“...like Michael Moore, only not mean.”
July 1, 2014 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Rick Sebak, Pittsburgh’s resident documentarian and the inventor of the scrapbook documentary, has a brand new documentary out: A History of Pittsburgh in 17 Objects. Don’t know about the quirky joys of Rick Sebak, or of Pittsburgh? This is your lucky day.

Since 1988, Rick has been creating documentaries chronicling, poking gentle fun at, celebrating, and introducing new generations to aspects of Pittsburgh large and small, from its rivers to its amusement parks and the amazing 80s hairdos he captured forever there, some of his personal favorite things about the city ranging from Andy Warhol to our abundant retaining walls, from Stuff That’s Gone to Things That Are Still Here.

Sometimes Rick goes on the road to explore other parts of America, documenting the Lincoln Highway, some of the country’s best sandwiches, its flea markets, and its ice cream parlors. Most of the above links are just clips to whet your appetite, but the Kennywood and ice cream documentaries are full shows. Some of the documentaries play nationally on your local PBS station, but you can also buy many of them from WQED.

Rick is such a beloved Pittsburgh figure that Pittsburgh app Yinztagram allows you to insert Rick into your own photographs, and local printing company Commonwealth Press sells a popular “Sebak is my Homeboy” t-shirt.

Rick’s currently working on a documentary about the country’s best pies. But if you want to keep up with him, and with the interesting pieces of Pittsburghiana he digs up, in the meanwhile, there are plenty of ways you can do so. Web short video series What’s Rick Sebak Been Doing? highlights Pittsburgh events like a pie contest, vintage swap meet, local theater, and neighborhood grape-stomping parties. He writes a monthly-ish column for Pittsburgh magazine telling the city’s lesser-known stories like the time Liberace was visited by an angel during a visit. And a couple of weeks ago, he gave a great hour-long interview to a local arts podcast touching on topics ranging from his trademark narrator’s chuckle (the “giggle transition”) and how hard it is to find vintage pictures of duck pin bowling, to demographic changes in Pittsburgh and its early history as an organ transplantation center, to digital editing and the local invention of the skinless weiner.
posted by Stacey (30 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
I was gifted Pittsburgh A to Z upon moving to the city, and I'm delighted by the density of odd, quirky history within the 'Burgh. I'll be sure to watch all of these!
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:41 PM on July 1, 2014

My hometown!! I never get tired of seeing things about Pittsburgh, but this is stellar. Thank you for this post.
posted by leesh at 4:45 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're very welcome. I wanted to post something happymaking about our city and then I realized nobody loves our city like Rick Sebak loves our city, so it seemed like the thing to post.
posted by Stacey at 4:48 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love Sandwiches You Will Like. I think it might be my favorite film. It's quoted on a weekly basis in our household, and it's the kind of movie that you can recommend to anybody.
posted by one_bean at 5:07 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Awesome post. Sebak is a treasure and a huge asset to the city. Somehow though, I seem to be the only person the city who's never met him. Everyone I know, including my wife, seems to have run into him and quite few friends have even been featured in his programs. My neighbor's daughter who is now in her late twenties and living in England is forever immortalized as a little girl singing christmas carols in the holiday special.

This segment in the North Side is probably my favorite as it captures both the attitude of the locals and the amazing terrain.
posted by octothorpe at 5:14 PM on July 1, 2014

A prized possession.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:27 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a great post. I don't have any connection to Pittsburgh, but Rick is a national treasure. A Program About Unusual Buildings and Other Roadside Stuff is one of my favorite things ever.
posted by kyleg at 5:39 PM on July 1, 2014

This one about about the Natrona Bottling Company is a favorite for the accents.
posted by octothorpe at 5:42 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

If there was a "Best Local Celebrity to Have a Beer With", that dude wins in spades. While many people moved out of Pittsburgh and took love of the Steelers with them, I moved and took a small collection of Sebak videos. Thanks, man!
posted by talldean at 5:47 PM on July 1, 2014

Oh, how wonderful! I once tried to figure out if "those sweet PBS shows about sandwiches and quirky landmarks" were part of a series but I couldn't remember any of the keywords, only the good mood I was in after watching them. So I'm thrilled that there's more of his work to enjoy.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:48 PM on July 1, 2014

My favorite part about the flea market one is when Frank DeCaro shows up. Randomly, like it's no big thing. Just shopping for giant vases.

TallDean, he's known to hang out on the SouthSide on Thursday nights at Piper's. I believe the hashtag they use is #asistradition. Some of the folks he met there turned up in the most recent show, talking about beer bottles.

We went to a Kennywood on Friday & then came home & watched the Kennywood Memories. The best way to lose a day is to fall into a Sebak marathon.
posted by librarianamy at 5:51 PM on July 1, 2014

As a (somewhat) recent transplant to Pittsburgh, I can't wait to dive into this!
posted by tryniti at 5:53 PM on July 1, 2014

When I got an antenna, I found out that one of WQED's subchannels, 13.3, plays nothing but Rick Sebak documentaries.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:57 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a fourth-generation Pittsburgh native, now displaced due to the departure of Big Steel, I most heartily approve this post. In fact, I give it three inclines and a gumband.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:58 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

My brush with the great man: I was a bamboozled intern at WQED who'd been asked to review some archival footage for a health care documentary. Sebak saw me fretting and showed me how to operate a Moviola.
posted by bendybendy at 7:03 PM on July 1, 2014

Love this guy so much. He and his documentaries really encapsulate all that is special about this city.
posted by chinston at 7:03 PM on July 1, 2014

I have to confess I've lived here since 1997 and I've still never been to Kennywood, only seen Rick's documentary. I kind of never want to go there, because as long as I don't go there, it can exist in my head as a perfect bubble of 1988 frozen in time exactly that way.
posted by Stacey at 7:03 PM on July 1, 2014

Yay! More things to watch on Chromecast!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:07 PM on July 1, 2014

Our local PBS station has played some of these programs, so I've seen the ones about sandwiches, ice cream, and flea markets, plus one about hot dog stands that I'm pretty sure also was by Sebak.

He definitely has a recognizable style, and while the films are not necessarily exhaustive/definitive studies of their subjects, they're fun to watch. The ones about food also have the side effect of making me hungry.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 7:08 PM on July 1, 2014

Stacey: "I have to confess I've lived here since 1997 and I've still never been to Kennywood, only seen Rick's documentary. I kind of never want to go there, because as long as I don't go there, it can exist in my head as a perfect bubble of 1988 frozen in time exactly that way."

It's not really all that different now, believe me.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:12 PM on July 1, 2014

For more of Kennywood, don't forget its star turn in the movie Adventureland.
posted by chinston at 7:20 PM on July 1, 2014

Otherwise: bleh!

Are you DISSING the classic wooden roller coasters???
posted by leesh at 7:54 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for this! I was born in the 'Burgh and my family all hails from the area. I was raised elsewhere and live in Tx now but consider it my home.
posted by hockeyfan at 9:32 PM on July 1, 2014

Kennywood has a roller coaster that drops into a ravine just feet after leaving the boarding station, and another with a racing track layout of a type that exists in only one other place (Blackpool, England). Plus a third with a fantastic double-down dip! I've been to a lot of parks, and if you love great old wooden coasters, Kennywood really cannot be beat. Yes, Kennywood has the nostalgia thing, but those coasters really put it in another class.

Pittsburgh is a town like no other and Sebak has done a great job of capturing it.
posted by kinnakeet at 3:38 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite post. Rick Sebak is a goddamned treasure. Also, he showed Andrew Zimmern around the Strip District, which is just a whole pile of amazingness. I could go on and on because I love Sebak and I loooooove Pittsburgh.
posted by specialagentwebb at 5:22 AM on July 2, 2014

Kennywood is clearly not one of the country's major parks with 75 coasters. If you want that, Cedar Point isn't too far away up in Sandusky.

What Kennywood does have is numerous rides that have almost entirely disappeared and can be found almost nowhere else. The Racer, the Kangaroo, the Whip, the Turtle - these were once common; now, if you want to see them, you have to come to Kennywood. I like that.

I also find it's just the right size - the kids ride almost everything, and just as they run out of steam it's time to go home.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:39 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Things That Aren't There Anymore is one of my favorites. The first thing that isn't there anymore is the first place I saw a drive-in movie (whatever star trek was out in 84 or 85). I only got to go there once because I was three when it closed, but I'm still jacked that it turned into a Rax, then something else, then an Arby's.

Sebak came to my middle school while we were doing a project on Ellis Island and explained who immigrated to Pittsburgh and how. It was fantastic because he was from TV. His voice is so captivating. He's like a big, knowledgeable cherub. And you can definitely see the influence of growing up in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
posted by GrapeApiary at 5:48 AM on July 2, 2014

I live in Buffalo and anticipate visiting Pittsburgh sometime this summer. This seems like the perfect way to familiarize myself with the city before my trip. Thanks for posting!
posted by hell toupee at 11:22 AM on July 2, 2014

Keep in mind, hell toupee, that Sebak has been doing these for years. Pittsburgh has changed quite a bit since 1988.

But you certainly can't go wrong asking people to reminisce about the Jenkins Arcade.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:33 AM on July 2, 2014

I've actually never seen any of his shows, but after ten years in town the knowledge of them, and of him, just kinda seeps in. Kinda like Mr Rogers.

I did not mention this when I met Rick Sebak at #asistradition at Piper's, nor when PGH Taco Truck dropped by the WQED studios (a couple blocks from my office) a few weeks later...

PGH Taco Truck occasionally comes out with a special called the Sea-back, featuring sea scallops sauteed in rendered fatback.

My favourite tangential Rick Sebak connection: The Yinztagram picture is clipped from a photo of the great man with the mothers of two friends of mine.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 9:21 PM on July 5, 2014

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