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“We are an odd lot. Old and young, men and women, heroes and derelicts, rich and poor, all once living souls,” says Anna Marie Colecchi as “The Widow” during McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center’s Living History Tour on Sunday. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
There are 44,000 people buried in McKeesport & Versailles Cemetery, which was dedicated in 1855. On Saturday and Sunday, a handful of their stories were brought to life by local actors during McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center’s sixth-annual Living History Tour.
Visitors were greeted by Anna Marie Colecchi playing “the widow,” who laid the framework for the list of characters on the tour.
Groups of people ranging in size from three to 15 walked along paths and around tombstones to hear the tales of this year’s cast.
They represented a wide range of notable McKeesporters, including Laura Painter, widow of People’s Bank President Robert Painter, who was blackmailed in an effort to get part of the fortune he left behind; U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Thomas Sweeney, one of the “McKeesport 23” who died during the Vietnam War; and George McClure, general store owner, who was shot in what is now known as Dead Man’s Hollow when he tried to stop a robbery.
Tony Belobrajdich portrayed Thomas James “Jitters” Sweeney, a lance corporal in the Marines who was killed in 1968 in Vietnam. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Many of the actors who participated this past weekend have been part of the cast before, including Tony Belobrajdich, a 2014 East Allegheny High School graduate who portrayed Sweeney.
Belobrajdich talked to his own father, who served in Vietnam during the war, about what his experiences were like, and even wore his dad’s camouflage shirt as part of his costume. Belobrajdich said the movie “The Deer Hunter” also helped provide him with inspiration for his characterization.
Mostly, he said, his own personal experience is what helped out the most.
“He was a kid just shy of 19, and I’m 24,” Belobrajdich said. “He was just like me. People here know him, but at the same time, kids are kids. They act the same way.”
John Patalano, who portrayed steelworker Jacob Toms, used props to help convey the story of his character. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Actor John Patalano was a newcomer to the Living History Tour. He played Jacob Toms, a steelworker and family man who lived in Jerome Street, and died after suffering a head injury while working at National Tube Works.
Although there wasn’t much other information to be found about Toms, Patalano said, looking at his picture was a source of inspiration.
“I guess when you don't know a whole lot (about someone), you sort of go to a type or stereotype a little bit,” he said. “I saw the picture of him and tried to get an idea of how he moved, talked, walked."
A booklet provided at the start of the tour included a small biography about each character, whose stories included tales of tragedy, innovation and scandal.
Isaac Richardson is one of three local high school seniors who participated in the Living History Tour. He played Crawford Kelly, a young socialite killed in a plane crash in Connellsville in 1936. Richardson was involved in the event two years ago and recalls being a little confused prior to his first performance.
“My first time doing it, I was like, ‘What is this? What are they asking me to do?’” Richardson said. “Then I did it and I was like ‘This is really cool.’ You don’t see this anywhere else.”
The performances in this year’s tour were recorded and will be available in a few weeks to watch on the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center’s website at www.mckeesportheritage.org, organizers said.
Gina Rosso portrayed socialite LaRoux Lynch Soles, whose death became a national scandal when her husband was charged with her murder. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Tom Smithyman portrayed McKeesport native Frank Gilchrist, who each year played Uncle Sam in the Memorial Day parades down Fifth Avenue. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Tayler Cleveland portrayed Phyllis Garland, a trailblazer forging her path through journalism and music. She used her writing skills to cover the civil-rights movement for Ebony Magazine. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Bolivar Campusano portrayed Percy Garland, a pioneer who became one of the Black industrial photographers, helping document scientific and technological advancement while calling McKeesport his home. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)
Vickie Babyak is a photographer and freelance writer from Dravosburg. She may be reached at email@example.com. Kristen Keleschenyi is a freelance writer in North Versailles Twp. and one of the hosts of the Kristen & Amber Show on WMCK Internet Radio at 5 p.m. Saturdays, 9 p.m. Mondays and 4 p.m. Thursdays. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published September 15, 2020.