Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

“It’s exciting.
It’s moving.
It’s surprising.
It’s suspenseful
It’s filled with men who became heroes,
and women who became legends.
It’s an epic 300 years in the making.
It’s Pennsylvania history.
Experience it.
It’s too good to miss.”

 

Motivation is tough to describe, even tougher to define. It’s the stuff acting is made of – tells the actress why her character is doing what she’s doing, why she’s feeling what she’s feeling. Stage and scripts and sets can fill in the rest – the who, what, when and where. Motivation tells her why.

As in: “Yes, I understand the line, but what’s my motivation?”

Bonnie Bluestein is an actress. Not just your high-school­ play, church-fund-raiser, community-civic-center variety. Bonnie Ellen Bluestein is a professional, and right now the cameras are – as they say – rolling.

“Forget the bucket; ram that thing in there. Hurry up, hurry up. Go, go, go!” John Pytka is directing, and when he tells you to jump, you do not ask for your motivation. You ask how high.

Pytka is a professional, and whether his client is a national corporation or the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission, shooting schedules are tight. Time is money.

“Come on, people. This is my nickel.”

Bluestein plays a Revolutionary War heroine named Molly Corbin, a girl orphaned at age five when Indians took her mother captive and killed her father. Molly survived to become a fighter.

At twenty-one she married. And when her husband later enlisted in Capt. Thomas Proctor’s First Company of Pennsyl­vania Artillery, she followed him into battle, watched him load and fire, learned each movement exactly.

When a cannoneer was killed early in the battle defending Fort Washington, Molly took his place. During that battle, John Corbin was killed. Molly was badly wounded by grape shot, and taken prisoner. After the war, she nicknamed her­self “Captain Molly,” artilleryman.

Molly Corbin was a genuine American patriot. She was very much real, and she was a Pennsylvanian. The production company has assembled costumes, cannon, muskets, fifes, drums, soldiers, extras – everyone and everything needed to show us how this scene looks. Bluestein’s job is to show us how it feels. Which brings us back to motivation.

Sure, a Molly Corbin should be brave and defiant; that much is easy. But we should also see some adrenaline-fed fear in her eyes, just enough. And that makes things a little more complex.

Then the cannon fires, muzzle flashing, smoke rolling, ears ringing, then up an octave. And quite suddenly, Bonnie Ellen Bluestein has no trouble whatsoever with motivation.

“All right, now ram that thing in there! Forget the bucket. Terrific, terrific. And, cut.” Pytka stands away from the camera, satisfied. Well, almost satisfied. “Let’s try that one again.”And again and again and again until everything rings true, then once more for good measure. It’s enough to make you wonder how you got yourself into this in the first place.

In the beginning, there was William Penn.

Because of him, we were all about to observe Pennsylvania’s tercentenary. Three hundred years call for more than just your average birthday party. This calls for a celebration, and the Penn­sylvania Historical and Museum Commission has a real prob­lem: Just how do you send out over 12 million invitations?

Ketchum Advertising may have the answer. Ketchum has already developed the Commonwealth’s “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania” campaign. Since the firm has some experience promoting Pennsylvania, it just may be able to promote Pennsylvania’s history.

The agency’s “concept” was never simply to promote the 300th birthday, but to make both residents and visitors aware of three full centuries of history, and to make that history come alive through short, symbolic vignettes. To borrow from the script, to show that “It’s exciting. It’s moving. It’s surprising. It’s suspenseful. It’s filled with men who became heroes, and women who became legends. It’s an epic 300 years in the making. It’s Pennsylvania history. Experience it. It’s too good to miss.”

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, things become a little more involved. How do you get that message across-through print, billboards, radio, television?

That’s a rhetorical question. If there really were a “best” medium, the others might well have gone out of business years ago. In fact, some messages work best with words, some with pictures, some with sound, others with motion. It all depends on the message.

And this message is about history – not the traditional view of history as a dull series of names and dates to be memorized. Those names were people; those dates, events – lives and times as important and exciting as anything happening today. That’s the idea: to make everything real.

It is a simple message. Quick, bold and visual – perfect for a television commercial. But what’s commercial about it? If all we’re promoting is our heritage, why spend money to buy air time? Yes, why indeed.

Instead, use the budget to perfect the message itself, then ask television stations to air it free of charge, as a public service announcement. That is precisely what Ketchum proposed, and that is precisely what they did – with one small catch.

Since the client also happens to be Pennsylvania’s official history agency, we’ll have no showbiz schlock here. No sir, this production will be as positively, certifiably, historically correct as they can make it – within limits.

Pennsylvania’s history was made by men and women, by whites and blacks, by Indians and immigrants, by legendary generals and unknown soldiers, and by events-some famous, some obscure. That history was made in Philadelphia, in the Sus­quehanna Valley, in the West, and everywhere in between. And this production will record at least a cross section of all of it. In just one minute.

The seven vignettes finally chosen will span centuries. In real time, we will shoot them in just one week. On screen, they will take sixty seconds. But then, nobody said it would be easy.

Experience It. It’s Too Good To Miss.

John Pytka doesn’t have a canvas-backed chair with DIRECTOR stenciled in block script. He doesn’t need one, for two rea­sons. First, because everyone knows he is the director. Second, because he never sits down.

Pytka is always moving, shouting directions, positioning actors, arranging props, calling for lights, camera, action! He is very much in charge, and he does not need a chair to spell that out for anyone. If he decides a scene is too dimly lit, There Is Light.

“We have two more setups today, people. This is my nickel, my nickel.”

The crew is setting up for the first scene to be shot, which will be the last scene in the finished production. Historic ally, past may be prologue. Here, prologue is more often past.

Pennsbury Manor was William Penn’s country plantation on the Delaware. The Pennsbury Manor standing today is only a re-creation of the original, but a very thorough restoration none­theless, complete with formal gardens and outbuildings. In other words, a stately estate.

But Pennsbury isn’t looking too stately today, with orange cables snaking through doorways, aluminum cases stacked in corners and moving trucks lining the oval drive.

Nick Dana, who will play James Logan, Penn’s secretary, is rehearsing one of his two lines. Charles Musimecci, who plays Penn, has no lines. He does have a nod, though. And he is working on his nod.

“Experience it,” Dana says with a light touch that’s half accent and half attitude, voice balanced nicely between pomp and servility. “It’s too.good to miss. Experience it, it’s too good to miss.”

“This time slower,” Pytka says. “Turn your shoulder and take a beat.”

“Experience it,” Dana says, turning his shoulder and pausing for exactly one full beat. “It’s too good to miss.”

They experiment and refine and more-or-less play with these seven words for almost two hours, changing camera angles, framing, pacing and inflections until they get it right. Dana’s other line, spoken to Penn, will be: “King Tammiami and his party have arrived.” Dana will whisper this with measured dignity. Penn will nod, then stand to greet King Tammiami and his party.

This scene does not represent any specific meeting between Penn and the Indians. He often entertained tribal delegations, insisting that they be treated with great respect, address­ing their chiefs as “kings.” Hence, “King Tammiami and his party.”

In Penn’s time, Tammiami was chief of the Lenni-Lenape. This morning, King Tammiami and his party have arrived on the front lawn of Pennsbury. They are checking makeup, fitting cos­tumes, reading the fine print in their contracts.

King Tammiami will be played by Carl Wayandaga Pierce. If the name Carl Wayandaga Pierce sounds as though he just might have been some Indian ancestry, it is not by accident. Very little in this production will happen by chance, almost every­thing by design. Carl Pierce is an Indian, but not just any Indian. Carl Wayandaga Pierce is a Lenni-Lenape.

Costumes, props, even tribal markings are painstakingly correct. The historians and consultants are reviewing those details with Pierce and the other actors now, deciding how a blanket should be worn, how a staff should be carried. This takes a considerable amount of time, because everyone has an expert opinion.

The Commission has brought its experts, yes. But in addi­tion, each and every actor in this scene is a Lenni-Lenape. It is a delicate piece of diplomacy.

Which raises an interesting point. It is hard enough to find people who can look the part – let alone act – even for a five­-second clip. But on top of that, to insist that the performers be descendants of the exact tribe is a little obsessive. Still, it works.

On film, the finished product not only looks authentic; it is authentic. These really are Lenni-Lenape on the site of Wil­liam Penn’s home. It looks real because it is real.

It’s Surprising.

While William Penn greets King Tammiami, set designers are working on another setup just 100 feet and almost 200 years away. In one of the outbuildings, someone is stacking crates and barrels, hanging coils of rope and twine, and dusting – that is, spraying the whole room with a thick film of dust to give the atmosphere atmosphere.

The general idea is to re-create a scene from the Underground Railroad, the secret network of routes and hideaways estab­lished to help runaway slaves escape to the North. In fact, America’s first anti-slavery organization was established in this state – the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Specifically, the idea is to tell the story of one of those slaves, Henry “Box” Brown. Samuel Smith, a Virginian, and several friends made a wooden crate, three feet one inch long and two feet six inches high. They bored holes in the sides, stocked it with biscuits, wrote “Right side up with care” on the lid, then nailed Henry Brown inside and shipped the box from Rich­mond to Philadelphia. Twenty-six hours later he arrived – stiff, perspiring, but unhurt. And Henry Brown became Henry “Box” Brown. Briefly, that’s the story. And brevity is the soul of television.

The scene opens with a bookish-looking clerk working dili­gently at his desk, wire-rimmed spectacles perched low on his nose, brow knitted in concentration. A freight workman strains to open the crate, his hair tousled and face streaked with dirt and sweat. He lifts the lid, sees Brown, and cries “It’s a man!”

Brown stands, shakes hands with a second black man standing beside the crate, then with voice trembling, “Thanks to you, a free man.” The scene itself is effective enough. The trick is to make everything fit into just five seconds.

The workman practices opening the crate, prying and nailing and prying and nailing until he can pop the lid like a bottle cap.

“It’s a man” is shortened to “A man” to save precious milli­seconds. Finally, Brown practices standing, turning, shaking hands and delivering his line in a single fluid gesture.

Time and again, “Box” Brown is packed into his crate, top lowered and pried loose again. And each .time, his “Thanks to you, a free man” seems to come more and more from the heart.

By late afternoon, Pytka has his three scenes. By evening his crew has packed and loaded the props and equipment. By midnight, Pennsbury Manor is stately once more.

It’s Filled With Men Who Became Heroes.

We are outside Philadelphia and it is four o’clock in the morn­ing. It is not morning; it is night. But Pytka and his crew, fresh from an hour or two of sleep, are off and running. Today is the Big Day.

Today’s ambitious schedule calls for three very complex scenes with more props, costumes and characters than anyone cares to count. The first will be a brief shot of Gen. George Washing­ton and his aides, all on horseback, riding and pointing and nodding to one another – in a word, reconnoitering.

Like the Pennsbury meeting between Penn and Tammiami, this scene does not depict any single, specific day in Pennsyl­vania’s history. Visually, there is nothing to suggest that George Washington is, in fact, in Pennsylvania. He could be almost anywhere. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Washington is associated with Pennsyl­vania. Valley Forge and the crossing of the Delaware are, of course, the best examples. But that, too, is the point: we don’t need to retell those events. Everyone has the mental picture.

Filming begins at sunrise, with horses prancing and snorting, eyes straining and spyglass poised, scabbards flashing in dawn’s early light. Pretty stirring stuff, except for the simple fact that today there won’t be much light – early, dawn’s or otherwise. This will be one of those lazy hazy days of summer­ – emphasis on the haze, diffusing those perfect shafts of morning sun and – just for good measure – coating each camera and tripod with dew. This haze will not just “bum off,” and it’s hazing on Pytka’s nickel!

The cameras are ready. The crew is ready. The wranglers and horses are ready. And Jan Leighton, looking a little more relaxed than everyone else, his costume freshly pressed, wig freshly coiffed, is ready, too.

Leighton will be George Washington.

He is not descended from Washington, isn’t remotely related by blood or even marriage, for that matter. But Jan Leighton not only looks like the face on every dollar bill you’ve ever seen, he acts as we imagine a George Washington should act. With jaw firm, eyes set, and shoulders squared, Jan Leighton is General George Washington, if only for a day.

After an hour, it is still hazing and it is still Pytka’s nickel. When in doubt, we improvise. Pytka moves Leighton to the center of the open field, posing him defiantly on horseback. Leighton can mount, ride, even strike a defiant pose if asked. Through the lens, he is a figure framed sharp against misty trees, his bold uniform stark against the soft light, an equestrian statue come to life. It is still dawn, but a different kind of dawn. A calm before the storm.

Pytka experiments with the aides, sending one in front of Washington, another galloping behind, a third turning and salut­ing and handing over a dispatch, then riding off.

“It’s filled with men who became heroes”; that’s the announcer’s line. This scene has no spoken dialogue, but the actors mime the feeling exactly. Before long, we’re ready for the next location.

And for the rest of Delaware County, the alarm clock is just beginning to ring.

It’s Moving.

Authenticity or no authenticity, we will not be filming in Gettysburg. The extra location would add time, travel and ex­pense to an already long day. And besides, we can re-create a small detail from Gettysburg right here. It’s a concession to real­ism, but J. Craig Nannos will make up for it.

Craig Nannos is not one of a kind, but almost. He is a military coordinator. When producers need a consultant for props, weapons, costumes, or just expert advice, they ask people like Nannos.

If your artilleryman is wearing the wrong cap, he will know the difference. If the command should be “take aim” instead of “aim,” he will let you know. Nannos even. knows what a frizzen cover is, and if you leave yours on, he’ll tell you to take it off. It’s his job to know these things, and he knows them very well.

Nannos served as military coordinator for the film Taps, shot on location at the Valley Forge Military Academy. He also took care of the thousands of military and historic details for the George Washington mini-series. At the end of that series, the man accepting the British surrender is none other than J. Craig Nannos.

Very few people do this sort of thing at all; Nannos does it professionally. Pytka knows he can be trusted to keep the production on and the frizzen covers off.

It is afternoon, and everybody’s busy re-creating Gettysburg on a restored plantation in Delaware County. Pytka moves from site to site, scrutinizing each one, finally settling on a section of broken fieldstone wall.

The real Gettysburg is laced with these walls, especially the battlefield itself. This may not be Gettysburg, but it will be indistinguishable in this scene. To the left, Nannos is rehearsing his Union soldiers, checking gear and insignia for accuracy.

The action centers on a grizzled, battle-weary veteran from the Pennsylvania Bucktails, a genuine Pennsylvania regiment. Yes, they did fight at Gettysburg. And yes, on the back of the actor’s cap is a small, worn bucktail. The secret of Nannos’s success is detail, not luck – bucktails rather than rabbits’ feet.

In this scene, the soldier will cry, cradling a slain drummer boy in his lap, rocking the body slowly and sobbing “You shoulda’ stayed back, boy. You shoulda’ stayed back.”

Charles Techman plays the old soldier. Between takes he is all smiles, joking with the crew and waiting patiently. But when the cameras are set, he’s all business. First his face tightens in pain – just a little – then more. “You shoulda’ stayed back, boy.” He blinks glycerine tears, face contorted now, voice high and trembling. “You shoulda’ stayed back.”

Technicians with bee smokers send puffs of smoke across the open ground. In the distance, a wagon burns. An infantry­man runs behind the wall, then a second, and third. Techman squeezes the boy’s cap between his fingers; he is angry, tired, hurt.

“And, cut.” Pytka stands away from the camera, nothing much to offer except, “You are fantastic,” very quietly said and very sincere.

The uniforms, rifles, even the drumsticks are careful reproduc­tions of the genuine articles. But by far the most genuine thing about this scene is Techman’s performance. Pytka has his scene, but he shoots several more takes to be sure, each as good as the last.

In the finished production, an announcer will read over this section: “It’s moving.” That underscores the point, but the point is already made.

And Women Who Became Legends.

Molly Corbin is last on the day’s schedule. She is the central character, but the clip also calls for a supporting cast to turn a skirmish into a battle.

Nannos’s men are hurrying to change from their Civil War uniforms to their Revolutionary War costumes, checking buckles, straps, frizzen covers. Pytka works with Molly, teaching her in one easy lesson to dear the bore of a muzzle-loading field piece so she looks as though she’s been doing this all her life.

Makeup moves in to smear her with dirt, spray her with water, soil her once-white dress, tangle her hair and give her the proper grimy look so critical to the moment. By day’s end, Molly is looking authentically shell-shocked and battle-weary, and acting more than a little deaf. But then, so is everyone else.

It’s Exciting.

Two days and several hundred miles later, the caravan pulls into Titusville, home of America’s first successful oil well. On August 27, 1859, Col. Edwin L. Drake struck oil. Soon “wild­catters” followed, living a feast-or-famine lifestyle, depending on their luck in the oil fields.

Just a stone’s throw from the Drake Well site, workers are busy building a rough-hewn derrick made of crooked, hand-cut timbers. This particular derrick stops halfway up, never com­pleted. Why not? In the viewfinder, you can only see halfway up. Strange logic, but you get used to it.

The dialogue in this scene will open the whole production. It is crucial. On paper, it looks like this:

OILMAN #1: Yeeeeehawwww!
OILMAN #2: Whoooooooeee!
OILMAN #1: Yaaawhoooooo!

The camera rolls, headless oil rig centered in the viewfinder so nobody will ever suspect a thing. Right on cue, pumps feed the black gunk into a vertical pipe, and a secret recipe of water and lamp black rains thick over Oilmen #1 and #2, respectively.

“Yeeeeehawwww!” says #1.

“Whoooooooeee!” adds #2.

Both men are on their feet now, literally jumping for joy­ – gusher gushing, pump pumping, hats tossed high into the air.

“Yaaawhoooooo!” says #1.

Who writes this stuff? Who decides that the Whoooooooeee! must come before the Yaaawhoooooo! but only after the Yeeeeehawwww? This is not known. It is one of the great mys­teries of advertising, and it works like a charm. And that is enough for us to know.

It’s Suspenseful.

By the mid-1700s, the British had claimed the Ohio Valley, backing up that claim by allying themselves with the Iroquois nations. Not the best place for a French trapper to trap – but the French did explore the valley, establish forts and collect pelts along the Allegheny.

In this final scene, the characters are anonymous Frenchmen. The action simply represents that time.

It is late – not just evening, but pitch-black night. Pytka is deciding how to light a shot when there can be no light. Here and there, people stand knee deep in the cold water, holding cables, setting light stands, helping the actors into the birchbark canoe. Actually, this is an aluminum and fiberglass canoe which has been painstakingly, cosmetically modified to be in­distinguishable from birchbark. WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station, has done an excellent job with the “makeup.” But it’s fragile.

Each man steps in gingerly. Birchbark canoes may, by definition, grow on trees, but this is the only one in town.

The scene opens with Frontiersman #1 watching a camp­fire on the opposite shore. Paddling quietly, he whispers “Do you sink zey are friendly?” thereby establishing the scene, the suspense and his character in about two seconds flat.

Suddenly, a flaming arrow zings into a cask onboard, burying its genuine flint head in the wood, handmade shaft and feathers vibrating to a stop.

“No.” says Frontiersman #2. “I don’t sink so.”

It’s a small moment. But when you’re trying to fit seven distinct scenes, eight speaking parts, assorted sound effects, period music and an announcer into just one single minute, you only have time for small moments. The trick is to make them seem larger than life.

It’s An Epic 300 Years In The Making.

By the end of the final day, it seems as though this produc­tion has been 300 years in the making. In the following weeks, footage is edited, voices added, music, effects, titles and transitions blended. Then videotapes are sent to every television station in Pennsylvania, and then some.

Sometimes, those stations air your announcement a little. Rarely, they air it a lot. In this case, some of them played the tape until they wore it out, then called to ask for a fresh copy so they could keep playing it. That is not just rare, it is almost unheard of.

Ketchum entered the tape under the title “Epic” in the Clio competition that year. The Clios are generally regarded as the Oscars of advertising. “Epic” did not win, but it was selected as one of five finalists in the travel category – one in five out of hundreds of entries from across the country.

The original idea behind the public service spot was to make Pennsylvania’s history “exciting … moving … surpris­ing … suspenseful.” They did that. But equally important, they did it by following the letter, as well as the spirit of that history. It’s that authenticity that holds everything together, brings it to life.

Almost two years later, “Epic” is still on the air throughout Pennsylvania. If you’ve never seen it, look for it. Experience it. It’s too good to miss.

 

J. Scott Dugan, a public relations officer who lives and works in Har­risburg, has written and produced public service announcements for the broadcast media. He has worked as an arts critic and newspaper columnist and has contributed pieces dealing with history and biog­raphy to American Handgunner and Town & Gown. He was previ­ously on the staff of Centre Broadcasters, Inc. of State College.