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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sarah Rush grew up near Carmichaels, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. I grew up in the central part of the state, and while my hometown didnít have coalmines, we neighbored towns that did. Thereís something about the coal community that canít easily be explained to those who are not from it. The men and women who went down into those mines together every day formed a bond that carries on through the generations. The shared experience of darkness, danger, and dirt creates a sense of pride among those special types who have a penchant for that kind of work. In other words, you donít live in a mining community; you are a mining community.

The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania is a documentary that begins with Rush (an actress who has appeared in Catch Me If You Can and on ďEverybody Loves RaymondĒ) getting a letter. Her hometown is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen pageant and, as a previous winner, sheís been invited back for the festivities. She eagerly makes the cross-country trip back to the Keystone State.

The film then goes down two separate paths. In the first, Rush and several other former winners revisit the town, even going down into a coal mine to see firsthand what itís like. (This is fascinating stuff, especially if youíve never actually been in one.) The other path involves showing how the anniversary pageant (held in 2003) is put together. We get to meet the young women who are competing and hear their stories about why they want to win. What shines through in most of them is not the snobbery or vapidity that is stereotypically associated with beauty pageant contestants. Instead, these girls exude a strong sense of community pride. The Coal Queen pageant is a long-time piece of local history. Taking part in it is a way of honoring town citizens past and present. Some of these young women had mothers or grandmothers who took part. Others are grateful for having a forum in which to showcase their talents in a small town.

At times, The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania feels like a real-life version of Waiting for Guffman. The behind-the-scenes stuff is often hilarious as the pageant team preps for the big show. Most interesting is the theaterís lighting/production manager, who either doesnít know or doesnít care that microphones are picking up the snarky comments heís making about the contestants. But more that that, this is a charming look at people who are intent on paying tribute to the workers on whose backs Carmichaels (and the surrounding areas) were built. Because of that, itís easy to get caught up in the contestantís stories. And from the looks of it, the judges picked the right girl to be the 2003 Coal Queen. More than any of them, she seems to represent what the whole thing is about.

Produced by Patricia Heaton (ďEverybody Loves Raymond) and David Hunt, the documentary is appropriate for family viewing, and it espouses positive values about having pride in your community as well as in yourself. Even years after winning, Sarah Rush clearly still feels that her participation meant something. The other past winners show the same quality. You can take the girl out of coal country, but you canít take coal country out of the girl. And they wouldnít have it any other way.

The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania is available on DVD from Genius Products and IFC films. Bonus features include a follow-up featurette on the Coal Queens.

( out of four)

The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania is unrated but would probably only warrant a PG. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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