Tuesday, March 04, 2008

PBS 39 documentary visits Allentown's past, present and future

Without Allentown, there would be no Liberty Bell and man may never have walked on the moon. Plays would have flopped on Broadway and Billy Joel would be short a hit single. Who knew that the Valley housed such a crown jewel?

Amy Burkett, executive producer for PBS 39's ''Communities'' documentary series, was sure of that when she started production on ''Communities: Allentown,'' the third documentary in the station's ''Communities'' series that also includes New Hope and Bethlehem.

''It's one of the largest, most important cities in the region with many exciting things to both look back upon and look ahead to,'' she says. It's no wonder that filming took more than 11 months.
From Sodexho Vice President Bob Wood recalling his days at ''Ritz Barbecue'' to former Allentown High School (now William Allen) principal Jack McHugh declaring that ''you got dressed up!'' to go to the ''Great Allentown Fair,'' PBS staff interviewed 69 people to weave together the stories that are Allentown.

''It's a city rich in a sense of community; it's the people that make it great,'' says Burkett.

The project, which began filming in March 2007, highlights the birth of Allentown in 1762 and follows its transformation from a small summer get-away to a thriving metropolis.

''Folks in Allentown call it the Golden Age,'' booms narrator Grover Silcox, calling us back to the early 20th century, when people flocked to Hess's Department Store to shop for the latest fashions and mingle with stars like Rock Hudson and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Broadway stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope stopped in Allentown to try out their shows. Iron, silk and cement industries employed the masses and Solomon Dorney opened an amusement park to keep them entertained.

Allentown's Western Electric birthed the transistor, ultimately used in the equipment that helped man land on the moon.

And as the city grew, so did tradition. Allentown families became entrenched in their livelihoods and businesses.

Yocco's, ''The Hot Dog King,'' opened in Allentown in 1929, when Theodore Iacocca (a relative of Lee Iacocca, better known for his Chrysler Corp. revival) replaced cigars with hot dogs in his shop on Liberty Street.

Today at Ninth and Hamilton streets, Alvin H. Butz Inc. stands as a testament to the hard work of five generations of builders dating back to the 1920s.

But tradition isn't always tied to profession. Allentown resident Catharine Michael talks about putting ''your whole heart and soul'' into something, much like she and her daughter-in-law do with the Allentown Garden Club. It's those same sentiments that drive the members of the Allentown Pioneer Band, who have been keeping up the beat of Allentown since 1889.

The film features Symphony Hall, Civic Theatre and the Allentown Art Museum as sites where residents can continue to both partake in and add to the city's colorful cultural heritage. And that's the goal of PBS 39, says Burkett -- ''to preserve the rich heritage of our entire region because there isn't any other outlet to do so.''

Burkett says she and her staff ''picked the brains'' of city residents to make Allentown's ''hidden treasure stories'' come alive. They boiled 100 hours of footage down to one hour, but she feels the result is a portrayal of Allentown as ''a city of promise and work in progress.''

Burkett, whose resume includes three Emmy Award-winning documentaries in PBS 39's ''Living History'' series -- ''Hollywood on Hamilton: Remembering Hess's,'' ''Bethlehem Steel: The People Who Built America'' and ''Make a Joyful Noise: The Bach Choir of Bethlehem'' -- believes she can help further that progress through the story of tradition, pride and potential.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and State Rep. Jennifer Mann, both featured in the documentary, are equally optimistic. Pawlowski says the city's revival is far from ''impossible'' and tells viewers that ''Allentown is going to come back. It's going to be a city people are proud of. It's going to be the queen city again.'' Mann agrees, asserting that people have a reason to ''keep fighting'' to make Allentown better.

From a new ballpark to a $175 million development on the Lehigh waterfront, they're sure Allentown's future looks rosy, as citizens keep making history.

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