Hidden talents: Pittsburgh personalities are more than they appear
On NBC's “America's Got Talent,” it's not unusual to find a janitor who's really an opera singer at heart, or a sandwich-shop worker who can sing a sweet tune, or a dentist with a passion for magic.
It made us wonder what hidden talents some of Pittsburgh's personalities are harboring. You might be surprised by what we found out.
By day and night, Neal Berntsen plays trumpet in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which he joined in 1997. But, for most of his time in Pittsburgh, he's found time for a second life as a basketball coach and has just completed his first season a referee.
Berntsen and his wife, Karen, live in Mt. Lebanon, where he got involved in coaching when his eldest child, Molly, now 21, wanted to play the game. After he started coaching, he didn't stop until he became a ref. He's coached all three of his children; the boys are Jacob, 18, and Charlie, 15.
Berntsen first picked up a basketball when he was 5. He eventually grew to 6 feet 3 inches and was recruited to play basketball in college. But the ones that recruited him to play trumpet were much better schools.
“I don't find there to be a big difference between playing music and playing basketball,” he says. “Both things are really built on fundamentals. The better that you can execute fundamental technique, the more advanced you can become as a musician or a basketball player. I feel I coach basketball much the same way I teach my trumpet students at Carnegie Mellon.”
Andy Masich constantly is surrounded by various elements of history, but seems to have a real fondness for the UFO scare of the '50s.
The CEO and president of the Senator John Heinz History Center has developed a skill that he uses to attract attention at the museum or to cause a bit of worry on a crowded elevator. He can make a combination whistling/humming sound that is like something out of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or other '50s sci fi movies.
“I'll stand at the back of an elevator and do it, and when somebody turns around with a worried look, I just look skyward and say, ‘Did you hear that, too?' ”
He says he has been hovering above the Earth for about 20 years ago and once told his daughter it probably was caused by the time he swallowed one of those mini-UFOs out there.
“And there are thousands of them,” he says earnestly. “Sometimes you will see one and think it's a firefly or something. And you swallow it and then there it is.”
It is well known that Pitt women's basketball coach Agnus Berenato knows the strategy of preparing her players to compete on the court. But, her hidden talent is that she also has a knack for devising the perfect game plan for preparing a dinner party for 50 people. And she can do it with only three hours notice.
As a wife, mother of five and a Division I coach, Berenato has to be organized.
“My family knows when I call and say we are having people over for dinner what that means,” says Berenato, of Swissvale. “Dinner is about fabulous fellowship. And we love inviting our family, friends and co-workers to our house to share a meal. This is what my mom did. My dad would call and say he invited 20 people to dinner. And we would all go into ‘action mode.' I am also an expert at shoving things into drawers and closets if I need to. The key is to be organized in your head.”
The key also is to have an extra freezer filled with chicken and shrimp as well as plenty of pasta, butter, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, rosemary, sea salt, a block of parmesan cheese and wine within arms reach.
Berenato works to always keeps her house clean and makes sure dishes are always put away every time so they will be shiny for the next dining experience.
Evgeni Malkin is a quick study, his close friends among the Penguins say. Winger Matt Cooke is always impressed by how fast Malkin, who speaks three languages, picks up various card games and quickly begins besting teammates during charter flights to road games.
Since arriving in the United States six years ago, Malkin, the NHL's newest MVP, has learned how to speak English and cheat at Hearts — but his latest accomplishment is one many of his fans picked up long ago.
Yes, “Gino” Malkin is making his mark on the checker board.
It started late this last season, when Malkin started playing online against the eldest daughter of his best friend, former Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar.
Malkin had so much fun that he looked into various Web groups of checkers player, and now he goes back and forth often while trying to master the game.
An avid chess player and fan of strategy-based board games in general, Malkin is “getting better” at checkers, his mother, Natalia, says.
“He does not win all the time,” she says through an interpreter. “But he hates to lose, so now he plays (checkers) more because he wants to get better.”
Freddie Fu, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is also the head team physician for the University of Pittsburgh athletic department. He was instrumental in establishing the Sports and Preventative Medicine Institute — now the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine — in 1985.
But his talent reaches far beyond the medical field.
“I can recognize music from the '60s really well,” says Fu, who played lead guitar in a rock band as a teenager in his native Hong Kong. His group was an instrumental band that played songs by the Shadows and the Ventures, like “Wipe Out.” Fu recently got to display his prowess at a party where the host had 5,000 songs from that era. Fu recalls that he was able to name even relatively obscure songs in just a few notes, including the Beatles cover of “Kansas City.”
“I didn't even know how I did it, to the tell you the truth.”
— William Loeffler
Dwayne Dolphin's “hidden talent” actually is quite easy to see, but it is still pushed into the shadow by his better-known skill as a bassist.
The jazz star creates visual art as a painter.
One of his paintings is the cover of his new album, “Essence of an Angel.” One hangs in the library at the North Side campus of the Community College of Allegheny County.
Dolphin, who grew up in the Hill District and now lives in Franklin Park, is currently bebopping around Europe on a tour with trombonist Fred Wesley. His wife, Robin, says he became interested in painting 10 or more years ago, inspired by Pablo Picasso and his abstract look at life.
Although painting is quite different from jazz, Robin is not surprised that he has the dual interests.
“You know how he is,” she says. “He's always pushing himself out of the box. He is just a very creative person.”
— Bob Karlovits
Fayette County musician Chris Higbee, known for his fiddling and singing, can drive a mean bulldozer, backhoe or excavator like a pro.
Higbee — leader of the band Chris Higbee Project and fiddler for the former PovertyNeck Hillbillies — grew up around heavy farm equipment because of his family's business, Higbee Construction. Now, Higbee, 32, relishes driving the mammoth vehicles several times a year. He borrows bulldozers from friends, and drives them around on his 90-acre farm in Lower Tyrone Township, where he grows crops, hunts and lives with brother Ross and wife, Melissa. Higbee may use the machinery for farm projects — like tree removal, smoothing land and reshaping hills — but he confesses that riding the vehicles that weigh several tons is just plain fun.
“It's absolutely a blast. It's a … sense of power,” Higbee says.
Driving these vehicles takes skill, he says.
“You've got to understand dirt,” Higbee says. “You've got to understand what you're doing with it before you climb into the machine.”
— Kellie Gormly
Joe Wos is curator of the rapidly expanding Toonseum, Downtown. He's also a professional storyteller, with hundreds of appearances at local schools, museums and festivals to his credit.
“My hidden talent is celebrity voice impersonation,” Wos says. “Unfortunately, they are often obscure celebrities, like Ruth Gordon in ‘Every Which Way But Loose.'
“It started with cartoons. When I was a kid, I would not only try and draw the characters but imitate their voices. As a child, I had the misguided belief that if you created a cartoon character you had to come up with the voices, too. So I practiced. I became a fan of impersonators Rich Little, John Byner and Pittsburgher Frank Gorshin.”
As a storyteller, this is a skill that actually gets a lot of use.
“I have used some of it in my performance(s), when I tell stories while drawing them. But I never do straight impressions on stage as performance — it's always characters for my stories.
“However, I do secretly enter karaoke competitions while I am on tour! I actually won a competition in Las Vegas years ago for my rendition of Sammy Davis Jr. singing ‘Candy Man.' ”
— Michael Machosky
Stand-up comedian Matt Wohlfarth is a seasoned performer, a cagey road dog who's delivered 10,000 punch lines. The Shaler native worked as a doorman for the legendary Comedy Store in Los Angeles and has recorded at least one CD and authored an e-book, “The ABC's of Stand Up Comedy.”
His hidden talent may seem frivolous, but who knows? Hecklers at comedy shows can get pretty out of hand sometimes. It's not out of the question that someone might throw a football at Wohlfarth during his set. Should that happen, be prepared to be impressed, because the dude will catch that pigskin with one hand — the one that's not holding the mike.
Wohlfarth learned from his best friend, Pat Capatolla, who played football at New Mexico University.
“We used to just hang around and catch football while we were chilling,” Wohlfarth says. “He would practice by himself, just throwing the ball up in the air and catching it while lying on his back watching television. I just happened to have big mitts that could catch the ball one-handed. It didn't matter that I got cut from the Seton-LaSalle football team as a freshman. It also didn't matter that I ran the 100-yard dash in 4.1 months. “
Let others squeeze a stress ball, he says.
“I always found it relaxing to sit and toss a football when I working on a joke, a script or a novel.”
— William Loeffler
Don't be deceived by Marci Woodruff's urban veneer or soft Southern accent.
The Squirrel Hill resident is best known locally as an educator and as a stage director for productions at companies that include The Unseam'd Shakespeare Company, No Name Players, The Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Playwrights Company.
“Don't be fooled by the Ph.D.,” says Woodruff's husband, Lon Durbin.
The woman knows her way around a variety of heavy construction machinery.
“I knew how to drive a bulldozer before I could drive a car,” Woodruff says. “My dad was a highway construction contractor. I was 8 when he taught me how to drive a bulldozer.”
— Alice Carter