Saluting Steve Zelenko and Celebrating Six Decades of Sound Ministry
A soundman from the beginning, today Steve Zelenko looks far younger than his 87 years. He credits that to a daily dose of cod liver oil and a zinc supplement to keep his joints limber, body agile, and mind intact. Though a humble and private man, some among our flock know that Steve’s storied life goes well beyond recording thousands of worship services, concerts, weddings, and funerals at Shadyside Presbyterian Church (SPC) beginning in the late 1950s.
When growing up in Groveton (Robinson Township), and spurred by reading Popular Mechanics, Steve was a creative builder, including a homemade speedboat that outran everything on the Ohio River. There was also a practical and enterprising dimension to his early youth during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. In addition to tending a garden, Steve raised rabbits — lots of rabbits, and once had as many as 184 for sale. He remains an avid gardener, and today the landscaping and flora surrounding his home reflect that passion.
Preparing the Way
It seems that everything along Steve’s path prepared him for the fascinating career in radio and television broadcasting that would follow. After graduating from Robinson Township High School (now Montour), he attended Allegheny Technical Institute, specializing in radio electronics, transmission, and reception. Drafted in 1953 during the Korean War, Uncle Sam immediately recognized Steve’s talent by assigning him to the Army Signal School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and afterward to The Presidio in San Francisco to maintain the single sideband and microwave transmissions of top secret communications between the continent, Honolulu, and Tokyo. Thereafter, Steve shipped-out from Fort Lewis in Seattle for Seoul to become the chief engineer of AFKN (Armed Forces Korean Network), which provided news and entertainment for the troops in the foxholes along the 38th parallel DMZ and Pacific area via shortwave radio.
The Shadyside Connection
Upon returning home in 1955, television was in its infancy. Already familiar with RCA’s newest technology from his time in the Army, over the next seven years Steve worked for WQED and WIIC (now WPXI) installing the transmitters and control rooms that put local TV broadcasting on the air. As a side business, he also started Image Recordings to do remote recording of musical programs. It was during this period (late 1950s) that Steve met Lorenzo “Larry” Malfatti (longtime SPC baritone soloist). Malfatti had been lured away from New York City by Russell Wichmann (SPC organist/choir director and chair of the music department at Chatham College) to direct the women’s choir at Chatham and sing in the church’s Chancel Choir. Malfatti engaged Steve to record the Chatham choir’s concerts and produce LPs as keepsakes. After meeting Wichmann through Malfatti, Steve also began recording the Shadyside choir’s afternoon and evening concerts in the sanctuary. Parenthetically, Malfatti served as best man in Steve’s October 1960 wedding to his late wife, Loretta. Another coincidence was that the Zelenkos lived directly across the street from the Wichmanns in Edgewood.
The Kuhlman Years
Steve’s engineering and recording ability attracted the attention of the world-renowned Pittsburgh-based evangelist, Kathryn Kuhlman. She hired Steve in 1958 to build her a studio (in the Carlton House hotel) and start recording what would become her sixty-station nationally-syndicated radio broadcasts and weekly television show I Believe in Miracles. For those who are not old enough to remember Kuhlman’s ministry, she was a powerful preacher who conducted worldwide healing crusades from the 1940s through the early 1970s. An international icon, Kuhlman lived in Fox Chapel. As a teenager, I heard her speak to an SRO audience at Fox Chapel Presbyterian Church in the late 1960s. For several years following her untimely death at age 69 in 1976, Steve oversaw the rebroadcast of her radio and television programs by the Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation.
The Second Calling by Shadyside
As some of you may know, Shadyside’s Sunday morning worship service had been carried live by radio stations KDKA and KQV for many years, but eventually only rebroadcast late at night — 11:00 p.m. on Sundays. When carried on KDKA’s 50,000 clear-channel watt signal, the service could be heard by nearly all of Eastern North America, but the sound quality was often inferior. Picked up by two open and unbalanced microphones (located at the pulpit and lectern), the unmixed and un-equalized transmission was sent through a phone line, but the telephone call had to be initiated from the church. The heavily-unionized radio stations insisted that one of their own engineers be on site to do nothing more than simply flip that switch to enable the connection to their studios downtown. It wasn’t long before they requested that the church begin paying that cost. SPC Trustee Ben Fisher balked at that, and instead hired Steve (in 1982) to record the service and hand deliver the edited tapes to the stations ahead of their evening rebroadcasts. Since then, Steve has rarely missed a service over those thirty-eight years, and when he did, entrusted the job to his son, Stephen.
A Big, Heartfelt Thank You
I will miss Steve’s twinkling eyes, quick wit, and abiding devotion to the church over his many decades of faithful service. Moreover, as a choir member since 1967, I have witnessed Steve’s diligent and capable service up close. With much of today’s commercially-recorded, over-produced music sounding so antiseptic, I always appreciated what Steve delivered to the listener — the excitement of a live experience that captured the passion, realism, heart, and soul of the music, flaws and all. Once the COVID-19 restrictions are fully relaxed (hopefully by fall), we plan to acknowledge Steve’s long ministry during a Sunday service and hold a reception thereafter for all to express their gratitude directly.
Contributed by Lloyd F. Stamy Jr.