The façade of the Nickelodeon movie theater 
Part 2 – A Closer Look
Hollywood Roots + Golden Age
Many accounts of Pittsburgh’s film history begin with the Nickelodeon. This humble Pittsburgh storefront is a key place in the rise of film exhibition as a lucrative mass market, as it is an early example of a theater dedicated solely to showing movies for the then nominal cost of five cents (one nickel, hence the name.)
The city’s early theaters also offer a link to the major production companies which would later develop eastward in Hollywood, California. Three brothers from the Warner family opened their first movie theater in nearby New Castle, PA in 1907. After relocation to California, they eventually started Warner Bros. Pictures Incorporated. Additionally, the Selznick family found its foothold in Pittsburgh in the late 1800s. Father Lewis J. Selznick went on to operate Selznick Pictures in the silent era, and son David O. Selznick later ran Selznick International Pictures in the 30s and 40s, producing Best Picture Oscar winners Gone With the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940.) Finally, co-founder of Metro Pictures Corporation (later MGM), Richard Rowland, got his start in one area of the film business (distribution) in Pittsburgh in the 1900s and segued to Hollywood and into production in the teens.
A still from Weber’s Suspense.  Seen here is an early, stylishly composed example of the thriller trope of the phone lines being cut by an intruder.
Lois Weber was born in Allegheny City (present day Pittsburgh’s North Side) in 1879 and in the 1910s became one of the country’s most famous filmmakers (as director, writer, producer, and actor) and even ran her own movie studio, Lois Weber Productions. Her films of the second half of the decade (often created in collaboration with her husband Phillips Smalley) frequently tackled hot-button, ripped from the headlines social and political issues such as abortion, poverty, child labor, and censorship. Until recent years, her work has largely and unjustly been neglected and disregarded as moralistic curios. Fortunately, she is increasingly being recognized again as one of the most important and provocative filmmakers of her time, and as a maker of some outright masterpieces, such as Suspense (1913) and Shoes (1916).
On the subject of headlines: Pittsburgh’s nationally influential African-American weekly newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, plays a significant role in the history of movie coverage in the press. The Courier was one of the earliest African-American papers to include an entertainment section, and, for decades, it maintained prominent coverage of Black cinema (to this day, the Courier is one of the most widely-cited contemporary publications on the subject for the 20s through 40s.) The paper had direct engagement with Black films and actors. For instance, Courier reporter Earl Morris went undercover as an extra on the set of Too Hot to Handle (1938) to witness first-hand the unfair labor conditions for Black extras. Evelyn Preer – who gained fame as a regular lead in Oscar Micheaux’s films -- even wrote a multi-week column for the Courier in June of 1927.
An advertisement from the June 4, 1927 edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, promoting Evelyn Preer’s forthcoming “My Thrills in the Movies,” a tell-all series of articles about her harrowing experiences in the film business.
Industrials and Beyond
In their 1939 documentary The City, Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke use Pittsburgh as the epitome of the industrial American city. For decades, the mere reference to Pittsburgh in film conjured for audiences images of a gritty, hellish place. In numerous shorts made throughout the 20th century, Pittsburgh is depicted as the prototypical example of industrialization (for better or worse.) But Pittsburgh’s industries, foundations, and other well-heeled organizations also made their mark on film history in more refined ways by serving as sponsors for short films intended to be shown in non-theatrical settings (classrooms, churches, board rooms, training environments, television, and just about any other place you can imagine where a portable 16mm projector could be set-up.)
Pittsburgh-based corporations such as U.S. Steel, PPG Industries, Duquesne Light Company, and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) have immense catalogs of film productions made over the decades. Alcoa paid for what are still revered as some of the finest examples of industrial and sponsored films. Shorts such as Color and Texture in Aluminum Finishes (1956) achieve an avant-garde style that transcends the typically prosaic approach of its contemporaries. Pittsburgh (1958/1959) is one of the more infamous sponsored pictures to be filmed in the city, this time commissioned by the Pittsburgh Bicenentennial Association to celebrate the city’s birthday. The list of heavy-hitter makers involved in the production is astonishing: Stan Brakhage, W. Eugene Smith, Stan Vanderbeek, Weegee, Len Lye, and others. The Bicentennial Association was unhappy with the finished film and it was shelved until the late 1970s.
Two stills from Pittsburgh suggest the diversity of styles on display in the film.
These non-theatrical modes of production were commonly the domain of smaller production companies. Both Color and Texture and Pittsburgh were produced by New Jersey-based On Film Inc. With money flowing into the city for film production from industry and other organizations and, by the 1960s, the federal government, Pittsburgh was also becoming home to a number of such companies. A few of the best remembered from the mid-century are Clem Williams Films (principally for its bizarre cult classic A Visit to Santa , filmed just outside of Pittsburgh in McKeesport), William G. Beal Productions (Beal, ever the proud Pittsburgher, was a prolific documentarian of the city and made several promotional films for the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau, such as the wild You’ll Love Pittsburgh , to name just one of his many films), and Joseph Pytka Productions (Braddock, PA native Pytka would go on to become a superstar of the TV commercial directing world.)
George Romero and Russell “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” Streiner founded the Latent Image in 1963. Over the next five years, they honed their craft by making TV commercials, PSAs, experimental tests, proto-music videos, industrial shorts, etc., all in preparation for their first feature film, Night of the Living Dead (1968.) Even after the success of Night, Romero was back on the job at Latent Image doing work-for-hire gigs throughout the 70s. One of these includes the recently re-discovered The Amusement Park (1973), which tackles America’s cruel treatment of the elderly. The now defunct West View Park, located just outside of the city of Pittsburgh, served as the nightmarish setting in which real world ageism is exaggerated to disturbingly depict our culture’s tragic treatment of senior citizens.
The Latent Image logo. Note the Cathedral of Learning, the Civic Arena, and other Pittsburgh landmarks in the background. 
The need for professionally created film and video content for organizations is still as relevant today as ever. Long-standing Pittsburgh-based production companies that are still active in the field after nearly 50 years include Billy Jackson’s NOMMO Productions (more on this later) and Robert Rutkowski’s Magic Lantern.
Beyond sponsored films, Pittsburgh has a storied history with other important non-theatrical productions. Home movies and other impromptu styles of film have rightfully been a subject of more serious regard in recent decades, and from Pittsburgh came several noted creators in this realm (with more no doubt yet to be discovered.) Charles “Teenie” Harris, photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, is famous for his documentation in still photographs of the city’s Black community, but he also shot 16mm film in the 1940s. In the 1950s and 1960s, David Jarret documented Pittsburgh’s Hill District on 8mm film.
A joyous moment in the Jarret family films: David, wife Pooky, and son Fenton dance in their Hill District living room.
The Jarret films were discovered by Orgone Cinema at a flea market in the 1990s and the collection has become an internationally recognized document of Black family life in America. Comprising approximately three hours of footage in total, the Jarret family films depict many commonplace aspects of life, from vibrant house parties to leisure time spent hanging out around the neighborhood.
As America continues to this day to reckon with its legacy of white supremacy, which is reflected in the hegemony of white faces and voices in motion pictures, the passage of time has made obvious the significance of films like Jarret’s as images of Black resistance. The original film reels are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the digitized versions are a focal point of their groundbreaking Private Lives Public Spaces exhibition of home movies.
The Real Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Fred Rogers continues to be a model for compassion and kindness, and his Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood has proven to be one of the most enduring children’s TV shows. Rogers has been the subject of two recent feature-length films: documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), the latter starring Tom Hanks as Rogers and shot on location in Pittsburgh. Beneath Rogers’ seemingly simple demeanor was a deep understanding for the complexities of child psychology. He attended Pitt’s Graduate School of Child Development and collaborated on such matters with some of the foremost experts in the field, such as Margaret McFarland, Benjamin Spock, and Erik Erikson. One has to wonder if the omnipresence of Mr. Rogers in Pittsburgh had some influence on spreading an interest in children’s media, as there have been many other notable projects in that realm.
In the 1970s, Priscilla “Tippi” Comden became Media Director at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where, as part of her duties, she led class film productions with students serving as actors and crewmembers, and she also taught students the skills to make films of their own. The most important product of these collaborations is Nosferatu the Vampire at WPSD (1979), a 20-minute remake of the classic F.W. Murnau vampire film. Comden’s Nosferatu is made in the style of a silent film, with intertitles and with student actors communicating their dialog via American Sign Language. It remains a hugely important yet underseen example of media portraying figures within the deaf community.
[Right] Tippi Comden leads a workshop at the original Pittsburgh Filmmakers location at the Selma Burke Art Cente in East Liberty, Pittsburgh 
Elizabeth Nadas Seamans also began in film in the 1970s as a scriptwriter for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In the late 70s, she produced Conversations in Rhyme, a series of ethnographic shorts documenting rhyming games and verses shared between children and elders. Shot entirely on location in Pittsburgh neighborhoods, the films capture a diverse range of Pittsburghers engaged in culturally-specific customs with beautiful intimacy and naturalism.
Billy Jackson (of the aforementioned NOMMO Productions) established Community Media in 1989, one of the goals of which was to teach young adults to make movies. T. Foley, the head of the media literacy program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers in the late 90s, has cited Jackson’s work with Community Media as the inspiration for a similar endeavor. In 1999-2000, Foley trained a group of Wilkinsburg 5th-8th grade students in video production. The resulting Filmmakers in the House is a charming, rapid-fire 14-minute document of youth taking control of the means of production.
A bonus fun fact related to Pittsburgh’s role in producing entertainment for kids is that popular 90s game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1991-1995) was co-produced by WQED and WGBH-TV (Boston.)
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed approximately 30 minutes outside of Pittsburgh in rural Evan’s City, but it would go on to become a worldwide phenomenon. It remains today one of the most revered films of all time. Romero’s work is so closely associated with Pittsburgh because, for the next 30 years after Night, he lived-in and continued to substantially or entirely film in the southwestern Pennsylvania region. Romero is sometimes described as a regional filmmaker because the sights, sounds, and characters of his films are so imbued with a sense of the place from which they came. In Pittsburgh, Romero established his own production community away from Hollywood and with a group of talented collaborators such as Greg Nicotero, Tom Atkins, Tony Buba, and Tom Savini (to name just a few) at his disposal.
A still from Romero’s Knightriders. In this parade sequence, which takes place in nearby Natrona Heights, PA, the cast of the film is engulfed by and becomes one with the extras from the real-world community. Also note the distinctive Appalachian hills ever-present in the background, serving as a constant reminder of the film’s geographic specificity.
Pittsburgh has other noteworthy connections to horror. For example, the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis, was born here in 1926. Rusty Cundieff, co-writer/director (with Darin Scott) of the ever-timely horror anthology films Tales from the Hood (1995) and Tales from the Hood 2 (2018) is also a Pittsburgh native. Cundieff, it must be noted, has done memorable work outside of the horror genre, such as directing the bulk of Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006) and the pitch-perfect parody hip-hop documentary Fear of a Black Hat (1993), as well as acting in Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988.)
Numerous other horror and thriller productions have been a part of the Pittsburgh media landscape over the years, including late-night TV show Chiller Theatre (1963-1984), Silence of the Lambs (1991), and the underseen Lady Beware (1987.)
Pittsburgh’s ties to avant-garde film scenes have at times given it a stature equal to experimental havens like New York and San Francisco. In the 1940s, Elizabeth “Betty” Rockwell Raphael ran the cutting-edge art gallery Outlines, which hosted a who’s who of contemporary artists, such as interdisciplinary experimental filmmakers Joseph Cornell and Maya Deren (who, with Raphael, even shot scenes for Ritual in Transfigured Time  in Pittsburgh.) Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol became one of the most prolific and influential makers in experimental film (amongst other mediums), but, in his formative years, he is rumored to have attended events at Outlines.
Betty Raphael (right) at Outlines gallery, examining a sculpture by Alexander Calder 
In the 1970s, Pittsburgh became a major destination in the avant-garde film world. While the success of such film culture was made possible with the help of innumerable people, it is in many ways indebted to the work of Sally Dixon. She started the Film Section (later Department of Film and Video) at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1970 and in a mere five years made Pittsburgh a cutting-edge destination by fostering an ecosystem for makers and viewers of avant-garde cinema. Dixon’s creation of the Film and Video Maker’s Travel Sheets made possible a national network for artists and curators to coordinate venues, thus expanding this ecosystem beyond city limits. The result was a world-class education of regular film events offered to Pittsburgh audiences. Screenings were often attended by filmmakers, who also benefited from generous honorariums and from encouragement and assistance with shooting new footage during their visits. For example, Dixon played a part in gaining Stan Brakhage access to make his Pittsburgh Trilogy of films, each one a stark document of an institution seldom captured authentically on celluloid (a hospital, a morgue, and a police patrol car.) Moreover, Dixon helped to establish an equipment access program in the museum with the goal of offering the tools for inspired community members to create their own movies. The program was quickly spun-off into its own organization, Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
The CMoA and Pittsburgh Filmmakers both encouraged a scene that made the city one of the most important locations in the country for experimental movie making for decades to come. Thanks to the continued efforts of Dixon, her successor Bill Judson, and others, both organizations would routinely host such luminaries as Stan Brakhage, Carolee Schneemann, Jean-Luc Godard, Kenneth Anger, Robert Breer, Werner Herzog (who, incidentally, has numerous other ties to Pittsburgh, including living here for a very brief period when he first moved to America in the 60s, and filming his documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World  here), and many more. The excitement and accessibility of the programming at CMoA and Filmmakers facilitated the growth of a community of talented and unique makers within the city.
Natalka Voslakov, Tippi Comden, John Kirch, brothers J.T. and Leo Vale, Stephanie Beroes, Peggy Ahwesh, Victor Grauer, Sharon Green, Brady Lewis, Roger Jacoby, Joan Cicak, Margie Strosser, Gary Kaboly, and Tony Buba emerged in the 70s and 80s. These are just some of the names in a rich crop of extremely talented creators associated with Pittsburgh Filmmakers in its first decade or so. Each of these filmmakers is worthy of extensive exploration beyond the scope of this article. To try to collectively generalize their work would be folly, but it is safe to say that each one is a distinctive artist who felt compelled to make films even with the most limited of means. Many of the individuals listed above made movies for next to nothing by appearing in and acting as crewmembers on each other’s films. A contingent of people active at Filmmakers in the late 70s and into the 80s took advantage of the recent technological development of recording sync sound directly to super 8 film to document what was going on around them: their friends, social unrest, and Pittsburgh’s nascent punk scene. Until their respective dissolutions in 2003 and 2019, the CMoA Department of Film and Video and Filmmakers remained consistent incubators for independent, international, experimental, documentary, and DIY film forms.
The 1982 Pittsburgh Filmmakers Traveling Film Program, an approximately two-hour compilation of shorts and excerpts from artists associated with Filmmakers, toured internationally.
Continuing the Story
The story of Pittsburgh’s independent film scene is rich with other creators (who, in a relatively small city such as this frequently have connections with some of the other names mentioned in this article.) Sheila Chamovitz made two short documentaries focused on the Jewish experience: Skokie: Rights or Wrong (1980) and the beautiful Murray Ave: A Community in Transition (1983).
A still from Murray Ave: A Community in Transition, which reflects on the closing of Jewish businesses and changing character of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Tony Buba proceeded from Pittsburgh Filmmakers and his work with Romero to form Braddock Films in 1992. Buba is still actively producing documentary films, with a continued interest in the stories of the industrial decline of Rust Belt. In movies such as the sublime Mill Hunk Herald (1980) and, probably his most famous work, Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy (1988), Buba honed his idiosyncratic, self-aware style of documentary that at times slyly blends reality and the fantastic.
Jim Allan and Phil Wilson started the Allan and Wilson Animation Studio in the Pittsburgh suburb of Castle Shannon. There they produced several short films as well as doing inking and coloring for Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” music video. They also shared a building with and frequently collaborated with Rick Catizone’s Anivision Ltd., with whom they did special effects work for horror classics such as Evil Dead II (1987), George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) and Creepshow 2 (1987).
The sign for Allan & Wilson Animation Studio/Anivision Ltd. Building at 921 Walnut Street, Castle Shannon, PA 
Pittsburgh Community Television (PCTV) began in the 1980s and continues to this day as a production and exhibition resource for area film and video makers. It has hosted many important programs over the years, such as documentarian Pam Lewis’ VideoWomen series and the Gay Cable Network.
Steffi Domike also has a long career in producing documentaries, particularly focused on labor issues, such as the WQED series Labor’s Corner (1987-1990) and Women of Steel (1985), which was produced as part of her Mon Valley Media project.
Rick Sebak is a Pittsburgh favorite and a regular fixture on WQED. There he has produced dozens of documentaries exploring various pop-culture historical threads in Pittsburgh and American society. Evocatively titled programs such as Things That Aren’t There Anymore (1990) and Kennywood Memories (1988) wistfully reflect upon regional memory and tradition.
Billy Jackson and his NOMMO Productions continue to make documentaries with a focus on the experiences and culture of Black people. Films such as Didn’t We Ramble On (1989) and Enough is ENOUGH: The Death of Jonny Gammage (2005) explore the seemingly disparate subject matters of marching bands and police brutality, respectively, but both carry-on NOMMO’s stated mission of “raising consciousness through film.”
Didn’t We Ramble On traces the history of marching bands back to over 700 years, describing how present-day Black music and dance are part of an ageless African inner spirit.
The substantial amount of films being produced in and around the city meant that Pittsburgh was once able to sustain numerous film and video labs. WRS (so named after founder Warren R. Smith) grew to become one of the country’s hubs for film processing, shipping, storage, sound mixing, etc., and served as connective tissue for the region’s entire motion picture scene up until the business’s closing in the 2000s. WRS employees processed original camera negatives and struck prints for many of the filmmakers discussed in this article. They also did work for major Hollywood studios, high-profile preservation jobs such as for the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, and for clients all over the world, such as processing the original camera negative for Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s (today one of the foremost names in international cinema) first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000.)
More recently, Pittsburgh has been known as the filming location for numerous high-profile movies and television shows, thanks to the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit, signed into law in 2004. Major Hollywood studio productions such as The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, written and directed by Pittsburgh native Stephen Chbosky), and Fences (2016, based on the play by Pittsburgh native August Wilson), and Netflix series such as Mindhunter (2017-2019) to name just a few examples, have been filmed in whole or in part in the city.
Fortunately, the independent film scene in Pittsburgh continues to offer a large pool of creative talent. Of course, as must be noted in any recounting of a culture, the people, places, and events that I have highlighted here are biased. My lenses of current and historical interest are constantly shifting. I have endeavored to mention many of the names that intrigue me personally, but this is by no means an authoritative reflection on the story of moving images in Pittsburgh. Additionally, the sparse details included here belie the complex stories around each subject matter. Hopefully this is but a jumping-off point for your own research, discussions, and movie watching.
Some suggestions of subjects for further exploration:
Other notable individuals born in/around Pittsburgh:
Please send suggestions for any inaccuracies or material excluded from this ever-in-progress history to email@example.com.
 Teresa, Carrie. “The Mythologizing of Black Celebrities.” Looking at the Stars: Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow America. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvfjczzd
 Register, Charlene. “African American Extras in Hollywood During the 1920s and 1930s.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/3815293?seq=1
 Kilcoyne, Sean. Pittsburgh (1959): “Equilibriums of Paradox” and the Bicentennial City of Tomorrow. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/movingimage.12.2.0070?seq=1
 Photo courtesy of Mark Comden
 Stewart, Jacqueline. Discovering Black Film History: Tracing the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/filmhistory.23.2.147?seq=1