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Pittsburgh is an adventure with Rick Sebak

'25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh' is the latest from the filmmaker who delivers fascinating stories about people and places, history and human nature

By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rick Sebak is on his way to lunch. In the roughly 10 minutes it takes to drive from WQED's Oakland studios to Tessaro's in Bloomfield, he will experience at least three elements from his latest local documentary, "25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh."

Note: the film, which debuted Nov. 29, isn't about the 25 "best" things, or even 25 things to do in Pittsburgh before you die (and really, who needs that kind of pressure?).

No, "25 Things" is even more of a "scrapbook" than Mr. Sebak's usual folksy scrapbook style of filmmaking. For example, the sheer joy of shortcuts made the list, and here he was, steering his gray Honda SUV down a bunch of side streets.
Clip from Rick Sebak's '25 Things I like About Pittsburgh'

This clip is from Rick Sebak's "25 Things I Like About Pittsburgh," which helped the documentarian celebrate his 25th anniversary with QED. (Video courtesy of QED; 12/9/2012)

He later pointed out another "Thing," a home's retaining wall. It's something he must find emblematic of our region: We are held up and together by many smaller parts working together.

As for the third "Thing," which is Tessaro's restaurant, well, it's just a really great place to eat.

WQED celebrated Mr. Sebak's 25th anniversary here with an episode of the series "Experience" about a week ago. Written and directed by Pierina Morelli, it helped kick off a monthlong recognition of his local and national specials, which began with his first, "Kennywood Memories" (1988).

Since then, topics have included ice cream, breakfast, Fred Rogers, seashore towns, "Things That Aren't There Anymore," hot dogs, sandwiches, cemeteries, unusual buildings, flea markets and, debuting on PBS Christmas Day, "Breakfast Special II: Revenge of the Omelets."

To know Mr. Sebak's work is to understand that a topic is sort of like the rug that pulls a room together. It's not all about the ice cream; what you'll actually get are fascinating stories about people and places, history and human nature.

"It's pretty rare to find somebody who has lived here all these years who does not know what they are, or hasn't heard of him," said Kevin Conrad, Mr. Sebak's longtime friend and editor.

The Buhl Foundation has been a longtime major sponsor of his work. When Frederick Thieman became president in 2008, he met with Mr. Sebak and discovered he very likely was the Sebak family's paperboy many years ago.

As Mr. Sebak could tell you, Pittsburgh's like that.

Born and raised in Bethel Park and now living in Regent Square, Mr. Sebak speaks without a Western Pennsylvania accent, but his voice does carry a distinctive sort of twang. He writes, produces, edits and narrates his "Pittsburgh History Series" films, where he is usually heard but not seen.

For "25 Things," he made an exception. Mr. Sebak, 59, is on camera several times, including his visit to a "porch party" in Friendship, where neighborhood strangers became acquainted, and WTAE's Sally Wiggin made a guest appearance.

Although he was a child of the suburbs, Mr. Sebak's fascination with the city began when he was a grade-schooler at St. Valentine's in Bethel Park.

"I think I was slightly notorious because I knew how to take the streetcar into town, get a transfer and take the bus into Oakland," he said.

He and one of his brothers were driven to Oakland every day one summer for a gifted program, and their mother, Peggy Kent Sebak, made the outings an adventure.

"We did something different every day. We'd have a picnic in Schenley Park, or we'd go to the library ..." he said.

A born traveler, Mr. Sebak was a high school foreign exchange student going to Rio de Janeiro. The two Brazilian students who later came to live with his family in turn helped spark his lifelong interest in becoming Pittsburgh's best tour guide.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mr. Sebak found work as a filmmaker for South Carolina Educational Television. Pittsburgher Josie Carey worked there in the 1970s with him on a show called "Wheee!" and his other formative assignments included a month in Australia covering the Spoleto arts festival and traveling the land.

The "Slightly Wacco Aussie Doco" was one of his first attempts at capturing the oddities and amusements of a region. He later created a doc called "Shag," which featured the state dance of South Carolina.

After 11 years, he was happily settled "and of course, that's when you get a new job," he said.

A friend told him WQED was looking for a producer, and the rest of the story reads like one of his documentaries.

His is a life cluttered with ideas, current projects, a mountain of messages from people who want to clue him in on this odd person in Wilkinsburg or the Elvis Presley fan club in Dormont. In one of the offices where he was still editing "25 Things" three days before broadcast, a bulletin board was dotted with colorful note cards.

Some mentioned people or places. But there, too, was this white card, scribbled in black capital letters: "I'm not sure how this all goes together (& it probably doesn't matter)."

"That's a title I thought I might use for one of those shows that's a hodgepodge," he said, before launching into a story about a man who used to take home movies of WWII soldiers in his neighborhood as they shipped out.

It's no surprise that Rick Sebak's stories always lead to other stories.

On editing bay monitors behind him was footage shot at Emil's in Rankin. The image of owner Kristine Kochis telling a story about go-go dancers there in the 1970s is frozen on the screens.

Seems a bit late to be finishing the documentary, but this is the Sebak working model.

"We're building the last story now; I'm notorious as a last-minute person," he said, laughing. "The morning of the show, we'll still be working on it."

Compared with what happened during the debut of "Pittsburgh A to Z" in 2001, there was plenty of time.

"It was a long show, a 90-minute show. It started at 8 o'clock. Master control was at that time right next door [to editing] and the door was open," Mr. Conrad said.

"I heard the show begin and I'm like, 'Oh my god I'm working on the end of the show and it's really starting.'

"And I have 84 minutes, which sounds like a lot of time, but it isn't."

Mr. Conrad finished the final credits with 15 minutes to spare: "It makes me nervous just thinking about it 10, 12 years later."

A Sebak documentary isn't built to make anyone nervous. Rather, it's meant to entertain, perhaps to explore. He takes his filmmaking -- but not apparently himself -- seriously. A peek inside his so-called office, which resembles a long, wide closet filled with a riot of books, boxes, keepsakes and one computer monitor on a desk, reveals decades of research for various shows.

Up on a high corner is a shelf holding papers, a model home and four regional Emmy awards, stuffed almost out of sight.

Like the white card on the wall, it's a hodgepodge. But it's Mr. Sebak's hodgepodge, so that's fine.

His films are even the subject of an academic dissertation. Indiana native Bryan James McGeary, a Bowling Green University major in American culture studies, watched so many of the Pittsburgh History Series films growing up, he decided to analyze their impact.

"Houses, Hot Dogs and 'Hoods: Place Branding and the Reconstruction of Identity in Rick Sebak's Documentaries" was part of his recent work toward a doctorate in philosophy.

"He makes it easier for people to connect; there is sort of that sense of authority in his films that doesn't come from experts," Mr. McGeary said, "just from the repetition of ideas from the regular people he interviews."

After so many years of upbeat filmmaking, Mr. Sebak said he has given thought to trying something more "serious." But not for long.

"I just think what we do is so unusual on television, whereas the other type is done by everybody else. I think I enjoy the celebration part of my shows enough that it sustains me. To do a muck-raking thing?"

He shook his head.

His longtime editor said that's just not Mr. Sebak's nature. "People I meet, they say 'What do you do?' I tell them I edit long-form documentary shows," Mr. Conrad said. "But then I tell them I work with Rick Sebak and they say 'Oh I love those shows. My kids know every word of 'Kennywood Memories.' "

"And I say, 'I know. So do I.' "

Originally posted on Post-Gazette.com December 9, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Great article!

    I am really a very big fan of Rick Sebak, his works are always very entertaining.