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PBS: Unusual Buildings and Other Roadside Attractions

PBS Special

Rick Sebak
Producer and Host
Monday, July 19, 2004; 2:00 PM

Where can you find the strangest-shaped buildings?

"A Program About Unusual Buildings and Other Roadside Attractions," celebrates places with unusual attractions. Producer and host Rick Sebak takes viewers across the country, from the Clam Box in Ipswich, Mass., to the hot-dog-shaped Tail o' the Pup in West Hollywood, Calif., checking out buildings that are in the shape of something unexpected.


Some of the places are icons of American highway history, like the motel rooms in the shape of teepees, while others are new additions to the world of strange structures, like the building in the shape of an upside down building called WonderWorks along International Drive in Orlando, Fla.

Sebak was online Monday, July 19 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the PBS documentary.

Seback recently received an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming" for his Fred Rogers special, PBS: "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Rick Sebak: Hey. This is Rick Sebak. Thanks for watching our most recent PBS special called A PROGRAM ABOUT UNUSUAL BUILDINGS & OTHER ROADSIDE STUFF. I'm ready to answer any questions you might have about that show (or others from the past if you'd like.) I've asked my trusty editor and longtime friend Kevin Conrad to be here too, so he can answer any technical questions or editing inquiries if you'd like.

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Hwy 1, California: I know all about the classic teepee/hotdog etc. roadside attractions....are there any NEW kinds of commerically artistic roadside enterprises that are making your list? Would you kindly list a few?

Thanks.

Rick Sebak: HEY Highway 1 in California:

Well, the two newest structures that we visited in our travels for this program were Orange World (completed in the mid-1980s) and WonderWorks (completed in 1998), both in the Orlando, Florida, area. I was excited to meet the people at both of these places who were responsible for the ideas of constructing the buildings.
Of course there are always stories that we wish we had time to pursue, and while in Mitchell, SD, for the Corn Palace Days, I saw a big pre-fab lemon that was a lemonade stand, and I thought that would have made a great story too.
Also, I always thought we would do something about the big Longaberger Basket building in Ohio (not far from my sister's house), but we ran out of time and available funds.
While we don't build as many of these things anymore as we did back in the 20s and 30s, I think the goofy energy still exists.

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Roanoke, Va.: More a comment than question but I wanted to tell you that I love your films. They represent such a wonderul slice of america / americana and always leave me with a smile on my face. Thanks for preserving our wonderful culture and history.

Rick Sebak: Roanoke:

Well, thanks. We love making these programs and will certainly continue to do so as long as people support their local public TV stations, and I keep finding funding. We obviously have a great time making these shows. And we know we're very lucky to get this opportunity. Thanks to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.
I'm never really in these shows, but I smile a lot, so I'm happy to hear that the programs may lead to smiles too.

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Altoona, Pa.: Rick,

I am looking forward to your new doc. I have to say (and maybe I'm biased) that you have some of the best documentaries on TV. I loved the Diner Show (I have the video that I bought at Ye Olde College Diner in S.C.) and the Ice Cream documentary is one of my all-time favorites. What is next for you and QED?

Rick Sebak: Hey, ALTOONA,

Thanks for all the kind words. I have great affection for my old PENNSYLVANIA DINERS program and AN ICE CREAM SHOW and all the others, and I love the fact that PBS programmers across the country keep airing these things too.
My next national program will be about cemeteries, and I think it may be titled A CEMETERY SPECIAL. I want to find out about the history and allure of these final resting places, not dealing really with ghost stories or spooky stuff, but instead concentrating on the charms and quirks that you might discover in cemeteries.
I also continue to do the PITTSBURGH HISTORY SERIES programs here at WQED, and I hope the next one will be titled IT's THE NEIGHBORHOODS.

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Wilmington, Del.: While watching The Clam Box featured in your film I found myself getting hungrier and hungrier as I have in the past while watching Sandwiches and Ice Cream (your previous films). My family and I plan to take a driving tour of the East Coast this summer and you've provided us with many places to visit -- ones we probably wouldn't have known about. My question is how do you pick your subjects? And, how did you pick the sites for this film? Thanks Rick.

Rick Sebak: HUNGRY in WILMINGTON

Yes. Hunger is a good response to our programs I think. Can you imagine how hungry you get while editing these programs? For ten weeks while putting A HOT DOG PROGRAM together, I think we had hot dogs almost every day for lunch. Had to.
The clams at the Ipswich Clam Box make me salivate just seeing them again. I wish I could get back there at least once a year.

Editor KEVIN: While editing the SANDWICHES show, I really wanted to taste one of the Italian beef sandwiches from Mr Beef in Chicago, and we joked about taking a quick trip up there. Then Rick an Italian beef here in Pittsburgh at a place called Yovi's Taste of Chicago, and we often stop there when we're downtown.

RICK: Traveling the East Coast, you're sure to find lots of great places to stop. Many more places than we could ever squeeze into these hour-long programs.
How do we decide? Now we use the internet a lot. I talk to everybody and anybody. I never make my subjects a secret because inevitably I bump into people who know a special story that I can use. I try to find all the books that have been written about the subject (certainly I re-read the Sterns and Calvin Trillin when we're doing a food show), and there's nothing very scientific or fair about the process. I trust my gut alot. What seems as though it will work. How enthusiastic was the person who answered the phone when I called to see if we might come by and invade with our TV cameras and paraphernalia.
The sites for this program were the usual hodgepodge of personal suggestions, web "finds," and stuff I learned in books like THE WELL-BUILT ELEPHANT and Jim Heimann's CALIFORNIA CRAZY & BEYOND.

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Bethesda, Md.: Rick,

I love your films. Congratulations on your Emmy nominations.

How much time a year do you spend on the road? You must have logged a lot of frequent flier miles. Or do you mostly drive?

Rick Sebak: BETHESDA

Thanks. The Emmy nominations were a really great surprise because I didn't know we had entered our program about Fred Rogers. The folks at Mister Rogers Neighborhood took care of it all.
We spend usually about 4 weeks on the road, and I want to drive as much as possible. For this BUILDINGS show, we flew to California, and we flew down South to see Mammy's Cupboard in Natchez and the many things in central Florida.
But it's the driving trips I love the most.
We usually budget for approximately 20 days of shooting.

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Washington, D.C.: Rick,

Do you have a single favorite Web site that helps you find locations for your films?

Rick Sebak: WASHINGTON:

Well, obviously it depends on the topic. I semed to end up often on roadsideamerica.com for this recent show, but lots of people have great sites about Big Things and such. When I was doing SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE, I know I counted on chowhound.com and hollyeats.com for advice and confirmation of which places to visit. I liked hollyeats.com so much, I asked Holly Moore to be in the program.

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Arlington, Va. (but formerly Pittsburgh): As someone whose cardiologist would faint if he knew how many times I've been to Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, thanks for all your wonderful programs on sandwiches, hot dogs, and all the other remnants of an America that, sadly, is disappearing. Do you think future generations will grow as nostalgic for Whoppers or Taco Bell--or are there newer Mom and Pop stores that will take the place of Thrashers Fries and Ben's Chili Bowl?

Rick Sebak: ARLINGTON

I have to hope that small family-owned businesses will always have a special allure, and the food in such places will be less standardized, computerized, and regulated. I know that people in the restaurant business are always trying to be consistent, but sometimes the lack of consistency can be endearing. I find it disheartening that kids do seem to prefer the franchise places, but they can learn the charms of the local.
Just so you know: we are regulars at the Primanti's on the South Side and recommend that you try that outpost sometime, although the one in the Strip is the original. Too many good places to eat.
Mom and Pop places have to survive. I think we hope that our efforts in these shows will encourage that outcome.

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Washington, D.C.: How many crews do you work with? How many people travel with you to do the filming?

Rick Sebak: WASHINGTON

I usually work with a crew of 5: a camera person, a sound person, a lighting person, an associate producer and me. We often go with just 4, but prefer 5. Bigger than a news crew, but much smaller than a movie crew.

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Washington, D.C. via Pittsburgh, Pa.: Rick,

I'm a native of Pittsburgh but have been here for going on ten years. I enjoy the programs whenever they show up locally, there were several on this past weekend. Have you considered doing a program focused on another are such as DC? And what will be the next uniquely Pittsburgh program that you'll be doing? Keep up the great work!

Rick Sebak: DC VIA PGH

I'm happy concentrating on Pittsburgh, but I think we make the national shows with the same techniques, the same crew people, the same editor, everything, so I think I could do a show about another city, but I might need some time to get nearly as familiar with it as I am with the Pittsburgh area.
I mentioned already that I hope to do IT'S THE NEIGHBORHOODS for the next Pittsburgh show.
Thanks.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Rick, the reference to Tail o' the Pup reminded me of your fabulous special, A Hot Dog Show - as well as Sandwiches That You Will Like. When will you do another food show? Everyone loves them!

Rick Sebak: BUFFALO (Land of the Beef on Weck)

Well, I think we always look for food stories to go with ev ery topic we do, and I'm hoping someday to do a BREAKFAST show and maybe one on the great American marketplaces, but my topics are always determined by what funding I can find. I like the fact that CPB and PBS have been careful to keep my topics wide so that all sorts of Americana can be included, not just food, but I'm sure I'll be hoping for a food-related show will be coming soon. The woman who wrote the companion book for SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE often refers to this stuff as "foodways," and I like that.

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Alexandria, Va.: Rick,

I was wondering, are you married? If so, how does your spouse feel about your traveling all the time to work on your films?

Rick Sebak: ALEXANDRIA

No I'm not married, but I think most of the people on the crew are. Doesn't everybody like getting away every now and then? We don't travel as much as some people think. I'm not on the road as much as Charles Kuralt or some of the other network guys, although I wouldn't mind it. I love the travel.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Rick,

You have such a distinctive voice, do people recognize it in your every day life?

Rick Sebak: CHEVY CHASE

Sometimes. I know I'm better known here around Pittsburgh because I do more on-camera pledging around here, and so many people know what I look like. But sometimes people will say, "Oh, now I recognize your voice."

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Springfield, Va.: Hot Dogs, Sandwiches, Kennywood, Mr. Rogers and now Roadside Attractions. Which of these documentaries was most fun to do? Have you ever considered doing something on America's minor league ballparks?

Rick Sebak: SPRINGFIELD

Hmm. Impossible to pick a favorite. I think everyone (myself included) loves a local show far more than anyone loves a national show, but I also know that if you pin me down on this question, I'd say HOT DOGS and SANDWICHES are my favorites.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Mr. Sebak!

I'm a huge fan of your shows. It must be tough to limit things to an hour; have you any favorite places you wanted to add to a show but just didn't have room for?

Rick Sebak: BETHESDA

Oh there are too many things that we aren't able to squeeze into these programs. I already mentioned some of the buildings we didn't get in, and I have a huge folder here on my desk of places that people have suggested for HOT DOGS 2.

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Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon, Mr. Sebak!

I saw Eastern Market featured in your Flea Market show; do you have any other favorite spots in the DC area? Ben's Chili Bowl or Tastee Diner? The giant Einstein statue?

Rick Sebak: WASHINGTON

I've not been to the fabled Ben's Chili Bowl or the Tastee Diner, but I don't get to DC as much as I used to. I miss certain bookstores (maybe there's a show there?) and places I like to stop on the road down there and back (like Glissen's on Route 40). I love walking around and trying to decide where to eat in Adams Morgan. Mmm, that Brazilian place.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Rick!

Everyone you talk to seems so light-hearted and upbeat! Do you ever run into grouches while filming your documentaries?

Rick Sebak: ALEXANDRIA

Oh yeah, and Kevin and the crew folks will tell you I can be a grouch too.

KEVIN: Yep.

RICK: I think interviews are an exchange of energy, and I know that I can get more energy from my interviewees if my energy level is high. And bright. And I love making television programs that celebrate these various topics. I don't know why there aren't more folks trying to do this sort of thing, but I'm not complaining. And we do meet grouches on the road, but we try to sweet talk them into our way of thinking.
Actually, there was a wicked woman we encountered who managed a Hampton Inn in Massachusetts that I will never forget. But the grouches are few and far between.

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Middletown, N.J.: Can you give some information (address) or contact number for the owners of the clam hut that was featured in Sunday, July 18th episode.

Thank you
Francine

Rick Sebak: MIDDLETOWN:

The Clam Box in Ipswich, Massachusetts, is owned and run by the Aggelakis family. They are located at 246 High Street in Ipswich, MA 01938. You can try calling them at (978) 356-9707. Tiny whole belly clams. The best. AND in a slightly wacky structure.

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Boston, Mass.: Wonderful Film! My question is about the architecture of the buildings you feature. Most of the featured buildings are decades old. How important is it to preserve this "quirky" architecture?

Rick Sebak: BOSTON

I think it's very important. Just as I said about interviewing, I think we get energized by these structures for some reason. Minette Seate, my associate producer, said that she thought it was perhaps just the contact with the originator of the idea, or the resulting building. What makes someone do this sort of thing? And how can we not be impressed by the imagination and vision of these people?
I wanted to include a preservation story in this show about the old Coffee Pot building on the Lincoln Highway in Bedford, PA, and we stopped there for some "Before" shots on our way out east to the Shoe House, but timing was all screwed up, and when they moved the building across the highway and about a block east, I wasn't able to get out there with a crew. But I'm so happy that it was not just bulldozed into rubble. And they're having a dedication for the newly restored Coffee Pot (1927) at the Bedford County Fairgrounds (its new home) on Friday August 6 at 10 am. See you there?

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Do you have a favorite among those unusual buildings?

Rick Sebak: PITTSBURGH

I have to think that the Big Duck is my favorite. For lots of reasons: its location, its history (duck eggs!), the people we met there, and its wonderful curator (Babs Bixby.)

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Hey Rick,

Did you ever set out to film something only to find out it had been torn down before you got there?

Rick Sebak: CHEVY CHASE

No, can't say that I've had that happen yet. I did have a great lunch one day at Camp Washington Chili in Cincinatti, and when I mentioned to the guy next to me at the counter that I really loved this place, he said, "Yeah, too bad they're tearing it down next week." What!? "The new place is that fast food thing next door. They say the food won't change, but it will." I haven't been back to check out the new place but it couldn't have the character and the years of baked-in charm.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Rick,
Being a transplant to Pittsburgh, I've enjoyed learning about my adopted home through your local history programs--heck, I just caught The Al, the Mon and the Ohio yesterday on QED. What about a national program about unique things or places that aren't around anymore, like you've done in Western Penna? It might spur others to protect what they have before tearing it down.

Rick Sebak: PITTSBURGH

You know what? Other cities have done similar programs in imitation of our original THINGS THAT AREN'T THERE ANYMORE, and they're wildly popular in those areas, but the one attempt to do a national version of the show (by WHYY in Philadelphia) didn't seem to work. We often miss great things that we knew, but I'm not sure how it would work on a big national scale.

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Vienna, Va.: Are there any places left for you to visit in the US?

Rick Sebak: VIENNA

Countless places still to visit. Whole states I've never been to. I'm thinking maybe we'll look for a great cemetery in Montana or Idaho (or both) because I've never been to either of those states.

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Morgantown, W. Va.: Hello Mr. Sebak,
I have been enjoying your work for a number of years, seeing as how I'm in the Pittsburgh viewing area. Did it surprise you how popular your shows about Pittsburgh were in other parts of the country, presumably with some people who had never been there?

Rick Sebak: MORGANTOWN

Did it surprise me? Not really. I lived in the Carolinas for 15 years (for college & after) and when I moved back to Pittsburgh in 1987, I really fell in love with this city. It's very much like the city I might build for myself if I had to create a city. Quirky. Goofy. Very historic. Lots of independent thinking people. Hard workers too.
And before PBS started offering the Pittsburgh shows to its other stations, I always used to moan, "If we made these shows in New York, they'd get national airings." I think we're all interested in the unexpected, unique charms of every city, and I'd watch a documentary about Dallas or Denver or Providence in a second. Now I'm just grateful that we get to share some of these productions with other places. And I get wonderful emails from all over the globe.

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Washington, D.C. (Hamburg, Germany): I missed the program, but hope to catch it on a re-run.
I do remember seeing many such sites during travels through the US with my parents. For example, a 'Flintstones' themed attraction/ rv park. I can't quite remember where it was, though.
Just sad that most Americans, given your limited vacation days, have a hard time seeing these sites. Well, you are providing a valuable service through shows such as these.

Rick Sebak: DC / HAMBURG

Hmm. I think I remember seeing signs for those RV parks. Were they JELLYSTONE rather than FLINTSTONE? I think there was a chain of them or a chain was somehow affiliated with Yogi Bear (another Hanna-Barbera creation like Fred Flintstone) and there may have been many of them.
Thanks for your support.

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Monterey, Calif.: You're an expert on ice cream too?

What are some of the best ice cream shops in the country?

Do you know about Marianne's of Santa Cruz,CA? (You should!)

Rick Sebak: HEY MONTEREY

I never claim to be an expert on any of thee topics. I'm just a TV guy who gets to dabble in lots of differnt topics. But I did do a program called An Ice Cream Show, and I got to taste ice cream around the country. Don't know Marianne's but I will check it out the next time I'm in Santa Cruz. I always like to give these shows generic titles because I don't want anyone to think I'm making a definitive work (impossible unless you had lots more funding and even more time), so it's AN ICE CREAM SHOW not THE ICE CREAM SHOW, etc.
One of my favorite ice cream places is Tom's Ice Cream Bowl in Zanesville, Ohio, and I didn't get there for an ICE CREAM SHOW, but I once included it on a list of great ice cream places that I put together for USA TODAY. It may still be available on their website.

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Citrus blues...: Where/what is Orange World?

Rick Sebak: CITRUS

Orange World is a giant half-an-orange in Kissimmee, Florida, where you can buy various citrus fruits outside and all sorts of gifts and souvenirs inside. Just east of Disney World on Highway 192.

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Washington, DC: Are you a fan of the comic strip "Zippy," which frequently features unusual roadside attractions?

Rick Sebak: WASHINGTON

I AM a big fan of Zippy which we can read every day here in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I like it so much, and so appreciate all the attention that Bill Griffith gives to these roadside things and unusual buildings, that we sought him out at his home in Connecticut. He's in the show. I hope you'll get to see a repeat broadcast soon, or you can get a copy of this show (on VHS or DVD) at www.pbs.org, just click on SHOP PBS.

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Lexington, Ky. : Rick,
I always enjoy your shows, and the Unusual Buildings was especially of interest. I took my kids to Wigwam Village in Cave City KY every summer for 5 years, and I'm still in love with the place. The previous owner sold off a lot of the furnishings, but I'm glad the current owner is taking care of this roadside classic.
I loved "A Hot Dog Program" (and I don't even eat meat!)
I look forward to the cemetery show--humans only, or will you enter the bizarre world of pet cemetaries? (Never one to shirk the weird, I can guess what your answer will be!)

Rick Sebak: LEXINGTON.

I think I may make it humans only, but I hate to make rules like that. Who knows?

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Somewhere Too: Do you have a website?

Rick Sebak: SOMEWHERE TOO

I don't have a personal website, but you can find out too much about me at www.wqed.org, on various pages, but be sure to check out all the stuff we've put on the PRGRAM ABOUT UNUSUAL BUILDINGS pages. There are clips of unseen footage from every story, too.

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SANDWICHES THAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rick,

Will there be a Part II to the sandwich show? I'd like to add Kazansky's Brisket in Squirrel Hill and Clem's on Rt.22 outside of Blairsville (best BBQ north of the M-D line).

Rick Sebak: SANDWICHES

I always hope that someday we'll do sequels, but I also don't mind moving on to other projects. I haven't been to Kazansky's in several years, but I love Clem's and always stop when I'm out that way on 22. And anybody who's coming to town that way could bring me a rack of ribs.

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Anonymous: How do you decide which restaurants to feature in your docs? You did Bill's in Evanston IL for the Hot Dog show, and everyone I know thinks it's far from the best. I suppose you can't please everyone.

Rick Sebak: ANONYMOUS

Good question. As I said earlier, it's never scientific or fair, and we don't have the bucks to do massive scouting trips, but the selection of the Chicago Hot Dog places was made by those two professors from Loyola who wrote the book HOT DOG CHICAGO. They were our guides and experts, and they met us first at Bill's. Maybe it was a combination of factors that led them to pick that place. Not sure.

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Fairbanks, AK (by way of Penn Hills): Rick,

Two breakfast suggestions: Snow City Cafe in Anchorage, and Pamela's in the 'Burgh (I like the Oakland location the best). Can't wait to see the Roadside Attractions doc!;

Rick Sebak: FAIRBANKS

Thanks. We loved those reindeer dogs in Anchorage, and I would love to get back up there to the north. I also never pass up an invitation to have pancakes at Pamela's, any location. They have a new Pamela's in the Strip, but I'm so used to having breakfast at DeLuca's that I can't bring myself to walk around the corner. Yet.

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Rick Sebak: Thanks to everybody for all the excellent questions. Sorry I couldn't get to them all, but my time is up. Please keep watching, send messages through any of the places on www.wqed.org where it says TELL RICK. I try to answer as many as I can.
You can also get all of my shows there at www.wqed.org, click on SHOP WQED and you'll see them. Or just call 1 800 274 1307.
And keep watching and supporting public TV. It's still the best.

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