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Is Hollywood coming to Pa. coal country?

Plus, Delco's AI-fueled obituary app.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

April 7, 2023
Inside this edition: Energy art, international snacking, cool things, Updike's home, ice cream history, AI obit, and one man's film studio dreams. 
🏆  TEST TIME: What a week! If you're confident you've been following the news closely, there's only one way to prove it: Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The ornate windows of the Pennsylvania House chamber include artistic odes to justice, liberty, and natural gas. True or false? 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One store worth trying: Pittsburgh has a 24/7 store that's just vending machines packed with snacks and soft drinks from around the world. Midnight options include Canadian Oh Henry! bars, black velvet cake slices from Colombia, and Bamba strawberry snacks from Israel.

» One election worth auditing: Primanti Brothers gave away free beer on Wednesday to celebrate being voted the "Coolest Thing Made in PA" over Mrs. T's Pierogies. Facebook's The Metaverse, partially a Pittsburgh product, didn't even make it past round one.

» One place worth visiting: The Berks County childhood home that Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike called "one of my favorite places in the world" has been restored and is open to the public.

» One thing worth knowing: Lancaster Farming reports Bassetts Ice Cream of Philadelphia is the oldest ice cream parlor in the country and started with mule-powered equipment in 1861.

» One obituary worth reading: Philly mag's Victor Fiorillo let a Delco funeral home's AI app write his obituary. For cause of death, he went with “swallowed a blowgun dart.” The results were moving.

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Full guide to the candidates for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court

» Guía completa de los candidatos a la Corte Suprema del Estado

» Guide to the candidates for Commonwealth, Superior Courts

» How Spotlight PA will cover Pa.’s 2023 primary election

» Pa. short-staffed with Medicaid at risk for thousands

» Campaign finance, lobbying reform sidestepped by lawmakers

» At least one big hurdle remains for Pa. open primary push

» How much north-central Pa. nonprofit hospital execs make

» Register to vote in the May 16 primary here; deadline May 1

» Request your mail ballot for the May 16 primary; deadline May 9

Support Spotlight PA's public-service election coverage now.
An artistic rendering of arches at the entrance to a planned film studio in Tamaqua, Pa.
A rendering of Tamaqua Film Studios. (Courtesy of Tamaqua Film Studios LLC)
Robert Morgalo’s idea is big, maybe even a moonshot.

With a group of investors that includes actor Federico Castelluccio — who played Furio on The Sopranos before hitting a real-life art world jackpot — Morgalo plans to build a $30 million film studio on 50 acres of old coal mines in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County. 

Find a virtual walkthrough of the project here

His pitch, delivered with a T. Boone Pickens level of self-assuredness, promises Hollywood-caliber facilities and the potential for transformational change in a borough that’s home to 7,000 people and, according to the last census, a 20% poverty rate.

“That’s the question I get asked the most: Why Tamaqua?” he said seated on a couch inside his production company’s new office on the borough’s equivalent of Main Street. 

Then he answers it, touting the exponentially lower overhead Tamaqua can offer filmmakers and its Anytown, USA backdrop, not to mention its proximity to the “Switzerland of America.”

Morgalo’s is an interesting background. The Berks County resident once helmed Martínez, Morgalo & Associates (M&M) in New York, where he said he repped some of the biggest stars in Latin music: Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, and Luis Fonsi. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Latin Nites series at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. M&M's role in an ill-fated 2003 Willie Colón-Rubén Blades reunion concert in San Juan prompted a messy legal saga and a 236-page book. It would be the firm’s last project. 

Around the same time, Morgalo said he was deployed to Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army’s Inactive Ready Reserve. He said he served as a combat medic in the warzone from 2003 to 2004.

PTSD followed and he would eventually be medically retired from the armed services. In 2018, following the death of his mother, Morgalo decided to do something he’d never done before: “I was in a dark space and I decided to go to an [acting] audition in D.C.”

He said in his first year of acting he landed 15 films and 16 commercials. Then he wrote a play, a Three’s Company spinoff that earned a slot at NY WinterFest in 2020. 

His IMDB page now lists acting, writing, and producing credits, many for lower-budget films. But his next project is his most ambitious and expensive by miles. 

Morgalo said the goal in Tamaqua isn’t to corner the filmmaking market but rather to provide “unprecedented dollar-for-dollar value.” 
A stoplight on Tamaqua's equivalent of Main Street.
Downtown Tamaqua. (Wikimedia Commons)

He envisions an on-site hotel, as well as built-in catering, craft, and equipment services — essentially a one-stop shop for making everything from independent films to infomercials. He also plans to build the nation’s largest green screen there. 

Pennsylvania’s film tax credits are central to the plan, helping to turbo-charge promised production savings. So is Tamaqua’s Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone, or CRIZ, a state program that allows the borough to recoup some of the tax revenue it sends to Harrisburg and put it toward economic development efforts. 

Tamaqua’s CRIZ authority has pledged $1.5 million to support the Tamaqua Film Studios project. Authority Chair Dan Evans said the “equity contribution” is the program’s largest such commitment to date. “But if the project doesn’t materialize, there’s nothing lost, nothing gained,” Evans said. “It’s just a letter of commitment saying if you do this, we’ll do that.” 

Rural Pennsylvania has seen much smaller film projects fail to launch before — just ask Bradford — but the local backers of the Tamaqua Film Studios push say this could be the real thing.

State Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), an early supporter who convinced Morgalo to bring the endeavor to Tamaqua from Berks County, where it was initially proposed, counts himself among the optimists. 

“There’s been several meetings, they’ve opened an office, they’re reviewing the possible purchase of the property involved,” he said. “But yes, there still are a lot of Ts that need to be crossed before this becomes a reality.” 

Argall added of the location: “It’s not far from the neighborhood I grew up in. And this is completely new to us. I have seen the revitalization of Jim Thorpe from a dying old coal region to a top tourism destination and I suspect this could be something similar.” 

Argall confirmed that federal mine land reclamation funds could also be tapped to get the property in suitable shape for a construction project of this magnitude. 

But it was an opportunity to benefit from the state's film tax credits that attracted the project’s largest investor, the private New Jersey-based real estate investment trust known as ARCTRUST. 

Ric Ciappa, a representative of the company, is serving as director of development for the Tamaqua Film Studios undertaking and said they were connected with Morgalo, and ultimately the project, by Federico Castelluccio of The Sopranos fame, whom he calls a mutual friend. 

Ciappa said the state’s film tax credits, which can be sold for non-film purposes, drove their interest, adding: “We’re all about safe, credible investments. We try to reduce in every way possible any risk factors. We can afford to very carefully deploy investor money.” 

In the streaming era, he believes the content creation space is a good bet.

Ciappa hopes to have the project shovel ready by the end of the year. 

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"We look forward to working with VisitPITTSBURGH in the coming months as furries from around the globe plan their trip to Pittsburgh."

—Sam Conway, board chair of Anthrocon, one of the world's largest gatherings of furries, on June's convention in Pittsburgh, where hotels sold out in hours

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
As seen by Don H. on an early morning Pennsylvania hike. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on IG, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
Layered fungus creates a pattern on a log.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

It's true. Capitol Preservation Committee Historian Jason Wilson told WITF that when the Capitol was built between 1902 and 1906, lawmakers used corporate debt payments and other revenue sources to pay for the job, since there was no state income tax at the time:

Around the same time, Pennsylvania companies were among the top producers of things like steel, oil — and yes, natural gas. The building’s designers took the opportunity to show off.

“There’s only about a 20-year period, maybe 1890 to 1910, where we were at the height of our industrial might in Pennsylvania,” Wilson said. “So they wanted to showcase a commonwealth at its height of industry [and] the height of commercialism. So [the windows] are just representations of things that Pennsylvania was famous for at the turn of the last century.”

The walls also include odes to "electricity," "education," "steel & iron," "petroleum," "steam," and "chemistry." Read WITF's full report.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

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