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November 20, 2008

English prof aims for Hollywood on the Mon

Carl Kurlander calls his documentary film “My Tale of Two Cities” a valentine to the city of Pittsburgh. A Nov. 28 Pittsburgh 250 screening at the Byham Theater makes it a birthday card — the benefit showing will include birthday candles and singing led by David Newell, better known as Mr. McFeely from Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

Perhaps most importantly, the movie is an invitation — a special request to ex-Pittsburghers who want to return home as Kurlander did.

The “comeback” story is intended not only to chronicle the Hollywood screenwriter’s return to his hometown but also to encourage talented Pittsburghers to come back to help the city stage a comeback — reinventing itself as a center for the entertainment industry.

“Steel isn’t coming back. So what’s our new industry?” Kurlander asks. “I’m hoping this little movie will be one of the first things.”

The screening was scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend in hopes of attracting Pittsburgh expatriates who are home for the holiday. For those who need coaxing, Mr. McFeely offers an invitation in a trailer viewable at

“We’re banking a lot on the screening,” Kurlander said. “I’m an example of a lot of people who’ve longed to come home to Pittsburgh. It’s an ideal way of saying, ‘Don’t just come back, but get connected.’”

He also hopes to show the film around the country in combination with dialogues among expatriate Pittsburghers as a Johnny Appleseed-style ambassador urging them to come home.

Kurlander left Hollywood at the invitation of English chair David Bartholomae, who asked him to teach film production at Pitt. Kurlander said he figured he’d accept the visiting professor position for a year then go back to L.A. That was in 2001. In the meantime, he discovered that he loves teaching at Pitt. His daughter, now 9, loves the changing seasons. Moreover, his family has found an “authentic life” not achievable in Hollywood. So he remains: a visiting distinguished senior lecturer in the English department, admittedly an “odd duck” in a University that has no formal film production department.

Entwined with Kurlander’s own homecoming story are chats with “neighbors” of Fred Rogers (a Pittsburgher who left for New York before returning to his hometown), including Teresa Heinz Kerry, Paul O’Neill, Bill Strickland, Franco Harris and Thomas Starzl who share their thoughts on the town’s potential.

Noting that Pittsburgh often is the butt of jokes and that people don’t outright brag, “I’m from Pittsburgh,” still they’re proud of their town, Kurlander said. Not fancy or frou-frou, Pittsburghers retain an underdog mentality. “I like that about Pittsburgh,” he said. That’s not to say there isn’t lots to brag about: Citing Jonas Salk’s development of a polio vaccine at Pitt, he challenges: “Tell me the Ivy League school that conquered a major disease” as just one example.

“We’re a town full of losers who’ve found a way to win,” he says in self-deprecating style.

“When you have a city with a self-image problem, it helps to tell stories about the best you can do,” Kurlander said.

“We’re saying to Pittsburgh: Look at your neighbors. There are world-class people here. The people who have gone away are world-class. Pittsburgh is a place with great potential,” said Kurlander, whose own screenwriting credits include the film “St. Elmo’s Fire” and the TV series “Saved by the Bell.”

“My Tale of Two Cities” pays homage to the many Pittsburgh firsts and movers and shakers such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, George Westinghouse and H.J. Heinz who contributed to the city’s fame at the turn of the 20th century. With a nod to the city’s smoky past, the film quickly cuts to sweeping views of today’s modern skyline and highlights of some of its more recent achievements: During the production of the film, Google set up an office here and the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

Still, the film isn’t a Pollyanna-type “Isn’t it nice to come home?” story, Kurlander said. Rather, it serves “as a vehicle so neighbors could speak about something they feel passionately about.”

It touches on the exodus of thousands of Pittsburghers in the late 1970s and 1980s as the steel industry died — a diaspora that created the far-flung “Steeler Nation” comprised of expats whose hearts remain in the ’Burgh. As evidence of Pittsburghers’ loyalty regardless of geography, Kurlander includes footage of Pittsburghers at Point State Park, in L.A. and New York City, all singing Mister Rogers’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

He labels his word-of-mouth call to the L.A. gathering “a miracle” — admitting he feared that in the “Let’s do lunch sometime” town, his invitation would yield “two people under a palm tree.” Instead, hundreds appeared.

“That people responded in this way is a big thing,” he said.

The film has left Kurlander “more positive than ever that Pittsburgh has a great potential for doing things.”

But, he said, “I believe that Pittsburgh has a lot of great resources that are not sewn together.” It has students drawn by its high-quality universities. It has a willing workforce and the goodwill of Pittsburghers who left, Kurlander said. Making Pittsburgh a center for the entertainment business would serve to retain young talent, tell Pittsburgh’s stories and create a real industry that could change the town, Kurlander said. But a change in mentality needs to take place because movies cost money to make. “We do not put money in our talent,” he said. “We know the need to pay for talent on a football team or on the staff of a hospital, but the entertainment business?

“Change could happen very quickly,” if a strategic approach to vetting, mentoring and funding talent is put into place, Kurlander said.

“We’ve got to make it a priority in order for it to happen.”

The Nov. 28 screening benefits the “Youth and Media Initiative” in which Kurlander’s nonprofit Steeltown Entertainment Project will enlist film and television professionals to mentor students at Holy Family Institute to tell their own stories on film. Ticket information is available at

Limited numbers of DVDs of “My Tale of Two Cities” will be for sale at the event. Additional information on DVD availability will be posted on the film’s web site.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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