Another Film Company Comes to New Bedford

PBS Transforms Downtown New Bedford Into Walt Whitman’s America
By Philip Devitt
Standard-Times Correspondent

NEW BEDFORD — The men appeared dapper, the women, poised, as they strolled down Acushnet Avenue, dressed in Victorian clothing.
Several men walked hurriedly down the cobblestone street, perhaps late for a business appointment.
A woman in a hoop skirt seemed to glide along the sidewalk, cooling off her face with a folding fan.
An older man in less of a hurry smoked a cigar and pored over a book outside a store on the corner of Dover Street.
Throughout the historic district Saturday, people greeted each other with a smile, a curtsy or a tip of the hat.
This was Walt Whitman’s America.
PBS — not Doc Brown and his DeLorean — sent New Bedford back in time. The network was in town this weekend to shoot scenes for a documentary about Whitman, widely regarded as America’s most influential poet.
“Everything we’re shooting takes place in 1840s New York, so we did the research for what New York would look like at that time, cities that still have those qualities, and New Bedford was the perfect place,” script supervisor Sierra Pettengill said.
Acushnet Avenue on Saturday doubled as New York’s Broadway, where Mr. Whitman spent a lot of time, Ms. Pettengill said.
“When Walt Whitman wandered the streets of Broadway, he would identify with others. He saw himself in other people. He sort of loved that hustle and bustle of the city.”
About 15 extras, most of them local, worked on the outdoor scenes, dressed in period costumes.
For Alyn Carlson of Westport, Saturday was a chance to explore a new side of acting, and an old style of clothing, specifically the hoopskirt.
“It looks like it would be heavy, but it’s pretty breezy underneath,” she said.
Ms. Carlson works frequently with local theater companies and taught drama for eight years at Westport High School, but had not done much work in front of the camera before Saturday.
“It would be great to see more things filmed in the area,” she said. “Where else do you get cobblestone streets like this and gas lights?”
Amelia Ellert drove to the city from Reading to play a distillery maid. Carrying a basket, she braved the afternoon heat in several layers of clothing as she walked back and forth down the street.
“This is too fun to be a job. Work is supposed to be difficult, but this is fun. Two years of working in fast food shaped my opinion on that.”
Ann Marie Lopes, the city’s tourism director, watched the scenes play out Saturday, excitedly snapping photos of the action. She said the PBS crew purchased most of the props needed for the shoot from city antique stores.
“Its been a great experience, and the crew has been very nice to work with.”
Whitman is perhaps best known for “Leaves of Grass,” a collection of poems about nature and the human body and mind. He died in 1892.
Filming was scheduled to wrap up Monday and Tuesday. Ms. Lopes said the documentary is scheduled to air in January 2008.
Social worker Jane Flynn’s office at the Benjamin Rodman house on North Second Street was transformed into Whitman’s bedroom.
Socks dangled from the mantel above a fireplace in the office Saturday. A carefully placed curtain covered an air conditioner in the wall. And a modest twin bed, its sheets bunched up, gave the impression the poet had left in a hurry.
Ms. Lopes said she would like to see more film crews come to New Bedford and take advantage of the city’s resources.
“New Bedford is so unique, and it’s filled with all different kinds of people.”
August 27, 2007

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