“Pittsburgh is an underdog city,” a friend once told screenwriter Carl Kurlander.
“Nobody brags about being from the city,” Kurlander recalled being told. “But Pittsburghers know how special it is.”
It is Pittsburgh residents, or “neighbors” as Kurlander commonly refers to them, and their undying loyalty to their fair city, which is the subject of Kurlander’s film documentary “My Tale of Two Cities.” The movie will be shown at a red carpet screening Friday, Nov. 28 at the Byham Theater.
The screening, which is sold out, is being held as part of Pittsburgh’s Homecoming Weekend, and in celebration of the city’s 250th birthday. Proceeds from the screening will benefit the Youth and Media Initiative of the nonprofit Steeltown Entertainment Project in conjunction with the Holy Family Institute.
Following the showing of the film, guests will join the movie’s cast, including Franco Harris, Paul O’Neill, Dr. Thomas Starzl, Joanne Rogers and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s “Mr. McFeely” in singing the city’s unofficial theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
It is apt that this film should be shown in Pittsburgh during Homecoming weekend, explained Kurlander, as not only was it inspired by his own private homecoming, but it is also a depiction of other expatriate Pittsburghers’ attachment to their hometown, as well as the city’s own “comeback” following the collapse of the steel industry.
“Pittsburgh lost half its population in the 1970s and early 1980s,” said Kurlander. “But a large population longs to come home. The reason we’re doing it [holding the screening] the day after Thanksgiving is because it’s a comeback story.”
Kurlander left Pittsburgh to move to Los Angeles, where he became a successful writer on such projects as the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and the television show “Saved by the Bell.” He was living with his wife and young daughter above the Sunset Strip, absorbed in a Hollywood lifestyle, when he got an offer to teach for a year at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We moved back for what we thought would be a one year sabbatical,” Kurlander said. “But then my wife bought a house in Squirrel Hill when I wasn’t looking.”
“I’m now acting out a fantasy of a lot of people: to come home and stay.”
The Kurlanders moved to a house on Negley Avenue, literally in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
In February 2003, Kurlander appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about his choice to give up Hollywood and move back to Pittsburgh. Fred Rogers passed away the next day.
About the same time, the city of Pittsburgh went bankrupt.
Kurlander decided to mobilize Pittsburgh’s neighbors, both near and far, in an effort to help their hometown.
“I realized that half of Hollywood was from Squirrel Hill,” Kurlander said, and summoned his colleagues back home.
“I said, ‘Mr. Rogers’ city is empty,’” recalled Kurlander. “I got everyone to fly back on their own dime to help create programming through the newly formed Steeltown Entertainment Project.”
The result was a summit including such famous native Pittsburghers as producer/
executive Bernie Goldmann (“The Matrix”), director George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead”), director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) and screenwriter Peter Ackerman (“Ice Age”).
The outcome of the summit was a short film called “Pittsburgh: Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret,” featuring those Pittsburghers who were now movers and shakers in Hollywood.
“The bottom line,” said Kurlander, “is that nothing really happened after that. Our nonprofit was not funded at the time. I realized I had to make a bigger movie.”
So, with help from his dermatologist, who provided the necessary funding, Kurlander set out to make “My Tale of Two Cities.”
The film premiered earlier this year at the Sonoma Film Festival in California, and Kurlander was surprised to see that about half the audience was from Pittsburgh.
“I wondered ‘why are so many people attached to this city?’” Kurlander said. “They had come from wherever they were to see this film.”
He discovered there was something very special about Pittsburghers and their ties to their city.
Kurlander noted that when he began shooting his film, Pittsburgh was bankrupt. But through the dedication and hard work of the city’s “neighbors,” things have turned around.
Kurlander recalled what he was once told by the late Mayor Bob O’Connor.
“He told me, ‘we have to change the way we feel about the city. If we believe in ourselves and work together, we can do anything.’”
“There is a certain self-deprecating wonderful thing about the city. We don’t give ourselves enough credit,” Kurlander said.
Kurlander said that he felt “guilty” about having the red carpet screening of his film on Shabbat, but added that anyone was invited to arrange a screening in his or her own neighborhood.
“We’re letting the neighbors determine where the movie goes,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)