actor portraying kevin mcmahon standing on a bridge at night

Behind the Scenes of It's A Wonderful District

Wed, Dec 20, 2017

Written by: Seth Culp-Ressler | Photos by: Seth Culp-Ressler

It’s that most wonderful time of the year. For the 2017 Holiday Season we at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust teamed up with the Creative Directors of Arcade Comedy to go bigger and better than ever before with our celebrations. The result of our efforts is our short film It’s A Wonderful District, which released just this morning. If you haven’t seen the film already, drop everything and watch it right here:

A tip of the hat to a holiday classic

As most will know, It’s A Wonderful District is a compressed homage and loving tribute to the iconic 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life. Instead of George Bailey’s journey into a world without him, however, our version sees Pittsburgh Cultural Trust President & CEO Kevin McMahon confront a Pittsburgh without the Cultural Trust. What he finds isn’t pretty.

It can be easy to forget the widespread impact made by the Trust’s decades-long presence in Downtown Pittsburgh. What was once a seedy, run-down stretch of adult theaters, strip clubs and sex shops is now a vibrant center for culture, art, food and community. A red light district no more, Pittsburgh’s Cultural District now stands as a nationwide model for how the arts can play a pivotal role in urban revitalization.


members of the cast and crew stand in front of the harris theater


The stark contrast between those two eras is something we wanted to capture with It’s A Wonderful District. While the film was certainly an excuse to have a bit of fun, we rooted each scene as much as possible in the history of both Pittsburgh and the Cultural Trust. At the same time, we strove to stay as faithful as possible to the original It’s A Wonderful Life script. The confluence of movie accuracy and historical callbacks came to bear in a few key scenes.

Grounded in history

At one point in the film Kevin is faced with the Harris Theater in a Cultural Trust-less reality. Instead of housing its current Pittsburgh Filmmakers tenants, the theater has returned to its era as an adult film house. Both the marquee text — reading “CINEMA XXX HOT EROTIC HITS ADULTS ONLY” — and the poster we designed were direct copies of language found in the Trust’s archival photos of the building. Fans of It’s A Wonderful Life will hopefully notice the clear parallels to the pivotal Pottersville main street scene.


archive photo of the harris theaterour modern-day recreation of the harris theater's seedy past


With a snap of the fingers, Kevin is next transported to Theater Square. Or, rather, where Theater Square would have been built (eagle-eyed viewers will recognize the real location as Phil’s parking lot at the corner of Penn and 9th). What Arty says to Kevin is true: The Theater Square site was indeed razed following the historic 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood. Without the Trust, who knows what the corner of Penn and 7th would look like today.

Seeing the Cultural District in such disrepair pushes Kevin over the edge and to a bridge, just as in the original film. He’s soon wailing and screaming for “Carol Brown,” “Jack Heinz” and the “band of dreamers” to bring back the Cultural Trust. One of those names should need no introduction to Pittsburghers. H. J. Heinz II, grandson of the condiment magnate Henry J. Heinz, founded the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 1984. His “band of dreamers” was a group of philanthropists who helped Heinz kick off his revitalization plans. Carol Brown was the Cultural Trust’s first President & CEO, leading the organization from its inception in 1984 until 2000. She was succeeded by our protagonist Kevin McMahon.


actor portraying the trust logo arty holds up printed logo for comparison


Finally, Arty himself bridges the gap between history and accuracy. We modeled Arty — the Cultural Trust’s logo personified — after It’s A Wonderful Life’s Clarence the Angel. Arty has been a part of downtown Pittsburgh since the beginning of the Cultural District. Pay attention the next time you visit the District and you’ll find Arty’s face carved into the sidewalk pavers on every corner, just as we highlighted in the film. Who better to show Kevin why the Cultural Trust is so important to the city of Pittsburgh?

From script to shooting

Including all of these historical nuggets into the script was only the tip of the production iceberg. Pulling everything together took weeks of planning, meetings and rehearsals. Despite its short length, the film soon looked like a full-on professional production.

In order to really sell some of the scenes we needed to produce our own props. In addition to the Harris Theater poster, we designed a fake magazine cover and story for the opening scene. Nothing of the sort previously existed since, naturally, Pittsburgh always finds itself at the top, not the bottom, of such listicles.


camera operator adjusts settings for a shot in front of the benedum center


Our cast of actors, actresses and extras numbered 15 strong and included professionals from greater Pittsburgh as well as Arcade Comedy, Trust employees and close friends. At 16 people, the behind-the-camera crew was even larger. Directors, producers, lighting technicians, gaffers, camera operators, hair and makeup stylists, production assistants and security officers all played a part in making the shoot a success.

We filmed the majority of the piece in one night, starting at 8:30 pm and wrapping the next morning at 6:00 am. Downtown is eerily quiet in the wee hours of the morning. It was nice — at least during the few times we could fight through the cold and exhaustion long enough to notice.


actors portraying kevin mcmahon and arty laugh together on set


Most of the team returned the following week to shoot the Theater Square scene. It was the perfect capstone to a frenzied month of planning and preparation. We think the final product was certainly worth the hard work. Hopefully you enjoyed watching it just as much as we enjoyed making it.

So, on behalf of everyone here at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, we want to wish you all a Happy Holiday, a fruitful New Year and — of course — a Wonderful District.

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