Pittsburgh dancers recall hearing moon landing broadcast in Soviet bar
In the midst of the Cold War and during the summer that American astronauts were to walk on the moon, a group of Pittsburgh college students were asked by the U.S. State Department to take their Duquesne Tamburitzans show on a cultural exchange to the U.S.S.R.
They were in the Soviet bloc when the Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
The thrilling telecast from the moon to NASA at the Houston flight center was watched by millions, but the Tammys — as members of the singing and dancing troupe celebrating U.S. and Eastern European heritage is called — could hear it only on the Voice of America radio broadcast.
Travel and talk with locals was greatly limited for the Pittsburgh dancers, singers and musicians. After a performance in Tbilisi, Georgia, the Tamburitzans met on July 20, 1969, to celebrate the 21st birthday of dancer Barbara Harris of Sewickley.
They requested that the bartender turn on the radio to the VOA station, and they were soon moonstruck.
“It was wonderful to hear about the moon walk. We were looking out the windows at the moon, and we heard those words, and we could see the moon. It was surreal,” Harris said.
“We heard it, and we all cheered. Not like people at a football game. But we were American and were proud America did it,” said performer David Kolar of Pittsburgh.
Kolar said he saw a short story a day or two later in a local Soviet paper.
“It said that the Americans claimed to have landed on the moon. That was the local line,” he said.
Rudy Grasha of Indiana remembers many Tbilisi residents also came to the bar to celebrate. Grasha said while the U.S.S.R. establishment “pooh-poohed” the accomplishment, the people were “elated and congratulatory.”
“The champagne and vodka was flowing, and Americans and Russians were all cheering,” he said.
When the Tamburitzans performed the Charleston and rock ’n’ roll dances, the Russians loudly expressed their approval.
“It was a thrill,” he said.
Surreal was the word that Jonathan Finster, now living in Florida, used.
“We were naive college students. We didn’t understand the political aspects of our visit to the Soviet Union. There was some tension,” he said.
The day after the landing, Finster went downstairs at the hotel to get a haircut and shave.
“I was sitting in the chair, and I got nervous. The barber was stropping the straight razor. Remember, the U.S. had just landed people on the moon,” Finster said. “He looked at me. Cut my hair and gave me a shave. Then he said, ‘Americanski Eagle,’ and he pumps a thumb up. ‘Moscow nyet.’ And he didn’t charge me anything. It was neat.”
Performer Christine Jordanoff, who now lives on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington, remembered the anticipation.
“We were totally silent waiting to hear the Houston broadcast,” said Jordanoff, who 50 years ago was a Tammy performer and now is a Duquesne University professor emerita. “We began cheering when he planted the flag on the moon.”
On Friday, she will host a party at her Grandview residence for Tammys who took part in the performances in Russia 50 years ago. Others will visit the Heinz History Center on Saturday for an airing of the historic video and celebrate at 4 p.m. at the Tamburitzan building.
Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck at 724-226-4711, [email protected] or via Twitter .