Rick Sebak makes unusual television programs.
His slightly wacky documentaries celebrate various aspects of modern American life and the unexpected charms of Pittsburgh. Audiences have learned to recognize his friendly narrative style and the unusual topics that he obviously loves.
In April 2008, Rick worked with the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania on a new local program called INVENTED, ENGINEERED & PIONEERED IN PITTSBURGH about our region's long history and continuing prominence in many aspects of engineering from John Roebling's bridges to ground-breaking new work in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. That same year, in October, Rick and his team finished a national show for PBS titled A RIDE ALONG THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY about the history and charms of America's first coast-to-coast highway.
Rick explored the beauty and delicious possibilities of market houses, market places and farmers' markets across America in 2007, resulting in a PBS program called TO MARKET, TO MARKET TO BUY A FAT PIG. The public broadcasting newspaper called Current ran a front-page profile of Rick in September 2007: "Sebak's work - a mix of factual tidbits and individual's experiences - cultivates a desire to experience the less-traveled places, says Larry Bird, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. 'In what he seeks out, there's a conscious desire to showcase, or highlight or celebrate, a parallel universe,' he says. Sometimes, says Bird, it's "like being let in on a big cultural secret."
In 2007, Rick also released a program called UNDERGROUND PITTSBURGH about mushroom farms, national storage facilities, the shortest subway and the most productive coal mines in the world, among other subterranean topics. In 2006, he tried to figure out WHAT MAKES PITTSBURGH PITTSBURGH? and decided there was no easy answer, although in a program with that title, he considered hills and rivers, neighborhoods, the Steelers, and Red Ribbon Cherry pop made by Natrona Bottling.
In October 2005, his program celebrating American burial places titled A CEMETERY SPECIAL premiered on PBS stations across the country. Rob Owen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote "The tone is vintage Sebak, chipper and inquisitive with a love of people in all their varied, colorful, quotable forms…There are so many stories in "A Cemetery Special," all of them told with such efficiency and joy, this may be Sebak's best, meatiest national show yet." Charlie McCollum for KRT News Service said, "Done with intelligence, efficiency and charm, it is a fine piece of filmmaking."
In 2004, Rick put together a Pittsburgh program called IT'S THE NEIGHBORHOODS, full of unexpected stories about various aspects of a few neighborhoods in southwestern Pennsylvania. As usual, the stories are told primarily through the voices of the people involved, whether they be folks in Bloomfield bragging about their Little Italy Days parade or coffee drinkers at the Tazza D'Oro coffee shop in Highland Park or the feisty women in suburban Collier Township who formed the Hi Neighbor Club in 1958 and have been meeting the fourth Tuesday of the month ever since.
Rick's 2004 national project, an agreeably goofy documentary titled A PROGRAM ABOUT UNUSUAL BUILDINGS & OTHER ROADSIDE STUFF, took viewers around the country to see structures in strange shapes (like the Big Duck on Long Island and the World's Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois.)
In 2003, after the death of Mister Rogers, Rick rewrote an earlier documentary he had made into a new program titled "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor." For his work on this new program, Rick was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards: one for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming, and another for his work as one of the producers of this Outstanding Nonfiction Special.
Also in 2003, Rick celebrated some of the people and the places that have manufactured various goods in the Pittsburgh area in a program called THINGS WE'VE MADE. It included some steel (of course), Westinghouse air brakes, Del Monte soups and baby foods, Jensen Steam Engines and Iron City Beer among other things. PBS offered the show nationally in the summer of 2004.
Rick has also done an hour about hot dogs and hot dog shops across the United States. Another hour on flea markets. Ninety minutes about Pittsburgh's great commercial neighborhood called the Strip. You can catch can his "Sandwiches That You Will Like" on public television or on DVD. He's put together programs about pre-Disney amusement parks, really good ice cream places, "Stuff That's Gone" in western Pennsylvania, and, in a special called "Shore Things," he documented some of the non-environmental reasons why people like to go to the beach.
Many of Rick's programs may make you want to travel. David Bianculli in The New York Daily News has written, "Rick Sebak is not a filmmaker. He's a brainwasher. He's a brainwasher because you can't watch one of his effervescent films without having a very strong urge to follow in his footsteps and experience firsthand the places he presents so compellingly."
He has put together twenty-two individual special programs that make up what is called the Pittsburgh History Series, including a very popular 1988 program titled "Kennywood Memories" about the wonderful old amusement park near Pittsburgh, a show called "Pittsburgh A To Z," one titled "North Side Story," and a much imitated documentary titled "Things That Aren't There Anymore."
PBS stations around the country often rebroadcast Rick's programs because audiences respond so favorably to the quirky blend of Americana, places and personalities.
Before coming to WQED in Pittsburgh, Rick worked for 11 years at the South Carolina Educational Television Network in Columbia, South Carolina. His work there included the award-winning documentaries "Shag," about the official state dance of South Carolina, and "The Slightly Wacky Aussie Doco," a travelogue about Australia.
He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He grew up in Bethel Park, PA, in the suburban South Hills of Pittsburgh, and graduated from Bethel Park High School in 1971.