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Jack Kerouac and the Pittsburgh Plymouths

on Mon, 06/29/2015 - 00:00

Does the road to Greenwich Village run through Pittsburgh? Apparently a number of Beats, poets and songwriters have made just such a journey, utilizing the Steel City as a “pit stop” on their way to New York City and the land of Bohemia. In 1968, for instance, Simon & Garfunkel—who spent a number of formative years in the Village—released the song “America” as part of their fourth studio album, Bookends. The narrator of the tune relates the travels of a young couple making their way across the United States in both a physical and literal attempt to “look for America,” and contains a line about boarding “a Greyhound in Pittsburgh.”

While that journey may have been fictional, another famous songwriter who likewise spent a fair amount of time in Greenwich Village embarked on a similar trek across the country almost thirty years earlier. According to John Show’s This Land That I Love (PublicAffairs, 2013), the famed “Dust Bowl Troubadour” Woody Guthrie made his own way from the Steel City to the Big Apple on foot and with his thumb, hitchhiking through a snowstorm in 1940. He was constantly met with the voice of Kate Smith singing the Irving Berlin-penned “God Bless America” along the way, however, which apparently irritated him to no end. By the time he reached New York, he was determined to compose a scathing retort, but later reworked his initial idea instead into an equally powerful anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

Simon Pegg and Dawn of the Dead

on Mon, 06/22/2015 - 00:00

British actor Simon Pegg became a fan of Dawn of the Dead years before he ever watched the film. Growing up in England during the advent of home video in the 1980s exposed the young Pegg to a long list of movies he otherwise would never have seen, but the George Romero Pittsburgh-filmed classic was not amongst them. In order to prevent the youth of Great Britain from becoming corrupted by the influx of “foreign exploitation films,” the Obscene Publication Act of 1857 was expanded to include video in addition to print during the early days of the decade and Dawn of the Dead was deemed to fall within the broad interpretation of the term—a fact that only intrigued Simon Pegg even more.

“The film that fascinated me the most amid this censorship massacre was Dawn of the Dead,” he explains in his 2010 memoirs Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid (Random House). “Romero’s star was sufficient that the film already had a certain amount of credibility, particularly within the horror community. Several images from the film were featured in The Encyclopedia of Horror I received as a Christmas present in 1983 and I became fascinated by this tale of a shopping mall that becomes awash with blood.” Despite began exposed to still photographs instead of moving depictions of the “Living Dead,” Pegg became a fan of the genre nonetheless, and even wrote his own apocalyptic short story at the age of thirteen despite still being a “zombie virgin.”

Bill Cardille and Chiller Theater

on Mon, 06/15/2015 - 00:00

In the early 1950s, Finland-born actress Maila Nurmi attended a Los Angeles costume ball wearing a tight black dress with shredded sleeves and a low cut neckline, a long black wig and vampire-like makeup. Producer Hun Stromberg Jr., upon seeing Nurmi, immediately realized she would be the perfect host for a local TV station’s late Saturday night horror movie showcase. Although Nurmi—now better known as Vampira—only hosted the program for one year, she became a California-area celebrity nonetheless. In 1956, meanwhile, the 1933 film King Kong was shown on prime time television, drawing in ninety percent of the national audience. These two separate events gave Universal Studios an idea—why not package their extensive collection of horror films from the 1930s and 40s, market them to television stations across the country and encourage each individual city to concoct their own unique host?

The resulting Shock Theater became an immediate success, sweeping the country in 1957 and creating local celebrities out of the late night hosts who appeared dressed as monsters and mad scientists while using coffins, dungeons and creepy laboratories as their sets. Although not part of that initial wave of monster movie mania, Pittsburgh had its own version of Shock Theater, called Chiller Theater, with a host who was just as popular in the Steel City as Vampira was in Los Angeles. Bill Cardille began his career in broadcasting at radio station WDAD in Indiana, Pennsylvania, before joining WICU-TV in Erie as a weatherman and then migrating to the current-day WPXI in 1957. When WPXI launched Chiller Theater in 1963, Cardille became the off-screen announcer for the Sunday afternoon program.