Saturday, May 26, 2012

Legendary Filmmaker Tony Buba, Part Two!

This is part two of my interview with Braddock, PA Filmmaker Tony Buba.  Part one is here:
Tony, And The Pizza Oven
This installment explores Tony’s views on Pittsburgh and some of the things that make it such a special place, as well as on the evolution of Braddock.  Tony himself will be appearing in June in New York, at the Anthology Film Archives, which is showing a retrospective of Tony's films. Information about the retrospective is at:
That retrospective will be a great opportunity to meet Tony and to enjoy his many features and selected shorts.  But in the immortal words of Marty DiBirgi, “that’s enough of my yakkin!” Let’s get right to part two of my conversation with Tony Buba.

Monte:  I understand that Pittsburgh’s population is finally starting to grow a bit.
Tony:  I just don’t understand.  I can’t see how cities like Columbus can grow but Pittsburgh doesn’t. The only down side is the Parkway but it’s an easy place to live.

As a filmmaker, you don’t have to generate a lot of income to survive (in Pittsburgh)…I mean on the downside, you can get tagged as a regional artist. If you’re doing films in Brooklyn, you don’t get tagged as a regional artist. But if you’re here, and making films about Braddock and Pittsburgh, you get that reputation. But for the lifestyle, everything is accessible, especially if you live in the East End.
Everything is just all right here. I can walk down here with my dog from my house, about a mile from here.  I have close to four acres…It was my grandfather’s property at one time and then my uncle’s and nobody wanted it. I got the house, I got the brick oven – the Pizza oven…

Monte: Yeah you mentioned the Pizza over earlier! I would love to see that pizza oven!
Tony:  We can take a ride up…

Monte:  I would love to do that!  But tell me, what was it like seeing Braddock…it was once a very lively community, right?
Tony:  Well, here’s one of the myths of Braddock though.  Braddock’s heyday was a 10 year period, from 1945 to 1955. The avenue and all the stores were doing really well. But once people came back from the war, with the GI Bill, people were able to buy homes elsewhere and move out. I think the population in  1926, 27, reached about 20,000 people. That’s the highest level. It had already dropped to 12,000 by 1960. So the biggest population drop already happened during the boom years. Now it’s about 2300.

So people had houses but they weren’t that great. They had outdoor plumbing, they had the row houses, these clapboard houses, and it was so densely populated that the kids wanted to build homes elsewhere and they build all those small homes you see in Penn Hills.  African Americans, weren’t able to buy homes in Penn Hills. So they had to buy homes in other parts of Braddock.
So what happened in the 1950s, they built the Parkway. So now there’s no easy access to Braddock, Rankin, Homestead, there’s no easy access to those towns. It went straight out to Monroeville. So Monroeville developed the first strip mall – the Miracle Mile. That was the first nail in Braddock’s coffin. People started moving out there, and shopping.  Didn’t have to worry about parking…

Then they built the Civic Arena and redeveloped the Hill District. And when they redeveloped the Hill at that period, what they did to move all the people from the Hill, they built a lot of projects in the Mill towns. They build Talbott Towers in Braddock, and when they build Talbott Towers, they tore out of an area called The Bottom, where almost all  of the African-Americans lived. Once the African-Americans moved out of the Bottom and into other parts of Braddock, there was a lot of white flight. Because even though the town was integrated, the blacks were fairly concentrated in the area down by 13th Street, in the area close to the mill.
What happened, all the store owners in Braddock were mom and pop stores. There were some – Neizers, Lustix clothing stores, SM Crouse – and their kids all went to College, and people can glamorize the whole entrepreneurship and owning your own store, but it’s a rough-ass business.  So these kids were able to go to school, become teachers, lawyers, doctors, whatever, they didn’t want to enter into their family’s business. So as people retired, they ended up closing the stores.

This is around 1960. There was the big development in North Versailles called Eastland.
Monte: Eastland! That’s where my dad had his store. I’ll bet you bought glasses there. It was called White Cross Visual Aids.

Tony:  Yeah, I remember that store. Eastland now – there’s nothing there. It’s totally empty. You drive past there and there’s nothing left, but the sign is still standing.
Yeah, that is depressing...

Monte: Wow…when did Eastland go?
Tony: Around 2000, maybe before that?

Monte:  I spent a lot of time there.

Tony: There’s nothing there. Just empty acreage. It’s really bizarre.  The sign is still up there. You should take a photo of the sign, just empty concrete.
So now, Eastland, was really the death. JC Penney moved out of Braddock, moved to Eastland.

Monte: The death of Braddock was when Eastland opened?
Tony: Yeah, the early 60s. The people just went to Eastland. Once the businesses in Braddock closed, there was no longer the tax base. The city couldn’t keep up with the street repair, the other things…it was just a whole trickle down.

So everyone talks about Braddock as a failure, but in some ways Braddock was a victim of its own success.  The roads were built, the unions got stronger, there were decent wages.  So who wants to live close to a mill? They went out to the suburbs.  Their kids – college education was now affordable, a lot of the kids went to college.  My brother, he’s in Los Angeles. No one I went to High School with stayed In Braddock – maybe three or four people.
And as for the African-Americans, you know Pittsburgh has never been an easy town for African- Americans. So they went to Washington DC, to Atlanta, to areas where they could get decent jobs.

Monte: When you mentioned Eastland, it really had a chilling effect. I used to go there almost every weekend, sometimes with my mom during the week.  My dad would let me sit in the window, draw advertisements – I was like 8 years old.
Tony: Yeah, there were movie theaters, Gimbels…

Monte: But what killed my dad was when, I guess it was Pearle Optical, when they moved in. They were the big chain. He was just a small time businessman. His whole thing was volume. And as a salesman – he was a quirky guy, he had his own style. He would just be honest.  He would tell people, “no those don’t look good on you,” and he’d have this dismissive wave and say, “you don’t want that.” And salesmen usually don’t say that kind of thing. So people would trust him.  They’d say, “well, what do I want?”  and he’d pick out glasses for them, and you know he had loyal customers!  And he was one of the first in that area to hire an African-American.
Tony:  I have a friend, Evelyn Benzo, she’s in her 80s, she actually protested Gimbels, because they wouldn’t have African Americans working their cash registers.

Monte:  Well, my dad, some young African-American kid came into the store, he was a major in math and science, and my dad liked that, and gave him a job sweeping floors and cleaning up. But I remember when Pearle came, it changed everything. I remember, my dad had kind of a bad feeling, because he couldn’t really compete.  He’d still send the glasses away, and a week later they’d come back, and we’d call people up and they had to come back to the store…with Pearle it was you know, in an hour you had your glasses.
Tony:  One of the last viable businesses in Braddock is Al Boss’s opticians. He has a great business, because it’s inexpensive, he’s got the personal touch, and people come down to Braddock to see him.

Monte: Did you ever see my Dad’s store?  Because you remember, they had a fire and then they covered the mall, and when they did, they left him out!
Tony:  Yeah, I can remember it. The mall was going down then, then they built the Monroeville Mall, and then the stores started all folding in Eastland.

Monte: That’s right. But they left him out, because of his location on the periphery.  Looking at it now, it wouldn’t have made sense.   But at the time, we just knew with Pearle Vision, with the covering of the mall, the signs were not good.
Tony: Well, once those big box stores started coming in, that was the demise of Braddock’s business district…

Monte:  Did you ever walk with David Demarest and Gene Levy through all these neighborhoods?
Tony:  I was at the cemetery one time when he was walking around…yeah, Dave just loved it…and you know, Romero pitched Out of This Furnace to WQED in 1976.  And you could have shot it in Braddock then because the buildings were still up, you could have done it. But they didn’t go for it.

Monte:  That’s too bad, because that book was really seminal, wasn’t it? What Dave Demarest did with it?
Tony:  Yeah…it was just…you see now, for me, I’m wondering, what’s gonna happen when I stop making these films…who’s gonna tell these stories…now there’s this young woman named Latoya Ruby Frasier…she’s 30 years old, she’s at Rutgers, she’s a photographer, does some videography work, and she was born on Washington street in Braddock. So she’s telling the whole African-American story from the 1980s, the whole crack period, she’s continuing this whole story of Braddock, and she’s also attacking the Levi Jeans commercial. 

Levi’s did that whole series of commercials they shot in Braddock, and she really doesn’t like them. They’re exploitive, you know, Braddock being a new frontier. These pioneers that are coming in…but it totally dismisses the whole history of the community, it’s just a real strange campaign.
Monte:  They may not have done that if you hadn’t raised the profile of Braddock…
Tony: No it’s really the mayor, John Fetterman, that’s doing it.  He’s the one that’s catching all the heat.

Monte:  Well, this has been great. I should mention though that I always do try to get in some conversation about the Pirates.
Tony: Ah, the Pirates, yeah, I remember, I think I was a junior in high school, I remember the series against the Yankees, I was a Yankee fan because they had all the Italians – Berra, Rizutto – and the Pirates won that game. We decided to go downtown. We got on a streetcar but all we could do was to make it to Regent Square so we decided to walk…

Monte: you decided to walk from Regent Square?
Tony:  Well yeah, I think I was 16, you do those kind of things. The town – it was just wild. I remember, this woman grabbed me – and stuck her tongue down my throat! It was the first French kiss I ever had! From then I knew I never wanted to be a priest! But it was crazy down there, I was real shy, I was a bashful kid! My first experience….

Monte – what do you think of the ups and downs with the Pirates? Well, mostly downs…I’m still not over the Sid Bream slide!
Tony: Oh yeah, I know, neither am I!  There are two things that killed me. I’m still not over that one loss…that just killed me…That, and Pitt basketball, that loss last year. I couldn’t sleep the entire night with that Pitt loss.

Monte:  After the Bream slide, I went to work the next day at around 11, took a two hour lunch, and came home. And my boss was a big baseball fan, never said a word.
Tony: There are few heartbreaking losses and that’s one of them. Yeah, but that 60s series…the thing is, it’s hard to imagine. In ’68 we had been losing for years, there was the Rinky Dinks…but this losing, I don’t see where it’ll end.

Monte:  I think this year. I think they’ve put together a decent team.
Tony: I hope so…

Monte:  It’s interesting how the fans came back last year
Tony: Yeah, with just a little bit of hope.

Monte: That’s all it takes!
Tony:  Just a little bit of hope – you know that could be the story of Pittsburgh. Just a little bit of hope…

Monte: Nicely stated! And I have just one last question…it goes back to when we first crossed paths, back in Baltimore when  I asked you the pizza question.  Now I wonder, given all we’ve talked about, how can you be a fan of anything else but the place in Ardmore (Vincent’s)?
Tony: I don’t like Vincents!

Monte: I love that!
Tony:  I never liked Vincent’s. It’s too heavy.  It’s one of those things that I liked for a brief period as a teenager –

Monte: You strayed!
Tony: Yeah, I strayed!

Monte:  You were rebelling!
Tony: I like Mineo’s. But I haven’t eaten there for a while. You  know, your tastes change as you get older. I like Pizza with a little bit of sauce, a little bit of cheese, not too much on them…what was really interesting was going to Italy and seeing that their pizza was totally different than what was served here.

Monte:  I’ll bet that’s true! Yeah they have those Marguerita pizzas, those are great.
Tony:  Vincent’s, even though he was friends with my grandfather - his family had a tailor shop on Braddock Avenue – that pizza shop made him a millionaire. But not my thing. The last two years of making my own, you don’t really go out – I mean, there’s one pizza place – we almost fell through the floor when we paid the bill. It’s in East Liberty, it’s called the Dinette.  They’ve got that gourmet pizza - and we came out of there, there were four of us, the bill was over 100 dollars! And we’re going, “oh my God, all we had was Pizza, and Salad and a glass of wine!

Monte:  That’s ridiculous. You know, Mineo’s has really gotten expensive. I can understand prices going up, but they really went up!
Tony:  You know what you can’t do in a pizza oven, you can’t make the thick pizza because it’s too hot. You’d have to wait for the over temperature to drop before you can make the thick pizza because it wouldn’t cook all the way through. So you have to make the thin pizzas that cook in about 90 seconds.

Monte:  Did you buy the pizza oven, or was it there in the house when you moved in?
Tony: It’s outside the house. It’s a whole patio area and I built the whole thing.  I had been thinking about it because I saw my cousin’s ovens, they have them in their back yard, so my wife says to me, are you gonna do this or not? So I went online and looked at all these directions from some company called Forno Bravo, downloaded all the directions, and ordered fire brick and all the other stuff…this kid that helped me put it together, Terrence Johnson, he’s actually a cornerback for the Indianapolis Colts now.

Monte:  Really?
Tony:  Yeah, in summer he’s out of high school and going to college, he was around. I threw my back out twice hauling all that cement and bricks!

Monte: Would it be too much of an imposition if I asked to see the oven?
AND OFF WE WENT!  Thank you, Tony!

And you can learn more about Tony and his films at!

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