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(Submitted photo courtesy Heinz History Center)
Sam Zolten was at the beach in North Wildwood, N.J., last week when he spotted someone wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hat. So he walked over to say hello.
"He turned out to be a teacher at McKeesport High School," Zolten says. "In my heart, I've never left McKeesport. I'm still an 18-year-old, going to the White Elephant on Saturday nights. It's the town that grew me and the town that I fondly reminisce about."
Thanks to his new documentary, many more McKeesporters --- including those, like Zolten, who moved away long ago --- will likely be reminiscing as well. "Missing McKeesport" has yet to be screened and is already creating enormous buzz among past and present Mon-Yough residents.
More than seven years in the making, the movie will have its world premiere at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh's Strip District.
"There's a lot of buzz in the community about it and it's a film I'm very proud of," Zolten says.
That is, if Zolten can prevent himself from continuing to tinker with it. "I was up last night, watching it again, just looking for any problems," he says. The version to be shown at the history center is two hours long, with an intermission. "There's a four-hour version, too, that some people will want to see," Zolten says. "It's very, very difficult to make cuts, but I recognize that attention spans are what they are."
But Zolten says the movie isn't only about nostalgia, and hopes it will connect with -- and inspire --- younger residents as well.
"There's a theme of connectivity that I'm hoping resonates with people," he says. "It was a simpler time, when people looked out for each other, took care of each other, and appreciated the very simple things --- foods, ethnicity, culture --- frankly, this film is about preserving all of that."
"Missing McKeesport" grew out of a reunion of former McKeesporters, mostly from the Jewish community, ages 50 to 80, held in 2010 at the Seven Springs resort in Westmoreland County. "They wanted a party video," Zolten says. "I immediately said no to that, because I saw much larger opportunities."
More than 150 interviews later, along with countless visits to the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center, the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center, and the Carnegie Library, Zolten finally felt confident enough to begin finishing the project.
Zolten, an independent filmmaker, says the project has been "very lonely and arduous" at times.
"I'm probably $15,000 to $20,000 out of pocket," he says, joking that "I'm very lucky in that I don't charge myself for my own time."
Last year, Zolten did an online fundraiser using the Kickstarter website to raise the money necessary to finish the project. Several angel investors also helped with the project, he says.
"I had two or three contributors who were very significant," Zolten says. The money helped pay for the rights to use archival photos, as well as for original music and animation.
Zolten grew up on Jenny Lind Street and later moved to Versailles Avenue. He graduated from McKeesport High School in 1967 and moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University. After he completed his studies, he stayed there.
Zolten's best-known film, Just Call Me Kade, is a 2002 documentary about a transgender teen transitioning from female to male.
And no matter what paths his career took him down, Zolten says he kept being drawn back to McKeesport --- the subject of "Kade" is the son of a childhood friend from McKeesport.
"I get so very sentimental about so much of what happened," he says. "It was a magical place to grow up --- it was a melting pot of many cultures of people who really cared about each other, and it was truly a community that once everyone left, we hoped to stay connected."
Several different but related stories weave their way through the film, Zolten says.
"One is about the Jewish immigrants and their sons and daughters who settled in the community," he says. "Many of them went into the professions, but others started the businesses that underpinned the economy of Fifth Avenue in McKeesport ... they came from Europe, they settled, they flourished, but then their children left --- and I'm one of them."
"Missing McKeesport" tells some of the story of the city's Jewish community --- at times in the 20th century, McKeesport had between four and seven synagogues --- through interviews and Zolten's own personal reflections.
U.S. Steel's National Tube Works is another major focus of the film. "It was such a big visual element of McKeesport, and now it no longer exists, except as an element in people's minds," he says. "The steel mill is a big character in the film."
After the premiere at the Heinz History Center, Zolten isn't sure what will happen next to the film. He's hoping for a wider release in the Pittsburgh area or for "Missing McKeesport" to be made available on DVD and in other formats, but he'll need to make sure he clears the rights to the images and music.
"My goal is to bring this film to as many eyes as possible," Zolten says.
No matter where the movie is screened, all of the material collected will be archived "for posterity" at the Heinz History Center, he says.
He'd also like the completion of "Missing McKeesport" to be the beginning of conversations not just about the city's past, but its future.
"I hope there is some lightning in the bottle that can bring some economic recovery from McKeesport," Zolten says. "I've heard there are some good things happening there, and I hold hope that they will get better."
"Missing McKeesport" premieres at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., in Pittsburgh's Strip District neighborhood. Seating is limited and is first-come, first-served, and pre-registration is requested. Persons who want to see the movie will have to pay for an admission ticket to the museum.
The film premiere will be followed by an in-person Q&A with Zolten.
For more information, call (412) 454-6000.
Originally published August 17, 2017.