Boaz Frankel was planning to make a short movie about each and every one of 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods. That’s obviously not possible now, so in the interim he’s started a daily live talk show called “Good Morning Quarantine,” broadcast 6 days a week at 11 a.m. on Facebook.
Frankel has a lot of offbeat interests.
He once set a Guinness World Record for most high fives in an hour (408, since broken).
He made a podcast called Your Favorite Sandwich, and got “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom, “Late Late Show” bandleader Reggie Watts and “Garfield” creator Jim Davis to extol their favorite sandwich.
He wrote a book with his wife, Brooke Barker, called “Let’s Be Weird Together,” about all the ways couples have adapted weirdly to long-term relationships. He hosted a talk show on a bicycle, the “Pedal Powered Talk Show,” for six years, talking to people while riding all over the country. He became a semi-celebrity in the Netherlands for his wide-eyed televised peek at Dutch culture, “Boaz Goes Dutch.” Oh, and he’s the curator of a museum for kazoos.
So when he moved to Pittsburgh last year — he fell for the city during a visit — it was no surprise that Frankel found a creative and quirky project to take on. Once he learned that Pittsburgh has 90 distinct neighborhoods, he decided to get to know them all by making a short movie about each one.
He’s done seven PGH Stories so far. Only 83 to go.
It’s a remarkably ambitious undertaking, but Boaz is known for that. Making mini-movies about Pittsburgh neighborhoods seemed like an obvious thing to do. Figuring out where to start was the trick.
“I thought I’d go alphabetically,” he says. And he refuses to do research in advance. “So I just have this pure experience where I can just go there and be curious and see what strikes me.”
So far PGH Stories range from finding the heavy metal side of Allentown — home to Black Forge Coffee House and Onion Maiden — to exploring a bell tower in Allegheny Center that sonically and literally towers over its surroundings. Titles include “One Moore Diner in Arlington,” and “A Magical Grotto in Banksville.”
“I think the ones that turn into these sort of mysteries are my favorite,” says Frankel. Like the park in Allegheny West that he found impossible to get into. “That was so mysterious — why is this park here that’s impossible to enter?” Or how it was clear that something had been in Arlington Heights (WWII-era public housing projects) but its absence was so striking. “Where did it go? What happened? What did life used to be like here?”
His curiosity is matched only by his desire to connect with people to find out more.
“You have to talk to people,” explains Frankel, who says the answers can’t be found online. “It’s all led to me meeting random people, hopping into a stranger’s car essentially and getting a tour.”
You might be wondering about now where he finds time for all these cool projects.
“Clearly, I have to balance that with projects that actually make money so I can make rent,” says Frankel. “Sometimes something strikes me and I’ll do it that day. Other times, (projects) will cook for awhile. I’ve been curating this kazoo museum for over a decade, and I’ve been working on the new iteration for the past three years. Hopefully, we’ll get it installed sometime this year, in South Carolina.”
“It’s a truly democratic instrument — anybody can play it, anybody can pick it up, as long as you can sort of carry a tune,” he notes. “It’s one of the few instruments that was invented in the United States. It has a really murky history. It’s been kind of impossible to find out exactly how it was invented, but there’s no shortage of theories. And so whenever I have free time, that’s something I’ve been working on — trying to get to the bottom of where the kazoo came from.”
One thing he doesn’t do, is lose interest quickly. He hosted the Pedal Powered Talk Show for six years.
“We took this late-night, talk show-style desk and put it on the front of a bike,” says Frankel. “First, we rode it around Oregon, and then we got to places all over the country.” He lists them: Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, the top of the Space Needle, in a raft and down rivers, even in a herd of buffalo.
“At Mount Rushmore, we interviewed the superintendent. We interviewed a buffalo herd manager in a herd of buffalo. We interviewed the guy who cleans the windows at the top of the Space Needle.”
And that book, “Let’s Be Weird Together: A Book About Love?” That was a labor of love made with his wife.
It’s about how the longer people spend time together, the weirder they get, says Frankel, who profiled quirky couples from ancient Egypt to modern-day.
Frankel was preparing to give a talk about curiosity for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, now canceled due to the coronavirus. He was the winner of the Public Open Call, a web-based audition for new voices at the festival.
If his previous efforts are any indication, he’ll find a reason to give this talk at some point.
“Basically it’s an exploration into curiosity and what it means to be curious in this digital age, where Google can answer any question,” explains Frankel. “You can ask it, ‘What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?’ and Google will tell you something. Which is sort of a weird thing.”