Saturday, June 13, 2009

Pittsburgh:The Comeback City, Once Again, The City Of Champions.

When we started My Tale of Two Cities: A Comeback Story, Pittsburgh was financially distressed, the Steelers were losing, rumors were thinking of leaving, and the city's days of most livable were long behind her. Well, congratulations world champion Penguins! And in case you didn't notice, the economist just elected Pittsburgh America's Most Livable City.

Pittsburgh named Number 1 City in US by The Economist

It is amazing on how a ping pong ball can change everything. For that is how Sidney Crosby came to Pittsburgh in a draft, and have the once bankrupt Penguins new hope. But the Penguins won like Pittsburgh so often seems to win-- not just by one man, but by everyone pulling together-- so often a group of hardworking, unpretentious underdogs who others have written off-- a group of "lovable losers" as one of my Hollywood's friends, who find a way to win. (The fact that Sidney Crosby lives to this day in Mario Lemieux's guest house is... well, only in Pittsburgh.)

That's why Pittsburgh so often is talked about not just as a city, but as a character-- as a punch line-- see the remarks after the G-20 summit was announced-- that to those who know it-- see David McCullough who gave a lecture "Pittsburgh As A Lens To View All of US History" and also went to my high school, Shady Side Academy-- to those who know it-- Pittsburgh represents the best of America. And these days, perhaps its most inspirational model of hope.

For as we joked on The Pittsburgh Comeback Tour when we showed the movie on the road in NYC and D.C., it may have taken
bankrupting the rest of the country to make Pittsburgh look good to some people, but it is seeming a place of opportunity these days-- where there are jobs-- see and the real estate market is up.

It's not like Pittsburgh doesn't have a lot of work to do. But that's what Pittsburgh is best at.

I think the hardest thing these days though is going to be a new moniker-- for Pittsburgh, no longer the Steel City, still looks best when seen as an underdog-- with unexpected beauty, with people who are so unhip, they are hip (Rick Sebak once said), and with a tenacity and work ethic, that... well, these folks hung on even as their major industry left-- (acknowledging that half did have to leave-- see Steeler Nation), and on the field (or ice) and off, have increasingly found a way to win-- even when everyone else has written them off.

So we would modestly propose Pittsburgh: The Comeback City."

Of course, as one young woman wrote us after seeing My Tale of Two Cities, the comeback isn't complete until we have a lot of those folks who left come on back to the city. And of course, young people coming and staying because Pittsburgh is where the opportunity is.

We may not be there yet, but basically, as I said to someone at the Hooters in Hollywood across from Grauman's Chinese Theater where I snuck in to watch the Penguins game (its a Steelers bar, okay), you just couldn't write a story like this.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stanley Cup: A Tale of Two Cities

That's not my title, but from this article:

Stanley Cup: A Tale of Two Cities.

Not to be confused with CNN's Randy Kaye's piece: "Can Pittsburgh Save Detroit?"

Someone accused me of trying to prolong the metaphor of "My Tale of Two Cities" by invoking the G-20 Summit and the Penguins game. It is true that the movie ends with Pittsburgh's comeback story in some ways just unfolding. But it doesn't seem like it is quite there yet.

I was quite touched by someone who recently saw the movie and emailed me that she was living in Baltimore, but was longing to return to Pittsburgh-- asking wouldn't that be the happy ending we are looking for. And the answer is yes. (See her full email at on the word of mouth page.

The reason the Steelers' Nation metaphor is so powerful is that it represents all those who were forced to leave their hometown after the steel industry collapsed. That is who is waving all those terrible towels-- and a sizable part of those rooting for the Penguins.

My friend Bernie Goldmann (also in "MTOTC") said it best awhile ago-- Pittsburgh is an underdog story-- a bunch of people who you would not necessarily characterize as "winners" on first sight, but who all pull together, and somehow find a way to win. That's true for sports team, and often for the city itself. (See last post about the polio vaccine)

But it is Franco Harris who says it best in MTOTC-- that it is great that people go out and get a chance to explore, but what we need is for them to come back. So talent, people, come on back to Pittsburgh.

I think many people are coming back as we heard on our Pittsburgh Comeback Tour with the movie this Spring. But what they are asking is if they do come back, what kind of opportunities await them? And that's where those in Pittsburgh need to make sure that those opportunities are there.

More on that later. But for now-- Go Pens!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How A City Changes-- the unlikely connection between the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit and the Salk polio vaccine

Last Friday, I attended a remarkable event-- a hearing on the Pennsylvania Film Tax credit held at a room at the David Lawrence Convention Center. When I say attended, that is not entirely accurate-- as it was hard to get into the room which was more than standing room only with people flowing out of the doors of the hearing room. Standing in the back, I could hear testimony of various people whose lives had been changed by the Film Tax Credit.

It is one thing to read that an Economic Research Associates report released by the Pennsylvania Senate Budget and Finance Committee that the tax credit has had an economic impact statewide of $524.6 million dollars for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania while being responsible for creating and supporting over 3,950 new jobs here in Pennsylvania which generated $146.4 million in wages alone from these created and supported jobs. But it is another to see the faces of many who now have work and hope because of this legislation. Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer arranged for the committee to hear testimony from film professionals who had worked continually on the productions which have flowed into the area since the legislation was passed in 2007 (including Adventureland, Zak and Miri Make a Porno, The Road) , the vendors who had trucks and furniture rented by film productions, and young people who had stayed in the area because they could now pursue their dreams right here in Western Pennsylvania. It was so refreshing to hear positive stories of people employed in the region, instead of tales of missed opportunities that got away.

It was that last part about "young people" that hit me hardest personally, having watched so many talented young people who had worked on My Tale of Two Cities and who I have taught at the University of Pittsburgh, leave the region not because they wanted to, but because their was not the work to sustain them. Hearing that testimony made Western Pennsylvania seem like it was truly on the brink of creating an industry which might keep young people in town, retain and attract talent, and ultimately help change Pittsburgh's image around the world via the product which is coming out of here-- such as the pilot of Three Rivers about transplants as seen from three different perspectives which will air on CBS this Fall.

I had seen the real-life transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl, who we filmed for My Tale of Two Cities just the day before at a reception for Pitt professor and bioterrorism expert D.A. Henderson who had a new book out about how he had eradicated smallpox from the planet. In a part of "My Tale of Two Cities", I hated to cut out, Dr. Starzl had told me how he had the choice between Pittsburgh and L.A. and that when he choose to come to Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, his friends from L.A. thought he was "depressed." But Dr. Starzl saw resources in Pittsburgh which he needed to get the job done and realized that in L.A., he would have spent much of his time in traffic. Of course, Dr. Starzl coming to Pittsburgh would soon establish this city as "The Transplant Capital of the World."

What does this have to do with the film tax credit, you may ask? And how does the Salk polio vaccine fit into all this. You have to go back to post-world war II era to fully appreciate this. That was a time when R.K. Mellon and David Lawrence got together, and realizing that Pittsburgh would not be in steel forever, decided to transform a city which many had written off as dying, by cleaning the place up and investing in a new, until then dormant sector of health care. By way of example, according to Richard Carter's "Breakthrough: The Sage of Jonas Salk," one year prior to this inititiative, the total grants to the Unversity of Pittsburgh medical school was $1800 for a study on high blood pressure. But, according to Jane Smith's "Patenting the Sun", in ten years after WWII, R.K. Mellon and the Pittsburgh philanthropic community invested $26 million dollars in "medical-related programs" trying to grow what was back then a modest University of Pittsburgh medical school. That would be serious money even today, but think of what in today's dollars, that level of investment would mean in a dormant industry. (By contrast, according to the ERA, report, the $75 million in film tax credit actually results in a 4.5 million dollar gain to the commonwealth in terms of revenues making it hardly a risk at all.)

That investment in the health care sector after World War II attracted talent like Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose baby books would inform generations of parents, and a young 33 year Dr. Jonas Salk, who in seven years in Pittsburgh would conquer polio, to the region. And those successes would breed more investment, bringing in people like Dr. Starzl and ultimately turning Pittsburgh into a medical powerhouse which metaphorically and now physically with UPMC occupying the US Steel building has given the region a thriving industry which has created countless jobs and in many ways, given Pittsburgh itself new life.

What UPMC has succeeded in doing is organizing what was previously a disorganized region, attracted and retained talent, invested in research and development, and exported its end product around the world. The model has worked wonderfully, and started with that initial vision of having an industry where previously they had had a hospital. More than a few have suggested we repeat that model in other areas.

But sectors do not just happen. People have to go out and make them happen. That is what city leaders in Pittsburgh did after World War II and that is what many people in Southwestern Pennsylvania have been trying to make happen with the entertainment and the technology sectors. (They are increasingly overlapping as anyone who has looked at Google, YouTube, and Facebook will tell you.) I'm on the advisory board of CMU's Project Olympus which was formed out of the sad realization that 95 percent of computer scientists from CMU have previously left town. Now, thanks to this initiative, more are staying and one of them may possibly produce the next Google or the next Facebook-- both created by young people. Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center is creating spin-off companies which may create the new video games of tomorrow.

The Film Tax Credit is creating jobs and opportunities which give aspiring filmmakers the chance to see how the film and television industry really work. One of them may turn out to be the next Fred Rogers, Gene Kelly, August Wilson, or George Romero. By it is not just artistic achievement at stake here. Today, the entertainment industry is larger than the automobile and the steel industry's combined.

Carnegie and Mellon saw in Pittsburgh's rolling hills that this region had the resources to create an industrial power that fueled a century and created more wealth per capita than the modern world has seen. (Realize that Carnegie was richer than Bill Gates in today's dollars; Mellon was richer than Warren Buffet; and then in the same city, you had Heinz, Westinghouse, and Frick.) I would argue this region has similar resources to become a powerhouse in producing entertainment content which, like steel, would go around the world.

But that wealth of past generations was not created without risk and so risks-- smart, calculated risks-- must be taken to make this happen to. The Film Tax Credit is the first step in creating an industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania which could fuel the next few decades. But don't take it from me. One last story.

While singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" across from the Beverly Hills Hotel with over 200 Pittsburghers for the finale of My Tale of Two Cities, I met a man who was a scholarship kid at Pitt who has gone on to be a Hollywood powerhouse who has helped been a part of creating regional production centers in Italy, Canada, and New Mexico, Lionsgate Producer and executive John Dellaverson came back to Pittsburgh in April 2007 to speak to my students at Pitt. But on that trip, he, M. Night Shamalyn, and another Lionsgate executive met with Governor Rendell and state legislators. John told them about Lionsgate's experience of going to New Mexico where five years previously there had been 5 million a year in annual production and how five years later, there was 500 million dollars in production. By July, new film tax legislation had passed. But John, who has watched places like Canada build a real self-sustaining industry, said that the film tax credit was only the beginning. On his visit home (his mother Ann still lives in New Castle), John saw his alma mater Pitt, CMU, WQED, Filmmakers, and this city which had so much more to offer than when he grew up here, and saw opportunity. John started off as a labor lawyer so he knows the power of jobs and longs to see jobs in places like New Castle and other towns like it across Pennsylvania. But he knows to get there, takes having a strategic approach to an industry which starts with a film tax credit.

(See the piece we did with John for WQED when he went home to New Castle, but also talked about why he sees opportunity for the film business in Western PA:

I realize how crazy this idea of Pittsburgh having a thriving entertainment industry may seem. It is a vision which has haunted me for many years. But who would have thought a steel town would have been the one to have conquered the most feared disease of last century, polio, or to have become the "transplant capitol of the world." Frankly, to me, it all sounds like a movie.

(And in case you are wondering, we are working on a film of how Pittsburgh conquered polio which we hope to have completed this summer.)

Visit for more information on the Pittsburgh Film Office, for more information on developing an entertainment industry in Pittsburgh and for clips from that movie.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Fred Rogers' Memorial Scholarship Awards in LA

Just attended the Fred Rogers' Memorial Scholarship Awards out here in Los Angeles at the Academy of Motion Pictures ARts and Sciences Theater in North Hollywood. It was hosted by our real-life neighbor out here, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob who had some really great jokes in the beginning about everyone from Mr. McFeely (and his gig of playing an old man when you are young so your whole life people say how good you look) to things which SpongeBob SquarePants and Mister Rogers have in common ("they both are square, but absolutely the coolest guys in the room.)

It was great to see the young scholars get their awards from Ernst and Young-- rewarding the "good" is so important. And Josh Selig who created one of my daughter's favorite show Oobi growing up (and does Wonder Pets)-- he was exactly the guy who you wanted to be honored-- talking about serving the kids in a day when so much is driven by the advertisers.

So saw good folks from Pittsburgh who are out here also like Rusty Cundieff who directed the Chapelle Show and one of my former students, Nathan Cornett, who is doing very well out here as an editor. Nathan did great work as an associate producer/assistant camera/assistant editor on "My Tale of Two Cities" and you can see him in a cameo after the Teresa Heinz Kerry cheese shopping scene asking me whether I bought her the cheese I said I would buy her. He is one of the great young people I think Pittsburgh should bet on. And the same with Rusty. He could film a pilot back in Pittsburgh for a fraction of what it would cost out here.

"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is a great example of what impact developing successful "content" can have on Pittsburgh and the world. But people have to remember that first Fred went to New York to learn his skill sets as a stage manager and then decided that TV should be used more for people just throwing pies at each other (that was what Soupy Sales did, I believe.)

But the only way that will happen, I think, is if Pittsburgh either gets lucky or if it actually says to the world, "come here and make all your good stuff here-- and we'll help." You can do it, Pittsburgh. I know that because so many people have been urging Pittsburgh on in this area-- including countless Steeltown advisers ( who see opportunity there just as there was opportunity there in the late 1800s when the region had all the resources to make steel. It would be great to bring people like one of the winners, Thy, who made this interesting animation with sand to Pittsburgh and have her meet some of the talent animators who are beginning to stay in Pittsburgh. (Just look at UP and its box office to see what the potential upside is to an animation industry-- but you have to bet 100 million on one of those movies to reap the literally billio dollars a movie like ICE AGE-- made in White Plains, New York-- might make.)

It still may seem a bit delusional, but you look at the legacy of some of Pittsburgh's entertainment pioneers, Fred Rogers, and George Romero-- not to mention those nurtured there who left-- Gene Kelly, Andy Warhol, August Wilson-- and at least I say-- what other city has that legacy. And more importantly, how are you going to build on it.

As we say in My Tale of Two Cities, in some way, LA is a city Pittsburgh was a hundred years ago-- a one industry town which takes risks and where immigrants of all sorts come with their dreams. Perhaps Pittsburgh could become that once again. Perhaps with what is happening lately, it is slowly becoming that. What a great legacy it would be for Fred Rogers if Pittsburgh were the place where people brought their projects which "made good attractive", as Fred thought TV could and should do.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why we moved to Pittsburgh- the real-life Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

When people ask why we love living in Pittsburgh-- and as you will see- it is not a simple adoration, but as often a love/hate thing-- the reason is simple: The people. I'm told that Josie Carey, the woman who hosted the show where Fred Rogers first appeared called "The Children's Corner" used to end all her shows by saying "This is Pittsburgh. We live here and we like it."

Where we live in Pittsburgh--- in the city's East End-- is the real-life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred lived there most of his last 40 years while making his show and a lot of the neighbors you see on the show actually are from around the corner.

You won't believe this story, but I'll tell it anyway. (Or maybe it's me who can't believe it.) Before we left L.A., we went to Campbell's pediatrician, Dr. Aviva Biederman, and she recommended that if we were leaving, we should get one book which she felt was good at helping children cope with a move. It was probably out of print she said, but she recommended "The Mister Rogers' Moving Book." I don't know how familair she was with Fred Rogers-- she came from another country so did not grow up with him-- and almost certainly did not know that Fred was from Pittsburgh. Frankly, I hadn't thought about it much myself-- except that his son Jamie went to my high school-- though he was a year older which seemed way older back then. I think i remember being over at Jamie's house once in the kitchen-- a house on Beechwood Boulevard. And I think I may have seen Fred at a restaurant called "Stoufer's" once. But that was the extent of it.

So I order the "Mister Roger' Moving Book" off of Ebay. The well-worn book arrives. It has a stamp "Discard" in it from the library it belonged to in Iowa or somewhere. We read the book to Campbell which has pictures of another family moving and talking about how moving can affect us emotionally. The book seems as theurapeutic for me as it does for Campbell.

Cut to, as we say, in my old Hollywood life, us meeting Campbell's new pre-school teacher at Rodef Shalom temple-- the temple I grew up with. But Ms. Mimsie seems vaguely familiar-- yet I did not know her. Still, as she speaks, this sweet, kind woman, we can't help feel we know her. It is not till weeks later when we realize that Mimsie is the woman on the cover of the Mister Rogers' moving book and that in fact, the pictures in the book are of her and her husband (now divorced) and their young son Andy-- who in fact is that boy going to college who we met. Mimsie modestly explains that the book was done when they were moving into their new house which she still lives in.

As if that is not enough, it turns out that Dave Bartholomae, the head of the English department. He was on the show coaching soccer. I actually get to see the episode and there is Fred Rogers in his sweater talking on the phone (i didn't remember he had a phone in his place) saying how our neighbor Dave Bartholomae is going to teach us about soccer. And soon Fred is out on a field listening to Dave explain the basic rules of soccer.

And we soon learn that the pediatrician everyone recommends-- well, she was on the show. As will be so many who we meet on this journey.

But the metaphor of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will also have another poignant application. For my favorite part of the show was always when Mr. McFeely, the delivery man, would bring Mister Rogers tapes of how they made things: crayons, combs, furniture, bicycles, you name it. All of those were filmed locally around the Pittsburgh area too. But unlike many of the real life neighbors, most of those factories are gone now.

And that's why the driving question of Pittsburgh becomes what is now the driving question of America-- which by the way is just a collection of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." What can we make now, asks David Newell, the man who played McFeely for 40 years. "Cause the steel industry is not going to come back like it once was. We'd all like it to, but it's just not going to. So what industry can we replace that with?" he asks in "My Tale of Two Cities."

It is that question which has gotten me in such trouble. Because, perhaps it is a Don Quixote dream, but now that Fred Roger's studio at the world's first public television remains empty, I wonder why can't we replace it with the business I learned in L.A.-- entertainment-- which by the wya, is one of the few things that can't be totally outsources as wherever they shoot movie and TV shows, they remain American stories.

It may seem like a crazy idea, but the entertainment industry is a bigger industry in this country than the automobile industry and the steel industry combined. And Pittsburgh is the home of the first movie theater, the first commercial radio station (KDKA), the first public TV station (WQED) and little would I realize, a huge list of successful folks both in front of and behind the camera. (See the Pittsburgh list at or

In November 2002, upon realizing all this, I wrote an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which started a chain of events which I am still reeling from. It was called "Pittsburgh's Next Industrial Revolution: Entertainment"-- titled by John Alison-- in which I argued that Pittsburgh's greatest export is no longer steel, but talent-- talent which makes not millions, but billions of dollars each year for others. That set into motion this idea of trying to get Pittsburgh entertainment expatriates to try to come back and help the city.

Here's "Pittsburgh's Next Industrial Revolution: Entertainment"

So after that, we had this "Pittsburgh Entertainment Summit: the Steeltown Entertainment Project held at WQED in October 2003 where folks like Rob Marshall (director, CHICAGO), Bernie Goldman (producer, "300"), Eric Gold (manager Jim Carrey), Terri Minsky (creator, LIZZIE MAGUIRE), Peter Ackerman (writer, ICE AGE), Jamie Widdoes, (director, TWO AND A HALF MEN) and others gathered to talk about helping the city. See for some stuff and pics about that.

I guess that is the dream-- not to necessarily have everyone live in Pittsburgh, but to have Pittsburgh be a place where talented people come with the best of their projects t0 do programming which what Fred Rogers used to say would "make good attractive."

Maybe it is kind of crazy. But the real life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" neighborhood has to make something. And the truth is there has been some progress.

One of the things that made me want to start to write this blog was something that happened on Friday. I went to a hearing on the film tax credit and could hardly get into the room which was packed with people testifying as to how they have been working as part of the over 500 million dollars of related income which the next film tax credit has brought to the state has touched their lives. More on that in the next blog.

Ironically, I have to go get ready to take Campbell to the Fred Rogers' Memorial Scholarship Awards here in Los Angeles. Our real-life neighbor out here, SpongeBob (Tom Kenny who does the voice) has graciously agreed to host the proceedings. Turns out he and his wife Jill are big fans of the "Neighborhood" with a TIVO full of episodes which they show their kids.

My Tale of Two Cities: The Pittsburgh Comeback Story Continues

I've never blogged before, but it has become apparent that just because we have finished our movie about "The Pittsburgh Comeback Story"-- that the comeback story continues and though I wonder whether anyone ever reads these things, I just figured this might be as good a place as any to keep those updated-- rather than pull out a camera and film some even more misguided sequel-- as some people are joking-- I hope they are joking-- we do.  (I feel like Stallone at the end of Rocky when he is bruised and bloody and says to Apollo Creed "ain't going to be no rematch"-- although unlike his five sequels-- I mean it.) 

Now, back to THE PITTSBURGH COMEBACK STORY.    When we started the movie "My Tale of Two Cities", Pittsburgh itself had become the first major American city of the new millennium to declare itself "financially distressed" aka bankrupt and L.A. where we had come from was thriving.   Now of course, the whole state of California is 40 billion in debt, and article after article is being written about how Pittsburgh has successfully reinvented itself for a new age.   Of course, Pittsburgh is still a work-in-progress, and no one has yet to stick a "fork" in L.A. and call it done as it-- and the rest of California-- still have a great way of attracting the "dreamers" Teresa Heinz Kerry says in "My Tale of Two Cities" Pittsburgh needs to thrive.    But it does seem, as Franco Harris has said as we have been out talking about the movie, that there is a new momentum, a new energy in Pittsburgh-- and he knows something about the power of momentum and the importance of a "moment."

CAN YOU GO HOME AGAIN?   Then of course, there is the personal aspect of "My Tale of Two Cities"-- the idea of "Can you Go Home Again?" which is trickier than it may seem.   For the film in some way is an exodus story where my wife Natalie and I stand in for many Pittsburgh expatriates who left the "homeland" and longed to come home.  Only of course, Natalie is from Kansas City, and really loves L.A. and, while she has loved living in Pittsburgh when we first returned-- our life for once seemed balance-- with me having time to come  home for dinner and spend time with our daughter-- she has some serious issues with Pittsburgh that I don't think are uncommon (her issues with me would take an entire other blog.)  And while Natalie seemed to support the making of the movie in what some would say would be a crazy effort to try to help Pittsburgh, she had grown increasingly frustrated with some aspects of the city and this journey, and so for the past two years, I have been commuting back and forth between Pittsburgh and Studio City, where she and my daughter Campbell were living.   Now, we are packing up the house in L.A, and once again coming back to Pittsburgh for what Natalie has called "Pittsburgh 2.0."   And frankly, I have no idea what to expect. 

Pittsburgh 1.0  A brief bit of background for those who care on Pittsburgh 1.0.   When we first move back to Pittsburgh in the Fall of 2001, for what I thought would be a one year Hollywood sabbatical in , we had no idea it would lead to a guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show (as part of a program about people who had changed their lives as our story was in Po Bronson's "What Should I Do With My Life?") , much  less turn into this movie, "My Tale of Two Cities", much less this movement to help create a thriving entertainment industry in Pittsburgh which is the mission of the non-profit, Steeltown Entertainment Project (   

The truth is we were living above the Sunset Strip in a house which I loved, I was the showrunner (the head writer/boss in TV parlance) of the fifth or sixth spin-off of 'Saved By The Bell' ( a cross between "Saved By The Bell" and "Baywatch" which may have in the end just have been too unholy), and I was hardly getting home in time to see my then infant/toddler daughter Campbell, and despite having a staff of a car guy, a hot tub guy, a gardener, a maid, a nanny (who looked like Britney Spears), it seemed like we were not happy.  I had somehow gone off course from my dreams-- having first come out to Hollywood by the freak accident of having written a short story in college about a (Pittsburgh) girl who I had met while working as a bellhop at the St. Elmo Hotel in Chautauqua, New York, which had led to a freak scholarship to Hollywood from Duke where I was pre-med, pre-law, and prCheck Spellinge-just about everything else.   That short story,St. Elmo's Fire  became a movie-- as some of you may know-- and then well, after that there were many development deals and over seven years working at NBC on shows from the Saved By The Bell, but basically by the year 2000, I was feeling a bit like Holden Caufield's older brother who had written one good short story and then sold out and drove around the Hollywood Hills in his Jaguar (okay, I had a BMW convertible.)   

Reverse Pioneers.  As I mention in My Tale of Two Cities, my then not quite yet two year old daughter Campbell had taken to dancing naked on coffee tables, which as my wife had pointed out that if we remained living about the Sunset Strip, might become a profession.  So when I got this out of the blue job offer to teach screenwriting for a year at the University of Pittsburgh, I jumped at the chance.   Well, not exactly jumped.   I was actually shocked that Natalie wanted to sell out house-- which we both loved-- and do this.  But she pointed out that Campbell was young enough that we could do this, and that I did not seem happy-- and she-- well, she is always hard to figure-- and so, somehow, we put our furniture in storage, and so, like what I like to call "Reverse Pioneers", we strapped a u-haul to our Land Rover and drove backwards across the prairie to that town where the Three Rivers meet.  

And that was when the funniest, most unexpected thing happened.   We discovered we loved living in Pittsburgh.   We at first rented a house in Squirrel Hill, just around the corner from where I had first lived when my mother married my step-father Richard Wechsler-- a rather short lived affair, but one in which my brother Tom and I had become like The Brady Bunch with Richard's kids for the two years where the marriage lasted.   Anyway, if all this is sounding like I didn't have the most ideal childhood in Pittsburgh-- well, that is true-- I had never really thought I longed to go back there.   I would come back and order Mineo's Pizza and visit my old high school Shady Side Academy, but I had no plan on returning.

But here we were-- just around the corner from the playground where I used to get my face white-washed as a kid-- this was before the scholarship to Shady Side-- where, as I like to joke-- I was beaten up by richer kids.  But now here I was taking my daughter every day to the playground-- at this point, I could handle the bullies-- or at least afford lawyers to sue them if they tried anything.  And quite frankly, we loved it.  

There was this storefront right next to the house we had rented which had these puppets from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in the window-- the company must have been doing some work on the website or something-- and it turns out we were living literally in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" just between the house where Fred had raised his own family and where he had taped his TV show for over thirty years.    And of course, Campbell just loved talking to the puppets every day as we walked around the block kicking leaves.  After over two decades in L.A., I had forgotten they even made Fall leaves.   And I would take Campbell to fly a kite at Flagstaff hill, to Kennywood-- the great amusement park of Pittsburgh-- to the Carnegie History Museum where they still had those great stuffed birds-- real stuffed birds-- like a stuffed Penguin and even a stuff Dodo bird-- stuff that Californians would have freaked out about.   Basically, I was getting to give Campbell the childhood I never had.  

And then of course, came the time a couple weeks into our journey-- my first department meeting in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh-- when the chairman, Dave Bartholomae's secretary came in and informed us two planes had hit the World Trade Center.   It made no sense.  No one had a TV and some odd jokes were made as no one suspected anything that major.  But by the time we started out of the meeting, you could feel something was going on as they were evacuating the building-- which just happened to the tallest building in Pittsburgh, the Cathedral of Learning--  the tallest education building in the US-- which Pittsburghers had made that way to show surrounding area factory workers how important education was-.   But we were used to being in L.A. and being a "target" and when Natalie heard that there was a plane done in the Pittsburgh area-- I got a call that she was coming to pick me up...  

We were already re-thinking our lives before 911, but when something like that happens, well...I ended up taking Campbell up to New York for the Macy's day parade that year, and we got a sense-- perhaps delusionally-- that perhaps life should have more purpose.   

Greetings from Mister Rogers Neighborhood.  I ended up writing a Christmas/Hanukkah letter that year which we mailed back to all our L.A. friends with a change of address which kind of began "You moved to Pittsburgh?" and in which I wrote about what it was like to be living back in what was the real life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" where everyone said "hi" to you, and were no one had a development deal or spent their days writing in coffeeshops waiting for their agent to call, and where people actually seemed to care about who you were more than what you did... and well, anyway, I got an overwhelming response-- better than any script I had written.  In fact, my agent's wife Carolyn-- who had worked in TV-- had said that she was really moved by it and it might make a good book or movie.  I should have known I was on to something.... because after I had written the first draft early one morning, Natalie had read it and turned to Campbell and matter of factly said "this is why we love your Daddy."   Frankly, it was one of the nicest moments I have ever had with  Natalie.  Maybe things were different.

And than of course, as this is becoming more a novel than I intended, to fast forward a bit, we were enjoying it so much in Pittsburgh that Natalie bought a house while I wasn't looking.  Well, I was busy teaching.  And then there was the moment in December of 2002 when I am on Walnut Street, having just taken Campbell to the place where I used to get pizza as a kid and she has lost the rubber mouse I had bought her at the Variety Shop-- where I used to get toys as a kid-- and she is crying and the snow is gently falling-- and we are looking for the mouse on the ground where she may have dropped it.  And my cell phone rings-- and I know for moment-- my L.A. instincts-- tell me that I should pick up.  But instead, I let the phone ring.  And we find the mouse.  And I put Campbell in her car seat.   And she stops crying.  And I check the cell phone.  And it is a woman named Dana who says she is a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show and she has read about our move back to Pittsburgh and she would like to talk with me as they are doing a story on people who change their lives.   And in that moment, my life is changed.   

You of course can see the irony.  There are people every day all day who sit around L.A. fantasizing about that call.  But here I have moved to Pittsburgh....  Yeah, even I cannot process it.

Being on Oprah.  The process of ending up on Oprah is its own chapter.  Do they have chapters in blogs?  But basically, we are ice skating one Saturday night with various mascots of Pittsburgh-- the Frog from Froggy 98, the Eat N Park Smiley Cookie, the Pirates Parrot-- when I get a call from a producer from Oprah named Rachel that she would like to come see me tomorrow at 8 a.m.  I say we usually like to sleep in a bit.   Could we make it a bit later... She politely but firmly tells me that she has to fly out that day by 5 p.m. and she will be there at 8 a.m.

So 8 a.m. a knock on the door and there is Rachel-- just a few years older than my students-- accompanied by a camera guy and sound guy she has picked up locally.  She scouts our house quickly, letting the camera crew set up as she asks me what a typical day for us is like while looking over our pictures.  She asks if she can borrow the pictures, promising to return them.  And she then starts ripping them out of the picture frames-- well, not actually ripping-- but she wants them all.   She quickly decides we will film us playing--- I have been teaching Campbell magic tricks-- some things with changing color scarves and a coloring book whch loses its pictures and Rachel likes that.   She wants to film us sledding together-- something we never did in L.A.   And the shot of me on the porch of our house-- looking pensive-- like a writer.  It is harder than it seems-- is that really how I spend my day?   There is a bit of panic over the sitdown interview, filmed in front of our fireplace as my balding head apparently is blinding the camera.  She runs to a CVS and gets some form of make-up to spare the American people that. 

And as she talks to me about my journey back, I feel a swelling in my throat-- and without Oprah even being there-- I feel, well, tears well up, as I say "I'm happy.  I can't believe happiness came and found me... in Pittsburgh."  

Rachel wants to film me teaching a class.  I point out, it is Sunday.  Rachel wants to film us teaching  a class.  It is Oprah and so, I send out an email and we are soon in a classroom at the Catherdal of Learning filled with eager students.   Well, we can't quite find a full classroom of students so apparently some of my students have recruited a homeless guy or two.   As I pontificate to the fake class, it feels like I really am a professor.  That for the first time in my life I have something to teach.   Rachel says they have it.  She and the camera crew disperse.  It all can be a vague dream.

But then we get a call that we are to be flown to Chicago for Thursday's show.  Dana. April.  Rachel.  They are  all like Good Witches of the Mid-West, taking us for a brief time out of our normal lives and suddenly we are in Chicago.  In a limosine-- Natalie, Campbell and me.  The limo driver informs us that this is the same limo they use for the Jerry Springer Show.   I ask if the guests are a bit different.  He says the Springer guests are more rowdy-- at least on the way there.  Quieter on the way back.  I guess a bit hungover from realizing what they have done.

I am nervous-- a bit petrified about being on the show.   In fourth grade, I had to be an angel in the school play-- and my mother commented on why my hands were cupped like I was waiting for a glass of water-- and that was enough to forever through off any budding thespian career--d despite the fact that she herself was an actress.  

Oprah: "In Pittsburgh, even?"  Anyway, as we enter the building pretty early on Thursday, there she is... Oprah herself in sweats and some mink fur looking thing-- looking quite focussed-- like you would want Oprah to look.  They take Natalie and I into a room where, like the Wizard of Oz-- we are to be "beautified."  I remember them spending a lot of time straightening Natalie's hair for the show.  And me, well, I had left the Sippy Cup lid loose and managed to spill all over my khakis.   Suddenly I have to remove my pants and instead of working on my hair, they are blow drying my pants.

Po Bronson sits for the first segment on the couch with Oprah.  The audience screams and Oprah screams back "What Should I Do With My Life?"  It is a question we have all asked ourselves..."  Oh, she is good.  I 'm excited to hear.   And then I remember I am one of the guests.  The first guy, Warren, is an attorney who gave up his practice to become a baker opening a store Cake Love.  Oprah loves him and loves the cake.   "Cake Love" she shouts and suddenly everyone in the audience is getting cake.   The next guest is an orthopedic surgeon turned shoe designer, Taryn Rose.   She makes fashion shoes which are good for your feet.  She ends up giving out mink slippers to the entire audience.  The crowd goes ballastic.   And next up, Oprah announces, will be a screenwriter who gave up Hollywood to move back to Pittsburgh.   Silence.  At least I feel silence. 

Well, be right back.   So far, Oprah and I really haven't made eye contact.  All the guests besides Po are sitting in the front seats.  And I am wondering what will happen when we come back.  Oprah looks at me. My heart thumps.  She mouths "are you ready?"  Then: "Carl Kurlander was on the right path when he set out to become a writer, but he was in the wrong place, writing in the wrong voice... Watch this.  Carl's story..."

And then, sitting next to my straight-haired wife, in 3 minutes, or less, I see a taped piece of Campbell and I doing magic, the three of us sledding down a hill laughing, and myself in front of the fire crying about finding happiness...."   The taped piece ends, and I am numb and Oprah is shaking her head and says, I swear, "In Pittsburgh, even?"  

She guides me through this like, well, like only Oprah can.  She talks about the key being to live an authentic life.   "So you didn't feel authentic?"  "In Hollywood? I don't know how that happened." I joke.  And Oprah laughs. I confess to having had dreams of writing short stories about "my generation", but in the end, selling out and spending my time worrying about what can of car I was driving and eating at expensive fancy restaurants.... "You wouldn't know what that is like, Oprah?" I joke.  A beat-- I worry I just made a fat joke to Oprah.  She laughs.  The audience laughs.   She turns to Natalie-- "And Natalie, you are Carl's wife?" How has he changed?   Natalie says how I used to do things for the approval of others, but now I do things more for myself.   Who is this wonderfully supportive woman with straight hair?  As my brother Tom will later say, it is a brilliant acting performance.   Oprah nods in approval and says "terrific." validating our lives and them moves on to the cop who left a family tool fortune behind to serve community.

I am so fried after the experience that I get into the hot tub at the Omni hotel with my cell phone still in my pocket.  Perhaps it is a good metaphor.  We go to the American Girl store where we buy Campbell a doll which costs a good percentage of my teacher's salary.  So much for living the simpler more authentic life.   But, I have to say, overall The Oprah experience is pretty much one of the few in life which lives up to  its billing.  She was great, her producers were great.   That is why she is Oprah.

Be careful of saying you are happy on Oprah.    Well, I guess this blog has already gotten of course.  But to end this first entry, with the hope of finding an end point I can come back to...  Be careful of saying you are happy on Oprah.   Because that same month we are on the show, my accountant then calls me to ask why the taxes on our new house in Pittsburgh is outrageously higher than our old house in LA which was worth many times over that.  How can a city function like this, he wonders?  And he is right... because by the end of the year, Pittsburgh will make headlines for being "financially distressed."   

And to add to the misery, the winter seems like one of the coldest on record.  And I notice no one in Pittsburgh seems quite as happy as they were when we first got there-- and I am told by my friend Lynn-- the girl I wrote "St. Elmo's Fire" about-- did I mention we live five blocks from her?-- Lynn informs me that the entire city of Pittsburgh is depressed because the Steelers are losing.   And then something happens which takes the real wind out of the sails not just of Pittsburgh, but around the world.   Fred Rogers, America's most favorite neighbor, passes away from cancer.  

It is hard to even fathom that.   Some things seem like they would be there forever.  And Mister Rogers... well, he is one  of them.  But much of what follows is perhaps inspired by the desire of so many to see Mister Rogers' legacy continue...  For as I will soon learn, Fred Rogers, as he believed in millions of children who only knew him from the television, also believed in Pittsburgh.  As the slogan said when I was growing up, "Pittsburgh is someplace special."  And now, the real-life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was about to re-invent itself.