Where’s Budd Bailey? Naturally, the North Park Theatre
by Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
I was greeted by “Wonderboy” and Kevin Lester when I first arrived at the North Park Theater for Saturday night’s gala showing of “The Natural.”
For the record, they are not the same person.
“Wonderboy,” as people who saw the movie know, was the bat used by the Roy Hobbs character during his spectacular if inconsistent lone season with the New York Knights. It was on display in a case in the front lobby. Lester, the former athletic director at Williamsville South High School, was a technical advisor for the baseball parts of the movie. He wasn’t on display, but was busy catching up with his friends. I’m still waiting for Kevin to get that Oscar nomination; he was great when he passed along a note in the dugout near the end of the film.
It was an unusual, interesting evening for all. Turner Classic Movies sponsored the event, as a full house watched the movie in the beautifully remodeled North Park. I’ll bet, like me, that most of them hadn’t seen “The Natural” in a theater since it first opened in 1984. TCM handed out free popcorn and soft drinks to those in attendance, which was a nice touch.
Ben Mankiewicz was the host of the pre-movie part of the night. If you watch TCM, you probably know that he introduces some of the films on its schedule. You might not know that his grandfather, Herman, worked on the scripts of some of the best movies in history – starting with “Citizen Kane,” and also including “Pride of the Yankees” and “Wizard of Oz.” That makes Ben pretty close to Hollywood Royalty.
Mankiewicz spent about a half-hour interviewing the director of “The Natural,” Barry Levinson, who was making his first trip back to Buffalo since working on the movie in 1983. Levinson said the city’s role in the movie started with the stadium, which had that 1930s flavor that was so perfect for the story (the facility opened in 1937). Then Levinson discovered that there were many places in the area that also could be used for different pieces of the narrative. Audiences always laugh when they see the familiar “Parkside Candy” sign from Main St. in Buffalo in the movie, followed by the title card of “Chicago” over it. The director had some nice things to say about how the entire area practically adopted the film company.
Can’t turn away
With all of the local connections involved, everyone has a more personal reaction to the film than outsiders have. Me, whenever “The Natural” comes on television somewhere, I always find myself watching until the end – waiting for the scenes that I saw filmed.
It was a Friday night in September, 1983, and three friends – including sportscaster Pete Weber – were out celebrating the Yankees’ elimination from the pennant race. This included a dramatic reading by Glenn Locke of “The Official New York Yankees Hater’s Handbook.” At 1 a.m., when the wise thing might have been to go home to bed, Pete remembered that this was the night of the all-night shooting of “The Natural” at War Memorial Stadium – and the public was welcome. Off we went. I think alcohol and donuts played a role in the decision.
The night had turned cold by the time we arrived, and we got a first-hand lesson in the first rule of movie-making: the breaks between filming can be long, chilling and boring. But we stuck it out, and got to see Robert Redford rounding third a few times in the climactic scene, with fireworks going off behind him and the rest of the Knights celebrating by the dugout. I can’t imagine what the rest of the neighborhood thought of the percussive blasts coming out of the Rockpile after 3 a.m.
Re-run of the 1980s
For me, watching “The Natural” is like seeing home movies of my late Twenties. I did some announcing of the Bisons in 1979-1981 and 1984, and covered games there during that entire era. That means I spent plenty of time walking around the Rockpile, a place I had first visited a few times when it hosted the Bills until 1972. The steep seats, the ramps behind the stands down the left field line, the patio on the first-base line, the old locker rooms – they all come back to life. The film production crew spent some money giving WMS a facelift during the shooting, making it look as if it could host a team in 1939. The stadium was torn down many years ago, but “The Natural” preserves the views forever.
What’s more, the film still holds up as an entertaining two hours of viewing. Most of the criticism of the movie seemed to come from those who liked Bernard Malamud’s book, a dark novel with a cynical ending. The film version is pure fairy tale, with enough good twists to leave you smiling along the way. The cast has more stars than any one movie should have – about 10 familiar names. And since “The Natural” was set in 1939, the viewer realizes it’s a period piece and thus is timeless.
A handful of films have been made in Buffalo over the years; “The Natural” is the one that will always be cherished here. Thanks go to Turner Classic Movies for reminding us of that with this special event.