University Center screens new documentary film from Sebak

Written By Alexander Popichak

Community members, students and local dignitaries filled the University Center’s GRW Auditorium Tuesday, Feb. 3 to screen the latest documentary by Pittsburgh television producer Rick Sebak. The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership held the event, which included the showing of “Return to Downtown Pittsburgh” as well as a question and answer session hosted by KDKA’s Ken Rice.

The evening began with an introduction of Sebak by the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Jeremy Waldrup. According to Waldrup, this was the first time the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has hosted a screening of any film, let alone a film on the state of downtown Pittsburgh. 

“We thought it made sense,” Waldrup said in the University Center after the screening. “This was the first time we’ve had a Rick Sebak film [on Downtown] debut in our organization’s existence because we’re only 21 years old.”

For the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, hosting the screening in the University Center, which is featured in the documentary, provided the perfect backdrop to screen a show dedicated to the blend of new and old Downtown.

“We were thrilled to have Point Park host the event for us,” Waldrup said. “We knew about this little black box theater [the GRW] and thought it would be the perfect space to bring folks together. The university is a center point of the documentary that Rick Sebak did and we thought there couldn’t be a better location to host the event and to bring people into this unique space which I think is something that’s such a great characteristic of Downtown – these hidden gems.”

Sebak is a producer, writer and narrator at public television station WQED and “Return to Downtown Pittsburgh” is a revisit of Sebak’s 1992 special, “Downtown Pittsburgh.” It chronicles the charm of downtown Pittsburgh and the characters that inhabit it as well as the changes that have been made in the 24 years between the programs. 

According to Sebak, this is only the second time one of his specials has been publically screened in its entirety. The first time was the debut of “Kennywood Memories” at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) in 1988.

“The most unusual thing to me [about a public screening], the thing I didn’t expect was how interesting it was to be in the room with people that I was seeing on screen,” Sebak said. “I meant to say something about that, because, even when I first got here, a lot of people were coming up talking about ‘Oh I know somebody that’s in one of your shows’ and that’s really an unexpected beauty of local shows is that people see people they know.”

Highlighted in the special are things unique to Pittsburgh from all eras, ranging from the fountain at Point State Park to the Union Trust Building to the new Tower at PNC Plaza. The program heavily features Point Park and includes interviews with University President Paul Hennigan, Professor Ed Meena, University Archivist Phil Harrity and University Architect Elmer Burger.

“One of the things these shows get to do is to force me to learn about places,” Sebak said in the University Center after the screening. “I didn’t know this building [University Center], but I love this building. I love the marble staircase, I love Phil [Harrity] who showed us the world’s longest teller bench, I love that people in Pittsburgh – although I never knew this as a discotheque and movie theater and all of that – other people do, and so I like those stories and it was fun to be in that theater tonight. I also liked all the stuff we got to do with Point Park.”

A major theme throughout the special is the importance of innovation and preservation: highlighting innovative ways people are building, working and living downtown, as well as ways groups such as the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation are working to preserve the history and heritage of Downtown. Sebak said he was impressed with Point Park’s commitment to both innovation and preservation.

“I didn’t realize what a force they [Point Park] are in saving old buildings and reusing old buildings,” Sebak said. “I love that if anyone is doing it, but to think that a university in downtown Pittsburgh is doing it – and who knows what would’ve happened to this building if they hadn’t come in and taken it over and save what could be saved.”

Waldrup said the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership hopes to hold similar events in the future, and continues to look for new ways to engage with students by having them take advantage of Downtown offerings.

“We support their efforts, and I think it’s vice-versa,” Waldrup said of the University. “We see Point Park and students in general as being a critical component of the success of Downtown. We want to do everything we can to support the University’s growth and development here in the heart of the city.”

While Sebak showcases the beauty of Downtown in his program, there is content that did not fit. Beyond that, Sebak said that learning to appreciate the beauty of your own surroundings in person can’t be beat.

“I hope a little bit that sometimes Point Park students might have a spare moment just to look around and appreciate what’s all around them because these old buildings are incredible,” Sebak said. “From all these architectural details that we can see right here, it’s worth looking up to the top of the column… we tend to take these things for granted, but we really shouldn’t.”