From punk music in the 80s to a documentary about the polio vaccine, there’s plenty of local history to see
Published on Friday March 5th, 2021
We thought about how we could get through our winter of discontent. Before we get used to the next Tiger King, think about learning more about the city that thousands of us call home and millions more love it in their hearts.
Here are nine documentaries that reveal Pittsburgh the way it was, so we can better appreciate our ancestors, their victims, their mistakes, and maybe even learn a thing or two to achieve a better tomorrow.
SEE: Amazon Prime, DVD / Amazon
Celebrate with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and personalities from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, University of Pittsburgh and others, innovators John Brashear, Samuel Langley and others who made world-changing discoveries in astrophysics, aeronautics and astronomy in Pittsburgh’s 160th anniversary -old institution.
SEE: Stream this documentary for free from Lux
The black and white cult classic Stephanie Beroes from Pittsburgh is an extraordinary time capsule of the city’s emerging punk scene. For more context, Vice did a retrospective on the film’s 30th anniversary ten years ago, including an interview with Beroes in which she says the whole thing was shot on equipment from the equipment company Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which closed its doors last year.
Pioneer of the Suffrage Movement – Celebrating 100 Years (2020)
SEE: You can purchase a copy of this documentary from Women in Film & Media Pittsburgh
Released last year to commemorate a century of women’s suffrage, this documentary examines the leading figures across Pennsylvania who led the equal voting movement. It is easy to forget how profoundly different societies, norms and values can be just a generation or two away, and it is worth remembering the struggle of these pioneers to ensure that another step towards equality is in the Constitution is anchored.
SEE: Stream this documentary on Vimeo for $ 4.
This film 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. In 1979, polio was eliminated in the United States. In the past year, filmmaker Carl Kurlander has written several articles sharing some of the findings from the polio vaccine.
SEE: DVD is available from Amazon and eBay
This Oscar-winning, half-hour documentary explores the sheer devastation caused by the 800 m wide, 40 foot high flood of water that wiped out the lives of 2,200 unsuspecting West Pennsylvanians and why it happened on a Friday afternoon in 1889: Carnegie, Frick and dozens more industrial titans from Pittsburgh couldn’t properly maintain the earthen dam that holds the lake back in their exclusive membership-only leisure club, causing it to collapse in heavy rain.
There is another documentary about the Johnstown Flood from 2010 narrated by Richard Dryfus. The Johnstown Flood (2010) is available on Prime Video & Vimeo.
- 📚 “The Johnstown Flood” – David McCullough, who grew up in Pittsburgh, wrote a book in 1987 about the flood. Bookshop.org, Amazon
- 📚 “Smalltime” – Writer Russel Shorto writes about his family and the history of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania mob. An interesting look at Johnstown from World War II to the 1960s. Bookshop.org, Amazon
It’s not getting more typical Pittsburgh. Rick Sebak’s wholesome documentaries about the city’s people, places, and records have become as popular as the subjects they convey. With more than 50 (!) To choose from, there is no better starting point than the beginning: “The Mon, The Al & the O” tells the story of Pittsburgh’s elixir of life, its rivers, while “Kennywood Memories” celebrates the city’s century-age Amusement park with historical photos, videos, but the “today’s” interviews with Yinzers in the late 80s are worth the price of admission in their own right. Like all Sebak documentaries, these works are infused with empathy and warmth, which was undoubtedly learned 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 are not currently available to stream, but for some you can find the DVDs in the library, on Amazon, or on eBay. For others, we’re still trying to track down a copy of the documentary.
SEE: The DVD of this documentary is available in the Carnegie Library of Pittsbiurgh
There is no better nickname for a photographer than “One Shot” or a better chronicler of the life and times of the Black Pittsburghers than Teenie Harris of the Pittsburgh Courier, who worked at the seminal newspaper from the mid-30s to the mid-70s. This documentary uses teen footage as a window into the Black Pittsburgh communities and the parallels between life on the street and the courier’s advocacy of racial justice. The Carnegie Library only has one copy and I’ve already requested it, but I promise to deal with it quickly. To surprise you, here’s a short video from the Westmoreland Museum of Art that features two short featurettes about the life and work of Teenie Harris.
SEE: ? (We’re still trying to figure out where to find a copy of this documentary.)
Before Pittsburgh health conglomerates established themselves, young men from the Hill District transformed the way the city and the country approached emergency medicine. Inspired by preventable deaths and a racist system that neglected the black neighborhoods, Dr. Peter Safar from Pitt picked black men, many of whom were unemployed or brought back Vietnam vets, and turned them into an exemplary paramedic team, Freedom House, which received its first major test in the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
See more of Pittsburgh on the big screen
🍿 All romantic comedies filmed in Pittsburgh
🍿 A look at all things Pittsburgh in Hulu’s “happiest season”
🍿 Any horror movie made in Pittsburgh
📸 Header photo: Screenshot from “The Shot Felt ‘Round the World”