MONESSEN – Sporting a robin-egg blue ponytail, Michelle Novak considers her style to be on the conservative side at Douglas Education Center in Monessen.
Unlike most of her classmates, Novak said, her body is not covered in tattoos at the two-year school known for its special effects makeup program crafted for the horror film industry.
In fact, local residents tend to scare her when they walk up out of nowhere, invade her space and say, “Thank you for coming here,” said Novak, 19, of Youngstown, Ohio.
That happens often, she said, in this former steel town whose downtown largely has been saved and reinvented over the past decade by the school founded in 1904 in this Westmoreland County city to train secretaries and others seeking business careers.
“Now when we go in full makeup into Foodland, they’re used to us. No one bats an eye,” Novak added.
Monessen native Jeffrey D. Imbrescia purchased the school in 1989 when it was confined to one building and the downtown was beginning its downward spiral following the closure of a sprawling Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mill. The school then employed five people and had an enrollment of just 45 students.
“Everyone else thought this town was dying and never coming back,” Imbrescia said. “I knew that I had a business that was floundering.”
He credits the school’s success to his having faith, self-confidence and the luck of a chance meeting in 1999 with Tom Savini, an actor, director and special effects make-up artist with a huge following for his ability to simulate gruesome carnage on screen.
Savini, of Bloomfield, had always wanted to start a school to teach his craft and his dream was given an opportunity in a partnership with Imbrescia.
“I was fortunate to hit a grand slam when I was introduced to Tom Savini,” he said. “It grew beyond our wildest imagination.”
Savini, famous among horror buffs because of his work in George Romero’s 1978 zombie flick “Dawn of the Dead,” has brought global attention to Douglas Education Center, said Patricia DeConcillis, its vice president of academic affairs.
With income from 189 students, the school has gobbled up seven other buildings to accommodate classes across downtown Monessen, along with others to house students.
“We’ve had students from every state,” DeConcillis said. “We really found a niche.”
At first, she and others didn’t know what to expect when students with creative minds found themselves living in a struggling city 30 miles south of Pittsburgh and a half-hour’s drive to the nearest movie theater.
“I thought they would be disgusted, bored,” DeConcillis said.
Exactly the opposite happened.“They found people like themselves who like to do the same things,” she said. “Now they have a school with teachers who like exactly what they like. The city has been really accepting.”
The Mon Valley’s decline in neighboring towns of Charleroi and Donora provides a perfect backdrop for film students to set up scenes with “zombies walking in the streets,” DeConcillis said.
“If you like this stuff, you’re in a little mecca,” she said.
Graduates have gone on to find successful careers in Hollywood and New York, working in such films as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Butler” and on television shows including “Cake Boss” and Syfy cable network’s “Face Off,” DeConcillis said.
The isolation from the big city forces Douglas’ students to focus their attention of their schoolwork,” said Brody Klotzman, 25, of Cleveland, Ohio, who wants to work in slow-motion animation after graduating.
“It forces us to become a community,” Klotzman said.
“I think it’s slowly bringing the town back to life,” added Lacey Postle, 20, a student from Apollo.