The Steel City Ghostbusters
Comic book villains are not alone in wreaking havoc on the Big Apple, however, as a 112-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Man likewise caused considerable damage during the 1984 supernatural comedy Ghostbusters. Pittsburgh may never have been invaded by aliens or seen a giant ape climb the Steel Building on Grant Street, but it does have its own Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—although a slightly smaller version than the one that made its way to 55 Central Park West in the film. And while Pittsburgh has never experienced paranormal activity on the same scale as Manhattan, the region does have its own group of heroes ready to take action with the Steel City Ghostbusters.
“Most of the time we have people run up to us and ask for photos because they just can’t believe that we’re full-fledged Ghostbusters,” said lead member David Swartz. “We’ve had a few fans get really excited to the point they don’t stop smiling for hours and I don’t mean kids, I mean twentysomething guys or girls. That’s almost as awesome as the kids because those people are reliving their childhood right in front of you. Granted they aren’t that much younger than us, but they still give you that warm feeling of making a difference.”
The Steel City Ghostbusters aren’t a collection of real-life Peter Venkmans and Egon Spenglers catching paranormal spirits within the energy streams of their proton packs, but a group of fans who make appearances throughout the region dressed as characters from the original film and its 1989 sequel.
“A friend was getting married,” Swartz explained of the Steel City Ghostbusters’ origins. “He wanted to wear the Ghostbusters uniform for the wedding reception and, being that he was in the Navy, could get the flight suit easily. Being the best man, I was given the job of finding the patches, belts, etc.” Swartz’s search led him to a Ghostbusters-themed website—GBfans.com—which not only contained news on all things related to the Ghostbusters franchise but is also the largest online gathering place for fellow fans of the film series.
“Things with the wedding changed and we were two guys who had full Ghostbusters suits but nothing to do with them,” David Swartz further elaborated. “My search on GBfans.com expanded to a thread asking if anyone was local to Pittsburgh and was interested in starting a group. From there we had our first meeting on May 8, 2008, with myself and four other guys.”
The organization has grown over the years since, including a large influx of members in 2010, and has likewise developed ties with other Ghostbusters fanclubs throughout the country. As the Steel City Ghostbusters’ membership has expanded, meanwhile, so have the organization’s activities, which include numerous guest appearances at Pittsburgh–based conventions, charity events and the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“It’s kind of funny when we do appearances because you walk around and get someone your age that gets excited about the whole thing,” Swartz explained. “They love the idea that there’s a group of people who were like them and wanted to be Ghostbusters when they grew up. Then you walk a little more and you see that kid with his parents who points at you and says, ‘Look, it’s Ghostbusters!’ and they get excited because they just played the game or saw the movie for the first time, or maybe even saw the cartoon recently. Kids are the best.”
Although people of every age are not immune to the charms of the Steel City Ghostbusters, children are indeed a key part of the organization’s target demographic. “I would have to say my favorite moment was at the Pittsburgh Mills Mall when New Dimension Comics hosted their annual ‘mini con,’” David Swartz said. “We had a young man named Carson meet us earlier, dressed in a uniform with an inflatable proton pack, and was star struck when he saw us. We had Carson come to the ‘mini con’ and we surprised him with a huge box of different Ghostbusters swag, but the one thing we were really excited about was a Real Ghostbusters Kenner Toy Proton Pack like we all had as kids. One of our members had one lying around and he repainted, touched up and cleaned up the pack for Carson. He made a custom, handmade proton wand for the pack and when we finally gave it to him, he was ecstatic.”
The story, however, does not end there. “His grandmother emailed me a month later to say that he tells people all the time about his pack, shows them how it works and tells them that when he turns eighteen he is going to join the Steel City Ghostbusters,” Swartz added. “Guess that means we have to stick around for a while now.”
Members of the Steel City Ghostbuster likewise equip themselves with a full array of props from the film to go along with their flight suits, including proton packs that light up and emit realistic sounds as well as ghost traps and goggles. One member even converted a 1967 Cadillac Hearse into the classic Ecto-1 seen in the Ghostbusters films, adding another level of authenticity to the organization. Then there’s the 21-foot inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man that has announced the presence of the Steel City Ghostbusters at numerous events throughout the region.
“One of our members was stationed in Afghanistan and for some reason decided that we needed a giant inflatable Marshmallow Man to attract more people to our group,” David Swartz explained. “The Stay Puft inflatable has been a great addition and we love having it around.”
The Steel City Ghostbusters are regular attendees at area conventions, and the July 2013 edition of Steel City Con included an appearance by “one of their own,” Ghostbusters actor Ernie Hudson. “Ernie Hudson is a great guy,” Steel City Ghostbuster Brandon Carnahan said at the time. “A few of our members have been fortunate to meet him at other events and he’s always been very kind and gracious to his fans. It’s not uncommon for him to ride in the hosting city’s Ecto-1 and grab a bite to eat with their group. We haven’t had the pleasure yet, but it’s on our ‘to do’ list.”
While Hudson’s character Winston Zeddemore may not be as high-profile as those portrayed by Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd, he is just as popular with Ghostbusters fans nonetheless. “I think most fans would agree that he’s an underutilized character,” Carnahan added. “Originally, Winston was to be introduced much earlier in the script and had a lot of lines. The character was done more justice in the video game, being given a backstory and getting his Ph.D. The comics do a great job expanding on the character as well.”
Ernie Hudson, meanwhile, shares the same affinity for Ghostbusters fans that fans like Brandon Carnahan and David Swartz feel towards him. “It means a lot to me to come out and meet these guys,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “People have been so loyal and dedicated to Ghostbusters—they convert cars, make suits, build backpacks. It’s great to come and hang out with fans that love and support the movie. When I come to conventions, I’m there for that reason. It’s the one situation where you can just relax and be with people who love movies. I’m not the kind of guy to watch a movie thirty times, but I’ve met people who know every single line of Ghostbusters, and I admire that. I’m sort of an admirer of the dedication.”
David Swartz and his fellow Steel City Ghostbusters have taken their admiration for the 1984 supernatural comedy and found a way to not only continue their appreciation of Ghostbusters but share that feeling with others in the Pittsburgh community as well. “We do this because we want to help,” Swartz explained. “Whether it is charities, awareness for research or just to make someone smile, that’s what we do and that’s what we’re good at.”
Spoken like a true Ghostbuster.
(Photo courtesy of David Swartz and the Steel City Ghostbusters.)