Tinseltown comes to tiny town

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VOLANT, Pa. – It started with a simple, mass e-mail query looking for farms to consider for locations for the season premiere of the NBC television drama West Wing.

It ended with the president coming to a dairy farm in rural western Pennsylvania last week.

OK, so it wasn’t George who took the dais, but Josiah. Josiah Bartlet, the fictional U.S. president played by Martin Sheen on West Wing. And he might have been standing in Pennsylvania, but on TV it will be Indiana.

Confused? You’ll just have to tune in Sept. 25 to figure it all out.

Natural promoter. When Lawrence County farmer and tour company owner Roberta McConnell saw a message from the Lawrence County Tourism Board that the producers of West Wing were scouting for farms to consider for possible locations for filming this season’s first episode, on a whim she composed a quick description of the farm she and her husband, Jeff, and Jeff’s brother, Gary, operate near Volant. She hit “send” on the e-mail and pretty much forgot about it.

Then the call came from a Warner Bros. representative in Pittsburgh, who wanted to come see the farm and check it out. He came and Roberta showed him around. He left, and she still didn’t get too excited because she knew lots of sites were being considered.

Then more phone calls, visits with more people, video shot and sent to California, more visits, and finally, the last phone call came: They’d like to shoot the episode on the McConnells’ Kemland Farm – in two weeks.

Make-over. The dairy and crop farm would be the scene of a presidential campaign rally set in Indiana. The McConnells wouldn’t have to do too much, except get rid of an old cement block shed that wasn’t used for much anyway. Oh, and to build a little road through a soybean field (some Roundup and layer of crushed limestone, and voila!, a new road).

For another scene, a nearby township building slated for demolition was transformed into a gas station and general store (complete with Farm and Dairy newspapers).

Producers needed lots of extras for the political rally, so the call went out through a Pittsburgh-based casting company and area residents received a chance at being a star, well, at least a face in the crowd as an extra.

Using her tour guide network, Roberta McConnell lined up a high school band, tour buses, school buses and the entire family pitched in with four-wheelers for transportation and, unfortunately on the day of filming, tractors, to pull the buses and cars out of the mud.

The production company came armed with more four-wheelers, trucks, booms and enough handheld radios and communication headsets to outfit a small army – which it was.

Filming at the farm was slated for Aug. 23-24, but when long-overdue rains dampened those plans, the schedule was pushed back to Sunday and Monday, Aug. 25-26.

Other scenes were taped earlier in the week at the “general store,” along some back roads around Volant, and railroad scenes at the Bridgeville Public Library.

Actors traveling to Lawrence County and appearing the scenes included Sheen; Richard Schiff, who plays the president’s communication director Toby Ziegler; Bradley Whitford, who portrays Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff; Janel Moloney, Lyman’s assistant Donna Moss; and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney).

In preparation for the filming, the McConnells’ tractors, including some antique models, were positioned strategically as backdrops, as were the farm’s combine and haywagon, which was draped with a banner reading “Hoosiers for Bartlet.”

Warner Bros.’ limousines rolled off car carriers and Indiana State Police look-alike cars added an authentic touch.

Red, white and blue bunting decorated from the dairy barn and pole building machinery shed. A huge flag was suspended from the silo. On filming day, red, white and blue helium-filled balloons dotted the grounds (and unabashedly popped during takes). To the director’s dismay, no one could figure out how to silence the noisy birds perched high in the tall machinery shed.

Star search. The crew constructed a stage for the “president” to give his speech. Some of the extras were cast as Secret Service agents, others as media, some as Democratic party faithful, and others simply as farmer supporters.

That was the role of extras Don Verelst and his wife, Hope, whose 200-acre farm neighbors the McConnell property. Trying out as extras was Hope’s idea; she submitted the picture.

“We haven’t been told what we’ll be doing,” Verelst said at 9:30 a.m., after arriving at the set at 6:15 that morning.

He and other extras awaiting their call were camped in a mini-tent city in the McConnells’ hayfield beyond the barn.

Mercer County livestock producer John Courtney just came for “something to do.” His bearded face immediately won him a role as a farmer supporter extra, too. “Talk about type casting,” he shrugged.

But don’t look for any seed corn or equipment dealer hats in the crowd. Extras were told to not wear any logos of any type on headgear or clothing.

The extras got a taste of what goes on behind the scenes of an Emmy Award-winning television show, like shooting 11 takes over more than one hour to capture just the “right” two-minute footage.

Hindsight. Amid the hoopla of the crowd scene filming, Robert McConnell pauses to think about what she inspired through a little e-mail. “It’s been fun!”

But would she do it again?

“Maybe,” she hesitates. “Just not the week after the Lawrence County Fair!

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