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Volant farm looked good, extras happy with 'Wing'

Saturday, September 28, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Western Pennsylvania TV viewers were glued to "The West Wing" Wednesday night, which easily won its time slot in the local and national Nielsen ratings.

Rosemary Somerville, 14, Natalie Somerville, 12, and T.J. Murphy, son of Mayor Tom Murphy, were among the extras for Martin Sheen's "West Wing" campaign speech scene that was shot near Volant, Lawrence County. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Mavens stand in for
band in 'West Wing'

For local viewers, it wasn't just another season premiere, it was a chance to catch a glimpse of a Lawrence County farm or the Bridgeville library or a motel in Harmarville, all of which doubled as places in Indiana.

Rudy Vrbanic, who operates Vrbanic Aero Service Co. in Indiana, Pa., got to watch himself fly across the screen in the episode. A crop duster by trade, he and his wife, Bonnie, were on the road working in Auburn, N.Y., where they watched the show in their motel room.

"We had a bottle of wine and we had pizza delivered and had a party by ourselves," Bonnie said Thursday morning. The pair also worked as extras during the rally scene, but couldn't pick themselves out in the crowd. "But when we saw that plane flying across, that was exciting. The phone started ringing with calls from my mother, my aunt, Rudy's cousin ..."

The scene of Rudy zooming by in his crop duster lasted all of five seconds, which is pretty much what Bonnie expected.

"That is exactly what they shot," she said. "I was going to talk to them later and suggest they shoot it here and over here or at the farm, but I just shut up and let it go at that."

The episode began as President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) spoke during a campaign rally on a soybean farm. Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), got left behind on the farm and spent the two-hour season premiere trying to catch up with the president's motorcade.

Cast members spent a week and a day filming throughout Western Pennsylvania in August, and more than 400 people got the chance to be extras at the rally, which proved to be an education.

"Rudy and I said he gave that one speech, which was a minute long, and they shot it for five hours," Bonnie Vrbanic said. "It's unbelievable, how much they shot, the amount of time, the amount of money. It's just another world. Absolutely another world."

Susan Gerle, who lives between Volant and New Wilmington, Lawrence County, was an extra in the rally scene with her husband, Bob, and her son, Matthew. Her only complaint about the scene?

"Too short! It was too short!" she said, laughing.

By rewinding their tape of the episode and watching in slow motion, the Gerles were able to pick out Susan and Matthew by the color of their shirts in a short shot taken from behind the crowd.

"Our heads were little specks by the balloons at the bottom of the screen," Susan said.

Members of the Wilmington Area High School band spent the day at the shoot and cameras even filmed them playing a song, but no close-ups made the final cut.

Band director Gary Taylor said band members had a 14-hour day when they appeared before the cameras, but he said they had realistic expectations.

"As much as they filmed that day, they could have stretched film from Volant to Alaska," he said. "We knew they'd do major cutting and if we got three or four seconds, we'd be lucky, so we got that."

The band's performance of "The Washington Post March" by John Philip Sousa could be heard in the background of a scene in a soybean field, Taylor said, and students learned from watching the film crew work.

"The educational thing was how many times they went over the same thing to get it right," he said. "It showed them you have to do repetition to get it right."

About 50 people showed up at a party in the Strip District sponsored by the Pittsburgh Film Office, including Jeff and Roberta McConnell, who own Kemland Farm in Lawrence County in partnership with Jeff's brother, Gary.

Film Office director Dawn Keezer said the McConnells were excited to see themselves on film in a brief, but clear shot (producers seated the family in the front row of the rally).

"They were very excited about the farm being shown so well," Keezer said, "and they said they've been featured in two national farm publications because of this."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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