The first passenger plane to land at Greater Pittsburgh Airport was a sleek TWA Constellation that skidded to a halt shortly before noon on May 31, 1952. Passengers included a bevy of Hollywood stars from the musical “I Dream of Jeanie,” a bio-pic of Stephen Foster. The movie’s “global” premiere was scheduled at the Fulton Theater in a few days, and the actors were coming to town for a series of promotional events.
Nobody remembers the musical and the stars are mostly forgotten, although the performer who had top billing, a guy named Ray Middleton, later turned up in TV shows like “M.A.S.H.” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
Ah, but the old airport looms large in our memories. In its final days, the facility’s labyrinthine series of corridors and gates seemed cramped and overcrowded. But when it opened in 1952, the airport was considered a gem.
“There’s nothing like it in the world,” the airport’s superintendent boasted at a dedication ceremony attended by an estimated 50,000 people on the same day the movie stars came to town.
After World War II, Pittsburgh yearned for a new identity, one that involved more than and steel mills and dirty air. Key was the new airport, larger than Washington National and LaGuardia combined.
The aiport covered 1,600 acres, four times the size of the old Allegheny County Airport at West Mifflin and 40 times larger than the county’s first airport, Rodgers Field.
“No airport can match the seven-story terminal of shiny black granite, buff marble and green glass,” wrote The Pittsburgh Press. Amenities included a night club, cocktail lounges, a theater, a recreation center, a penny arcade as well as shops and restaurants.
“With smoke control, roads, skyscrapers, Point Park and now the new airport, Pittsburgh has achievements no city can boast of today,” Mayor David L. Lawrence said.
But the price tag of $33 million caused some alarm. Critics were up in arms. Pittsburgh didn’t need such an extravagant facility. What if air travel proved to be a passing fad?
“Most of us feel aviation is here to stay,” said County Commissioner John Kane. He seemed a bit uncertain. Needlessly so. In the airport’s first year, 1.7 million passengers passed through the facility. Its successor, Pittsburgh International Airport, recorded nearly 8 million passengers in 2014.
A few months after its opening, a reporter and photographer visited the Greater Pittsburgh Airport and discovered it had become a tourist destination. On weekends it would attract 25,000 visitors, who played games in the arcade, had their pictures taken in a photo booth and paid 10 cents to wander onto the observation deck to watch planes swoop in and out.
The airport had become a greater magnet for visitors than either Mount Washington or the city’s industries, wrote reporter William Faust.
Of course, Primanti’s had yet to become a thing and the Steelers were more than two decades away from drawing any sort of national attention. And “I Dream of Jeanie”? The movie doesn’t exist on DVD. Maybe it should. A few years ago the New Yorker called it “the greatest musical that’s never shown.”