An emotional day on the set of the upcoming Fred Rogers movie brought Mt. Lebanon neighbors together as they formed new friendships and dealt with the tragic loss of a local crew member.
Hollywood types and orange cones lined Shady Drive East on October 11, as the crew of the upcoming Mr. Rogers biopic “You are My Friend” prepared for a day of filming in Mt. Lebanon.
Tina Featheringham sat on her front porch with her laptop open as she worked from home, occasionally posting videos and photos of the film set to Facebook for eager friends and coworkers.
Her house quickly became the gathering stop for the neighborhood because it is located directly across the street from 769-771 Shady Drive East, an apartment that served as one of the movie’s sets.
Neighbors got to know each other, often for the first time, introducing themselves as they watched the action. Gail Fleckenstein, Shady Drive East, had crossed the street during her lunch break to get a better view and the group was jovial. A passerby walked by the crowded stoop and joked, “Are you selling tickets?”
“In this day and age spending time and getting to know your neighbors never happens so it was neat, “Featherington said. Fleckenstein agreed. She said the best part of the day was getting to make new friends. “We need to go out together soon,” she added.
Director Marielle Heller shot the scene, a conversation between Hanks’ character, Mr. Rogers, and his co-star, Matthew Rhys, portraying Esquire journalist Tom Junod. The Shady Drive apartment was a stand-in for the interior of Fred Rogers’ former New York City apartment.
Antoinette Walsh, a retired Mt. Lebanon school employee, sat in a chair on the front lawn. “It’s exciting to have it being done here on the street,” she said. The street was not closed to vehicles and young men in bright vests stood at either end of the 700-block directing traffic.
After hearing a crackle over the walkie talkies, the crew outside shouted, “We’re rolling,” cueing the rest of the set to get quiet. The onlookers respectfully quieted, trying not to whisper too much. Even the neighborhood dogs withheld their barks.
Then a passing driver honked a horn and two crew members quickly took off down the street to manage the situation. “Cut!” someone shouted.
“They’ve all been super friendly and don’t mind us being spectators,” Chelsea Krug of Brookline said about the crew. “They offered us food and coffee. They’ve been laughing with us and joking.” Her son Sam joined her later in the day and the five-year-old was delighted to be given a hot dog and candy from the catering staff.
Krug, who was there with her mother, Jeanne Weaver of Shady Drive East, got a chance to see Tom Hanks as he left for a lunch break in the morning. “He was very nice and stopped and made eye contact with everyone and said hello,” she said. “The crew said he’s legitimately nice and it’s not a show.”
Vans came and left throughout the day, shuttling film, food and other items between the set and what crew called “base camp” at the Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church on Washington Road.
As the afternoon wore on, kids getting out of school and adults commuting home stopped by, hopeful for a glimpse of the stars.
Annabel Rayl, Shady Drive East, and her sister, Melanie Rayl, Oak Park Place, stood on the sidewalk to watch. Melanie’s eyes were alight at being so close to a Hollywood film set. “This is what I want to do when I grow up, so it’s so cool.” She said she’s active in theater at Mt. Lebanon High School and wants to pursue acting after she graduates.
“I’m just jealous they didn’t use mine,” joked Annabel, whose apartment has a similar layout. “I’m excited to see how it looks in the movie.”
During the filming, apartment residents continued to walk in and out of the building. Resident Allie Tobias and her new 15-week-old Goldendoodle, Teddy, found themselves the center of attention as she took the shy puppy for a walk. Crew swarmed them to pet the dog as they stepped outside, Teddy cradled in her arms because the chaos made him nervous.
“He got to be pet by Tom,” Tobias said, pointing at Teddy, who was curled around her feet. “He was so nice and super friendly,” she said of meeting Tom Hanks.
“Matt Rhys actually almost walked into my apartment by mistake,” she added with a grin. “He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and was very polite.”
Allie lives on the second floor next door to where they were filming and was working from home all week. She praised the crew for their politeness and friendliness, even in the midst of puppy training. “They came over and told us Monday they’d be working in the apartment right next to mine,” she said. “I’m surprised they let me stay.”
Set generator operator Carmen Costa of Sewickley was also full of praises for the Mt. Lebanon area and its residents. “The nice thing about Pittsburgh in general is that most of the neighborhoods are friendly,” he said. “We’re a novelty here.”
Costa, who spent eight years working in New York City before returning in 2014, is thrilled to be back in Pittsburgh, especially now that he has a two-year-old granddaughter to spoil. “I’ve been lucky,” he said. “The city is movie-friendly and the prices are as low as you can find.”
He said the municipality is easy to work with and the residents are friendly and supportive. Crew members told the neighbors they like coming back to places where they feel welcomed. Crew considerately answered neighbor’s questions and seemed happy to explain the filming process during their downtime.
Neighbors in turn were respectful, even as the day took a tragic turn.
Near the end of the 12-hour day, the crew had taken a filming break. Sound mixer Jim Emswiller of Lincoln Place was on the second floor balcony at the back of the building.
“We suddenly saw people running all around the building and thought Tom Hanks was about to come out,” said Rebecca Nill, Shady Drive East. She had walked down after work and was sitting on a friend’s front porch. Then as police and ambulance vehicles arrive, the neighbors realized something wasn’t right. Emswiller reportedly had fallen off of the brick balcony. The evening ended on a somber note as EMS took him to UPMC-Mercy, where he was pronounced dead.
“We knew immediately something was wrong,” Featherington said. She said the group of neighbors who had been observing all day had gotten to know the crew well enough that they were attuned to the film set’s normal rhythm. “Tom was ashen when he left,” she said.
Nill said they asked those who had congregated on the sidewalk to stand back as the emergency services took control of the scene. “They asked us to stay back and not bother Tom Hanks or anyone when they left the building,” she said. “I feel so badly for everyone.”
“While it was interesting and exciting to watch a film being made, it made you put things in perspective,” Featherington said. “Life is precious.”
“I keep thinking about how positive the crew was, how much fun they were having,” Krug said. “He was a local Pittsburgh guy with another awesome movie to work on. You never know. Give your loved ones a squeeze.”