Donora memories flourish in Florida
As a teenager and young woman growing up in Donora, Paula (Polly) Weiss was never lacking for things to keep her busy.
And many of those activities were the genesis of a long and successful career in the production and literary aspects of television and film production.
“My parents, who always encouraged and supported me, enrolled me at age 16 to attend the Pittsburgh Playhouse weekly on Saturdays for drama and theatre classes,” said Weiss, a longtime resident of Boca Raton, Fla. “My father dutifully drove me to Pittsburgh each week; I couldn't wait for those Saturday trips. In addition, my mother purchased a subscription for me to “Theatre Arts” magazine. It was a monthly publication and I read it from cover to cover. All of this provided the foundation and backdrop for what was to come.”
Weiss is the daughter of the late Meyer and Irene Feldman Weiss.
Her father and his brother, Joseph Weiss, were the founders of Central Pharmacy, a landmark business in Donora. Her mother, a member of a pioneer Monessen family, was a teacher for many years at Jefferson Elementary School in Monessen.
Joseph Weiss left Donora in the 1950s to open a pharmacy in Monessen and Meyer operated the business until his untimely death at age 51 in 1959. Another brother, Herman Weiss, owned and operated Central Pharmacy for many years. Polly's mother moved to Monessen following her husband's death and passed away in June 1995.
“Central Pharmacy was a gathering place for people of all ages in Donora,” Weiss said. “It offered all the traditional pharmacy items – prescription and over-the-counter — of course, but customers could find myriad other products there, greeting cards, newspapers and magazines, so many things. The bus (to Pittsburgh) stopped in front of the pharmacy at Sixth and McKean and my father sold tickets for the bus. He also had a soda fountain at the store, so my friends and I and other young people enjoyed a lot of wonderful times there.”
Polly also was active at Donora High School with the Glee Club and school newspaper.
“I also sold candy for school fund-raisers at such events as basketball and football games,” she recalled. “My father, who was a very compassionate man, bought the leftovers – if there were any – so that I didn't have to return them to the school and I was able to finalize all my sales. I still retain fond memories of this.”
With an early love of the theatre manifesting itself for Weiss, she was chosen to direct the school play at Donora High.
“That was a thrill,” she said.
Weiss did not finish her formal education at Donora High School, opting instead to attend and graduate from Virginia Intermont, a two-year college preparatory school for women in Bristol, Va.
She graduated with honors with a bachelor of science degree in film and communications from Boston University. It was during those years that she had an internship at WGBH-TV in Boston, hosted a classical music program at WBUR, the school's radio station, and studied Modern Theatre at Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University in nearby Cambridge. She later took graduate classes in screenwriting and story structure at UCLA and the University of Southern California.
Her professional career began in New York City as assistant to Lucy Ferri, producer of the award winning soap opera, “The Guiding Light.” She also worked in various aspects of the television and film industries in London and Hollywood before moving to Boca Raton in 1991.
She currently works with a medical marketing company in Florida on a physician awareness program that alerts doctors about a newly developed treatment and diagnostic test for a rare genetic disease that can cause early death in patients.
Weiss is emphatic when citing her upbringing in Donora as a major factor in preparing her for the future.
“Growing up in Donora with its ethnic and economic mix was a vibrant environment,” she said. “I was able to appreciate the cultural richness of the community and also the differences. That experience allowed me to look at people as individuals, not as a group.”
She also believes the educational systems in small towns like Donora, Monessen and others in the Mon Valley was “first rate.”
“Not only is this based on my experiences attending various educational institutions with Ivy League graduates but also my personal knowledge of many outstanding and accomplished friends from the Monessen and Donora areas who are exceptional people and can hold their own with anyone. I have never met anyone who was superior in any way to any of these individuals. Even with all of the fancy Hollywood or New York images or the luxurious lifestyles they may have had.”
While her parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles provided family values in her life, Weiss also recalls an emphasis on learning that prevailed during her formative years.
“I grew up at a time when family was strong and both parents valued education,” she said. “So I was surrounded by books and good music and instilled with strong values. My parents exposed me to many cultural experiences, the Civic Light Opera during the summer where I attended musical theatre performances and to historical sites in Pennsylvania, which enhanced my interest in history.”
She also credits “many of the wonderful teachers” she had in Donora for complementing the parental guidance she received.
“I will never forget Jimmy Russell, the highly successful football coach at Donora High School,” Weiss said. “He was recognized primarily for his successful coaching career and that certainly is justified. But Mr. Russell was a Civil War expert and a fantastic history teacher who initiated my love of history, which continues today. He impacted the lives of so many students in Donora, not just on the football field but, perhaps more important, in the classroom.”
Her uncle, Dr. Eugene Feldman, a retired orthodontist living in Lewistown, Pa., also offered words of wisdom and guidance that remain with Weiss.
“Uncle Eugene is the youngest of my mother's brothers,” she said. “He is very well read and knowledgeable about the arts and introduced me to that world. I always look forward to our conversations.”
Eugene's brothers were the late Arthur (Art) and Frederic (Freddie) Feldman of Monessen. The brothers and Polly's mother were the children of Emanuel and Sadie Feldman, prominent residents of Monessen for many years.
Other relatives with whom Weiss maintains strong ties are cousins Dr. Malcolm Weiss, a longtime physician in the Mon Valley who now lives in Pittsburgh; Marsha Bramowitz, Malcolm's sister, who lives in Pittsburgh; Michael Weiss of Mt. Lebanon; Howard and Marta Wolkowicz of Monongahela; Donna Berkman of Pittsburgh; Ron Weiss of Pittsburgh; Gail Weiss of New York City; Howard Weiss, the brother of Malcolm and Marsha, of Hattiesburg, Miss.; Dr. Paul Weiss of Boston, Richard Weiss of Pittsburgh; Jimmy Weiss of Philadelphia; Billy Weiss of California; Max Stadler of Long Island, N.Y., and Pearl Schulman of Boca Raton.
Her aunts,. Gloria Weiss and. Bobbie Weiss, both live in Pittsburgh.
Weiss also retains a “very close bond” with three of her best friends from Donora.
“We stay in touch on a regular basis,” she said of Judy Russell Smith, Jimmy Russell's daughter, who recently moved to San Antonio, Texas, after living in Mentor, Ohio for many years; Barbara Rumora Berg, who makes her home “just outside of Pittsburgh,” and Joy Migliori Walterman, who still lives “only a block away” from the Central Pharmacy in Donora.
“I never worked at the pharmacy,” Weiss said. “But what I did do ... was occasionally I would take my friends after school to the store and I would make ice cream concoctions at the soda fountain and we would sit in one of the booths and enjoy them. I wonder if Joy still has memories of those ice cream sodas and sundaes. Those were unforgettable times.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.