Travel

Pittsburgh’s hulking steel mill, Carrie Furnace, is being recycled as a location for movies and TV films, and a tourist attraction evocative of America’s industrial era. 

COURTESY PHOTO/Maleria Yolen-Cohen

"Don’t let the zombie get on our bus!” I screamed to the driver.

Too late! When he opened the door at a downtown stop, a growling zombie lurched forward, quickly menacing passengers on my right, then moving toward me.

“I’ve got zombies on my cellphone contact list,” explained Kristin Mitchell of the Visit Pittsburgh office, detailing how she hires and trains students and actors to entertain tourists by portraying faux zombies.

Pittsburghers extol zombies since a 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was filmed here as one of the first of its movie genre. Russ Streiner, current chair of the board of the film office, played zombie Johnny in NLD. Building on success, “Hollywood of the East” films and TV productions made here since 1914 would fill a 60-page booklet.

Since 1990, the intense courting of movie and TV productions pumped $800 million into the local economy, aided by a 25 percent tax credit when 60 percent of a production is filmed in Pennsylvania, said Jessica Conner of the Pittsburgh film office, which keeps director Dawn Keezer in Los Angeles to field prospects.

“Silence of the Lambs,” “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises,” “Jack Reacher” and “Flashdance,” comprise a fraction of productions utilizing Pittsburgh environs and cavernous 31st Street Studios rental, a repurposed steel warehouse, offered in the city’s Strip District. Catering and equipment trucks for “The Last Witch Hunter” movie crowded the streets when I visited on a city-sponsored media tour. Locals get hired as extras.

Saturday mornings at 9 a.m., and by appointment, visitors can book with Pittsburgh Tours & More, the “Lights, Camera, Pittsburgh!” bus tour of movie and TV sites. Enterprising guides distribute bags of popcorn, adding show biz touches such as blowing bubbles in the Penn Hotel where musical showman Lawrence Welk once reigned. The guides coordinate narrative with displaying famous film video clips while the bus stops at the real life filming site.

Pittsburgh’s iconic steel industry departed years ago, but its detritus, monstrous Carrie Furnace, is now being preserved — its eerie rusting hulk recycled as a tourist and film locale. The extant Edgar Thompson steel works in North Braddock is the lone functioning survivor of that era. Banking, steel and other industries made mega fortunes for the Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Heinz and other legendary American corporate family dynasties, who donated a portion of profits to found elegant local museums of art.

The funicular, Duquesne Incline rail cars have been transporting residents up and down a mountainside since 1877 to one of Pittsburgh’s 99 neighborhoods, which proudly honor ethnic, religious and culinary heritages. A fun afternoon is browsing Mom & Pop biscotti, pasta, candy, clothing and other stores in the Brookline and Strip neighborhoods. Two celebrated neighborhood haunts are Primanti Brothers: serving meat, French fries and coleslaw layered on a sandwich, and DeLuca’s acclaimed breakfast menu.

An upscale dining evening can be savored at former Pennsylvania & Lake Erie Railroad station, preserved in 1900 black and white tile splendor: a frescoed mirrored interior overlooking the Monongahela, near the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three great rivers.

Pittsburgh is a family-oriented destination retaining a sports-oriented, blue collar working-class ambience, balanced with a thriving film industry, live theater and other cultural events, and outdoor attractions.

Janice Law is a columnist for The Daily News. Have a travel question? Email janice.law@galvnews.com.

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