally, a collection of autographed photographs that used to hang in the front lobby of the Nixon, were donated to the Heinz History Center by the family of the last electrician who worked there.

    In my internship role, my job has been to not only remove the photographs from their frames, but to rehouse them into acid-free folders and boxes, as well as figure out who the celebrities in the photos are. At one time, these celebrities were well known to the public, and it was probably unimaginable that they would not be recognizable in the future. If today we had a Taylor Swift picture, it would not need a label to be identified. However, many of these pictures are not of people whose legacies hold up throughout time, like Katharine Hepburn’s. With a lack of identifying labels for celebrities in the photographs, the newspapers of Pittsburgh have been extremely helpful in identifying the years, productions, and people who graced the stage and screen of the Nixon Theatre.

    This project not only enabled me to learn the general aspects of archival processing, but it also has also made me privy to conversations about what purpose libraries and archives serve. The Senator John Heinz History Center and its Detre Library and Archives hold documents and photographs pertaining to the history of Western Pennsylvania and the lives of its residents. Because the Nixon Theatre was located in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater itself is a part of Western Pennsylvania history. Many of the actors and actresses in the pictures, however, were not from the area and only spent a few nights in Pittsburgh while performing. Due to this and the fact that the collection is mostly headshots, there were several debates among staff about how much research value the collection holds, and whether the material falls into the Library and Archives’ collecting scope (i.e. Western PA history and the lives of the residents). Sometimes, if a donation does not fall into the collecting scope, it will be referred to another repository with a mission that the documents are more aligned with.

    However, the Nixon Theatre Photographs were ultimately accepted into the collection. As I learned through my internship, while these celebrities from the past may not be memorable or recognizable to everyone, many of the photographs are one of a kind, and, therefore, hold quite a bit of artefactual value.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Nancy Mosser and I at the casting audition room in Mosser Casting studio

     

    Delving into the Pittsburgh Film Industry and History

    Museum Studies Intern at Senator John Heinz History Center - Spring 2018

    As a Museum Studies intern at Senator John Heinz History Center for Spring 2018, I have had the opportunity to work under curators Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl, helping them document Pittsburgh’s significant ties to commercial film production. During my internship, I looked through newspaper articles about films I was interested in knowing more about. I also interviewed people in the industry and did research on the museum’s collection for an eventual exhibit on Pittsburgh’s role in film.

    I first researched Fences (2016), a film based on the play by Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson. The film follows the lives of the Maxon family in the 1950s Hill District neighborhood. One of the people that we interviewed was my cousin Greg Weimerskirch, an art director in the film industry locally. He showed us how he designs each environment for the camera. For Fences he had to recreate what the Hill District looked like in the 1950s, from the street signs to the kind of garbage truck used, to how the houses looked at that time. It was amazing to witness the level of detail that goes into being an art director and how Greg uses both digital and physical modeling to create an impression of setting in the film.

    Other films that I have examined closely in my internship were Striking Distance (1993), Sudden Death (1995), and Inspector Gadget (1999). I searched through newspapers to find articles on how each of the movies was received when it was in theatres, as well as production information pertaining to the who, when, where and how they were produced. I then searched for film crewmembers and technicians to contact who worked on these films.

    Some of my leads did not meet with success, but one lead for Sudden Death led me to interviewing Nancy Mosser, who runs the Mosser Casting studio in Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. Nancy casts extras and actors for films, television, and commercials. This is unique because most casting agencies only cast either extras or actors, not both. She got her start by working as a Production Assistant for Channel 11 news and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. She then struck out on her own to become a casting director. Nancy told us about the ease of casting today, compared to when she started out, thanks to the increased use of technology.

    Overall, this internship has blended my passios of Pittsburgh history and film. I have more understanding about what it takes to envision and work on a film. This was revealed to me by using digital archival material, tracking down and interviewing contacts, and critically thinking about the interconnection between people and movies and objects.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Getting Involved with Audubon Day and Pittsburgh’s Birds

    Author: Melissa Yang 

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    A complete set of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838) is a rare collector’s item worth millions, featuring 435 life-sized images of birds dramatically depicted by the controversial French-American artist-naturalist. The University of Pittsburgh owns one of these rare sets—it is the most valuable set of volumes in our library. Each fall, the University Library System hosts a public Audubon Day to celebrate the Birds of America.

    The seventh annual Audubon Day took place at the Hillman Library on November 17, 2017. During the day, select prints were displayed in special collections, and programming included live bird meet-and-greets from the National Aviary and invited talks. Local blogger and bird expert Kate St. John (author of the terrific https://www.birdsoutsidemywindow.org) gave a morning talk on "The Story of Peregrine Falcons at Pitt: The Dynasty Continues.”

    In the afternoon, I shared eclectic tales drawn from my dissertation research on avian rhetoric in a talk called, “Our Archival Aviaries: Exploring Pittsburgh's Birdscapes.” In addition to the resources in Pittsburgh’s many libraries and museums, I reflected on Powdermill’s bird banders, volunteering with Birdsafe Pittsburgh, and—as a result of the Consuming Nature workshop—visiting the Tarentum Homing Club pigeon racers. Seeking to cultivate bird knowledge and citizen science efforts, I encouraged the public to engage in local organizations and initiatives, including the Audubon Society, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, BirdSafe Pittsburgh, Three Rivers Birding Club, the National Aviary (Neighbohood Nestwatch and Project Owlnet), and more.

    Read about Melissa's visit to the Tarentum Homing Club here

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    A memorandum of agreement between MGM and the Pittsburgh Pirates, found in the Branch Rickey Papers at the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. The letter discusses the use of Pirates gear and facilities in the film Angels in the Outfield.

     

    Celebrating Pittsburgh as the Hollywood of the East: A Fellowship at the Heinz History Center

    Author: Monica Marchese

    Milton Fine Museum Profession Fellowship at Senator John Heinz History Center - Summer 2017

    What word comes to mind when you think of Pittsburgh? Is it steel? Sports? Pierogies? Yinzers? This summer I had the unique opportunity to explore one of Pittsburgh’s lesser known exports – movies. In recent years, the city has become one of the biggest movie hubs in the east without even realizing it. Thanks to the government-sponsored Film Production Tax Credit Program in Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh’s unique personality, production companies have been flocking to the city in the past couple of years to film their next big hit. Our varied landscapes – from scenic rivers and bustling downtown streets to cozy neighborhoods with local flavor – make our city ideal for all types of projects. Not to mention the five-star casting companies, film crews, and more-than-willing extras available at directors’ disposal.

    As the University of Pittsburgh’s Milton Fine Fellow this summer at the Heinz History Center, I had the opportunity to work with curators Leslie Przybylek and Lauren Uhl on a project documenting the history of Pittsburgh’s film industry from the 1900s to the present. I jumped into this project in its very early stages. As a collecting initiative and eventual exhibition, this project required a two-pronged approach. My goals for the summer were to conduct preliminary research on which movies and individuals would best tell this story, and to locate artifacts and materials for the museum to either acquire or borrow in the future. I chose to focus my research film by film, creating thematic connections and logical arguments between each. In some cases, the intense study of a film proved very fruitful. In others, I found only dead-ends.

    My research led me to interviews and objects from films like Silence of the Lambs (1991) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), filmed all around Pittsburgh, and the animated feature film Big Hero 6 (2014), which used soft robotics technology from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute as the inspiration for the character Baymax. In fact, I had the opportunity to meet with Chris Atkeson, creator of the inflatable soft robotic arm and renowned professor at the Robotics Institute, in his laboratory. He showed us the original arm technology (pictured above) and encouraged us to “get into character” to understand the advantages and challenges of using inflatable robots. As I quickly found out, walking, gesturing, and holding objects proved exponentially more difficult when wearing an inflated Baymax suit (see above).

    Two of the most rewarding discoveries were related to the films Angels in the Outfield (1951) and Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). These two films could not be any more different. Angels, a film about a fictitious general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates who encounters angels (you guessed it) in the outfield, allowed me to explore the more secluded, archival side of research. I found original letters, scripts, and legal agreements from film production. This film was also important to my research because it immortalizes Forbes Field in a very unique way. In an official letter (pictured above) between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and the then Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Bill Meyer, it was agreed upon that MGM would have full use of the Forbes Field facilities, Pirates uniforms and equipment, and park staff while filming. So while the characters – and the World Series win at the end of the film – are imaginary, a large majority of the film is authentic and serves as an accurate portrayal of baseball life at Forbes Field.

    Perks, a coming-of-age film about a high school boy and his group of friends, allowed me to explore a different aspect of curation. I was able to get in contact with the novelist/screenplay writer/director/producer of the book and film, Stephen Chbosky. Chbosky, a native Pittsburgher who now lives in California, wrote Perks based on his own high school experiences growing up in Upper St. Clair. He was more than willing to speak with me on the phone about all things Perks and Pittsburgh, and even offered to help the museum acquire costumes, props, and scripts from the film.

    Working on this project has allowed me to meld my love of film, history, and Pittsburgh. I’ve had the chance to dig through archives and special collections, make important contacts within the film community, locate key artifacts, and develop thematic connections between films, people, and objects. I am honored to have had this unique opportunity at the Heinz History Center.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    John Yodanis Papers, 1919 – 1987, MSS 293, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center

     

    Revisiting Pittsburgh’s Pigeondom

    Author: Melissa Yang

    PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

    The American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU)’s Souvenir Book of the 1937 Greater Pittsburgh Convention opens on a charming exchange of two epistolary poems between Edgar A. Guest and Peter P. Barry. Guest’s four stanzas of aa/bb rhymes, addressed “To the Owner of a Homing Pigeon,” detail the antics of a pigeon who “stopped to spend the day with us.” Barry responds to thank Guest, and requests he “Do again that sportsman’s deed,/Give him water and a bit of feed,” if the pigeon again chooses to rest upon his roof on his route home.

    There is abundant poetry—intentional and unintentional, whimsical and solemn—in the five boxes of materials compiled over sixty years by Pittsburgh pigeon racer John Yodanis (1910 – 1988). Housed in the Heinz History Center’s archives, these boxes are packed full of documents, from pigeon breeding guides to lineage charts, racing diplomas to gift-like bundles tied up in paper and string, which unwrap to reveal piles of pigeon-centric newspapers, catalogues, convention yearbooks, and more.

    Pigeons have long been featured in and have fostered an enormous range of human communications. Pigeon post, after all, was the fastest method of message-transmission from ancient times until Samuel Morse developed his code in the 1830s and 40s. Perusing more recent papers, it is nevertheless striking how valuable these birds were to their caretakers, and how stark the contrast is between the dedicated treatment of these pedigreed pigeons and the feral “rats with wings” marginalized in city streets today. Still, racing birds were bred to serve a purpose and, unlike most pets, had to earn their keep.

    This common attitude is reflected across Yodanis’s materials, including the four-volume Four Seasons Real Course About Pigeons. Penned by M. Joseph Heuskin for novices in the 1920s, this relic meticulously describes the proper composure, composition, and disposition of an ideal bird. He notes, “A pigeon of value has often a bigger eye than a common pigeon,” and “watches you wherever you go, for it is very inquisitive.” Breeders are advised to kill birds not up to snuff because “Marvelous pigeons are scarce,” and only achieved by “cultivating your colony” carefully. The anthropomorphism of the watchful, bright birds juxtaposed with casual culling directives render this guide darkly memorable, and the sport susceptible to criticism from animal welfare activists. (Pigeon racing ethics are controversial enough to warrant their own entry.)

    The modern sport of pigeon racing first emerged in Belgium in the 1850s, as carrier pigeons were being phased out by newer messaging technologies. Aficionados were motivated by a passion for pigeons, as well as prize money. The sport spread across Europe, and when Europeans migrated to the United States, they brought their birds with them. This is how Pittsburgh, PA—whose abundant job openings in factories and steel mills attracted European immigrants—became an epicenter for American pigeon racing in the following century.

    “Pittsburgh Promotes Pigeondom’s Progress” appears as a bold announcement in the opening pages of Yodanis’s 1948 commemorative book for the 38th annual ARPU convention (and the 4th annual “Ladies Auxiliary” meeting). Several pages of a welcome essay boast, of all the sports in Pittsburgh, “One of the finest sports of all, the realm of Pigeondom, is enthusiastically proclaimed by a great number here.” The Pittsburgh Center of the ARPU was the largest in America at the time, with thousands of members within a 50-mile radius of the city.

    John Yodanis was inducted into Pittsburgh’s pigeondom by his father and brother at age 14 in 1924. One of the collection’s final news clippings, from 1984, features the 74-year-old retired steamfitter reflecting on growing up when “every other yard had a pigeon loft and the association of racing pigeon clubs known as the Pittsburgh Center had more than 2,400 members.” Near the end of Yodanis’s life, he estimated only “175 racing pigeon owners remain in the Pittsburgh area.” Today, numbers continue to dwindle.

    The Tarentum Homing Club is one of the few active pigeon racing groups remaining around Pittsburgh, where a few devotees—mostly male retirees—continue to race their birds on weekends. When I interviewed member David Corry, he attributed the decline of pigeon racing in part to a lack of interest in the time commitment required of animal husbandry among young people today. Curiously, a concern for adolescent apathy can already be discerned in Yodanis’s earlier documents, some of which even cite “prevention of juvenile delinquency” as rationale to encourage children to pursue pigeon racing. Corry, who laughingly recalled how he was almost arrested for climbing grain elevators to catch pigeons in his youth, followed up to say, “You do not have to be nuts to get involved in pigeon racing but to some degree it helps.”Pittsburgh’s pigeondom may be endangered, but there is a liveliness, passion, humor, and resonant lyricism in even the most matter-of-fact of the extant discourses and documents. John Yodanis’s collection offers a fascinating glimpse into this niche area of local history well worth remembering and revisiting.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Main Lobby of The Heinz History Center

     

    Heinz History Center- The Italian American Program (complete with outdoor bocce)

    Museum Studies Intern at the Senator John Heinz History Center - Fall 2016 

    This summer, I was able to complete an Internship at the Senator John Heinz History Center within their Italian American program. Here, I was able to meet with donors and handle collections. The biggest feeling of success was not only getting to work with other people who were as passionate about Italian American history as me, but also getting to work in the highly competitive field of museum curators and exhibitionists. As a Museum Studies Minor, this internship allowed me to use my knowledge of the Italian language to translate documents, and combine that with my love of history, and furthering education. Throughout the summer, I met with various donors and was able to hear their stories of their immigration, or of their parents and other families immigrations. I worked closely with a project that focused on a group called I Campagnoli, an Italian folk dance and singing group. From the members I received pamphlets and photos and other memorable items from their time together. From these items I started curating an online exhibition for the group, that I was unfortunately not able to complete due to time, but at least had the experience of working with digital media which to me is important as it seems many museums are taking this route for future exhibits since it eliminates the concern of accessibility and preservation. This site is still not complete as there are so many interviews to transcribe, and other collections to be archived and used. In addition to this online work, I was also able to see the side of collections and preservation, education, and many other elements of the museum. This is one of the benefits I felt I had in such a big museum- I was always working and getting an experience! By having this internship over the summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in their Bocce Event, which is an outdoor bocce competition with many teams competing with sponsoring companies. This by far was one of the more exciting experiences as I not only got to watch players compete, but there was live music and free food and drinks. I felt this is program showed me the effectiveness of fundraising for a museum and how events don't always have to be educational or history based. Although my internship here has ended, I’m still volunteering at events and promoting the Italian American website and exhibition. This past October I attended Italian American Heritage Day and was able to see the group I worked with, I Campagnoli, perform, and it felt like a great culmination to my internship. The Italian American Program Online Content can be found at this link: http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/collections/italian-american-program