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9 documentaries about Pittsburgh history

From punk music in the ‘80s to a documentary about the polio vaccine, there is a lot of local history to watch

by Brian Conway
March 5, 2021

This story was put together for Very Local by Brian Conway. You can see more of his stories here.  

We’ve been thinking about how we might pass our winter of discontent. Before we cozy up to the next Tiger King, consider learning more about the city thousands of us call home, and millions more hold fondly in their hearts.

Here are nine documentaries that reveal Pittsburgh as it was, so that we might gather a deeper appreciation of our forebears, their sacrifices and their mistakes, and maybe even learn a thing or two in pursuit of a better tomorrow.

 

Undaunted: The Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory (2012)

WATCH: Amazon Prime, DVD/Amazon

Join Neil DeGrasse Tyson and luminaries from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, University of Pittsburgh and more for a celebration of innovators John Brashear, Samuel Langley, and others who made world-changing discoveries in astrophysics, aviation and astronomy at Pittsburgh’s 160-year-old institution.

 

Debt Begins at 20 (1980)

WATCH: Stream this documentary for free from Lux

Centered around house parties, shows, and most importantly, the people that populate them, Pittsburgh native Stephanie Beroes’ black and white cult classic is an extraordinary time capsule of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. For more context, Vice did a retrospective ten years ago, for the film’s 30th anniversary, including an interview with Beroes in which she says the whole thing was filmed using equipment from Pittsburgh Filmmakers equipment cooperative, which closed its doors last year.

 

Trailblazers of the Suffrage Movement – Celebrating 100 Years (2020)

WATCH: You can buy a copy of this documentary from Women in Film & Media Pittsburgh

Released last year to commemorate a century of women’s suffrage, this documentary explores the leading figures across Pennsylvania who led the movement for equal voting rights. It’s easy to forget how profoundly different society, norms and values could be just a generation or two removed, and worth remembering the struggle undertaken by these pioneers to ensure that another step toward equality would be enshrined in the Constitution.

 

The Shot Felt ‘Round the World (2010)

WATCH: Stream this documentary on Vimeo for $4.

This film was originally debuted in 2010 and was re-released last year. “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World” is a look at Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine that was developed here in Pittsburgh. Salk’s polio vaccine was first tested on children in Pittsburgh in 1954. By 1979, polio had been eliminated in the United States. Over the past year, filmmaker Carl Kurlander has written several articles sharing some of the learnings from the polio vaccine.

Related Reading:

  • 📚 Polio: An American Story – David Oshinsky, who is interviewed in this documentary, won a Pulitzer Prize for this book about polio. Bookshop.org, Amazon

 

The Johnstown Flood (1989)

WATCH: DVD is available on Amazon and eBay

This Academy Award-winning, half-hour documentary delves into sheer devastation wrought by the half-mile wide, 40-foot high surge of water that snuffed out the lives of 2,200 unsuspecting Western Pennsylvanians one Friday afternoon in 1889, as well as why it happened: Carnegie, Frick and dozens more Pittsburgh industrial titans failed to properly maintain the earthen dam holding back the lake at their exclusive, members-only leisure club, allowing it to collapse during heavy rains.

There is another documentary about the Johnstown Flood from 2010 that is narrated by Richard Dryfus. The Johnstown Flood (2010) is available on Prime Video & Vimeo.

Related Reading:

  • 📚 “The Johnstown Flood” – David McCullough, who grew up in Pittsburgh, wrote a book about the flood in 1987. Bookshop.org, Amazon
  • 📚 “Smalltime” – Author Russel Shorto writes about his family and the history of the mob in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. An interesting look at Johnstown from World War II to the 1960s. Bookshop.org, Amazon

 

TIE: The Mon, The Al & The O and Kennywood Memories (1988)

WATCH:

It doesn’t get more quintessentially Pittsburgh. Rick Sebak’s wholesome documentaries about the city’s people, places, and platters have grown to become as cherished as the topics they convey. With more than 50 (!) to choose from, there’s no better place to start than the beginning: “The Mon, The Al & the O” charts the history of Pittsburgh’s lifeblood, its rivers, while “Kennywood Memories” celebrates the city’s century-old amusement park with historic photos, videos, but the “present-day” interviews with late-80s Yinzers is itself worth the price of admission. Like all of Sebak’s documentaries, these works are spun through with empathy and warmth, something no doubt gleaned from Sebak’s longtime colleague at WQED, Fred Rogers, who himself became the subject of a documentary in 2018.

 

[Learn more about how Rick Sebak became a local filmmaker and check out our interview with Rick Sebak to learn more about his record collection and vintage shopping.] 

 

HARD TO FIND

We had a hard time finding some of these documentaries. The following aren’t currently available to stream, but for some, you can find the DVDs at the library, Amazon or eBay. For others, we are still trying to track down a copy of the documentary. 

 

One Shot: The Life and Work of Teenie Harris (2003)

WATCH: The DVD of this documentary can be found at the Carnegie Library of Pittsbiurgh

There’s no better nickname for a photographer than “one shot,” and no better chronicler of the life and times of Black Pittsburghers than the Pittsburgh Courier’s Teenie Harris, who worked at the trendsetting newspaper from the mid-30s to the mid-70s. This documentary uses Teenie’s shots as a window into Black Pittsburgh communities and the parallels between life on the streets and the Courier’s advocacy for racial justice. The Carnegie Library has just one copy, and I already requested it, but I promise to be quick with it. To tide you over, here’s a short video from the Westmoreland Museum of Art that includes two short featurettes about the life and work of Teenie Harris.

 

Freedom House: Street Saviors (2009)

WATCH: ? (We are still trying to figure out where to find a copy of this documentary)

Before Pittsburgh was home to health care conglomerates, young men from the Hill District transformed how the city, and country, would approach emergency medicine. Spurred on by preventable deaths and a racist system that neglected Black neighborhoods, Pitt’s Dr. Peter Safar trained Black men, many of them unemployed or returning Vietnam vets, and turned them into an exemplary paramedics team, Freedom House, which got its first huge test in the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

 

See more of Pittsburgh on the big screen

🍿 All of the romantic comedies filmed in Pittsburgh

🍿 A look at all of the Pittsburgh things in Hulu’s “Happiest Season”

🍿 Every horror movie filmed in Pittsburgh


📸 Header photo: Screenshot from “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World”

Brian Conway is a freelance enterprise reporter based in Pittsburgh's South Side. He is a member-owner and communications manager at the Work Hard Pittsburgh digital media cooperative.

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