‘Building’ on ‘Deer Hunter’ memories

‘CONSTRUCTIVE’ TALK — Remembrances about the 1970s movie “The Deer Hunter,” which involved local residents and local scenes, evoked memories for Bob Phillipson of Bloomingdale of being on the construction side of things. Shown with his wife, Mary Frances “Marsha” Phillipson, who is holding a vintage two-VHS tape copy of the movie, Bob Phillipson was a local carpenter involved in creating a variety of scenes for the film starring Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. It won five Academy Awards in 1979, including for best picture. -- Janice Kiaski

BLOOMINGDALE — At the time, Bob Phillipson of Bloomingdale didn’t think doing carpentry work on movie sets used in the filming of “The Deer Hunter” was all that big of a deal.

The money was sure sweet, though.

“We worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for at least six weeks,” recalled Phillipson of work that translated into good pay for a union carpenter more than 40 years ago.

“We were working seven 10s, which was double time on overtime for every hour over eight,” he said of his pay from involvement in the movie filmed in 1977, including in Mingo Junction.

Phillipson, who in 1961 joined the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Carpenters Local 186, was referred for the movie work by the union’s business representative.

His reflections about his behind-the-scenes role in “The Deer Hunter” that starred Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken come fresh on the heels of the recently released documentary “Michael Cimino: Un Mirage Americain.” It’s about the late Michael Cimino, who won the best director Academy Award for “The Deer Hunter” and was shown March 5 before an enthusiastic and attentive audience at the Mingo Junction Knights of Columbus Hall.

Among those attending were several local residents who were part of the movie and/or documentary that was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Baptiste “J.B.” Thoret, who traveled from Paris and spent three days in the area along with his sound engineer Julian Brossier.

Phillipson said it was “just referral” that got him work doing movie sets.

“The business agent called. My understanding of the request from George Stokes, the big heavy-duty guy from EMI Films, he called the union hall and requested carpenters who were skilled,” Phillipson said. “They wanted guys who were house carpenters, guys who were used to working with trim, I guess a higher level of skill when it came to wood. He apparently knew you had certain guys who do form work and that’s all they do or do one thing, and George wanted guys who were versatile.”

As Phillipson recalls, there were four to six area carpenters hired out of the local working with two men from the EMI Films studio and a construction coordinator who came from California. Added in the mix from EMI Films was a set designer/architect who had blue prints for each scene so the workers knew what needed done and when.

Aside from Phillipson, others hired from the union, as he recalls, were Warren Hawkins, Charlie Green, Henry Sall and Phillipson’s brother-in-law, Charles W. “Charlie” Huscroft. He’s apologetic if he has missed anyone.

Movie set projects varied.

“The mobile home was in Weirton,” Phillipson noted of one job. “It was located on a ledge to overlook the steel mill. We added a room with one window, and hinged the roof so the camera could position down inside,” he explained during a recent interview at his home where he resides with his wife, Mary Frances “Marsha” Phillipson.

Phillipson said he and Hawkins worked on a cemetery scene in Pittsburgh across from the Duquesne Steel Works. “All the tomb stones were hauled in and placed on an empty lot. We built a wall around the cemetery plot made of plywood and insulation board to look like stone,” he explained. “The fence was made with broom sticks painted black with Plaster of Paris finials to embellish the fence. A mixture of gray paint and oatmeal made it look like concrete,” he noted.

“The bowling alley was in Youngstown, and the church scene was in Cleveland. The carpentry on those scenes were minimal,” he added. “There were some scenes we didn’t get involved with — people outside of our crew handled it.”

The memory of some work makes him laugh, including the cemetery project.

“They had what they call greensmen, and they put sod all over this lot, and then they put the tombstones down and sprayed it with a defoliation material to make it turn brown,” Phillipson said. “It was in the summer time, and we went to work this one morning, and there was a big patch missing. The guy from the movie set said, ‘What the hell happened to our grass?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘We’re going out and find it, somebody stole it,’ so we go running up and down the alleys and finally found this guy sitting in his back yard, and he has this nice patch of green grass, and he has a picnic table and an umbrella on it,” Phillipson chuckled, recalling how the man claimed he hadn’t seen anyone with the sod they were after.

Phillipson said he and Hawkins were involved with building the hunting cabin that was done in a warehouse in George’s Run where decorations and props from the movie were being stored.

“Meryl Streep and the director, Cimino, paid a visit to the warehouse when we were building the cabin, and John Savage came to pick up a vehicle, but the battery was dead,” Phillipson said, noting Savage, who played Steven in the movie, asked for help with the car.

“He said, ‘It won’t start,’ and I said, ‘Maybe the terminals need cleaned,’ and he says, ‘I’m John Savage.’ And I said, ‘Well, John, there’s a crescent wrench in the gang box.’ I had no idea who John Savage was and could care less. He went and got the wrench,” Phillipson said.

That hunting cabin they made was transported to Washington state where the actors hunted deer or as Marsha pointed out, elk.

Another project involved making a wheelchair for Savage whose character had had his legs amputated. “We got a little box or something so his legs were not exposed so it appeared his legs were missing,” he said.

Phillipson worked on what he called a motel scene in Follansbee. “There were two vacant houses side by side, and we connected them together by making a wall and entrance door. This site was right on the Ohio River opposite Wheeling-Pitt,” he said.

In Welsh’s Lounge, there were projects that paid attention to detail that Phillipson even now wonders why the effort was made, thinking who would notice such things.

“Warren (Hawkins) and I built a back bar — it was kind of a fancy decorative piece. We took our level out because everything’s level, square, plumb, and the boss guy — and I can’t forget him because he could sing like Mel Torme and I was kind of a fan of Mel Torme — and he said, “Put that level away,’ and we said, ‘We’re used to leveling shelves,’ and the guy said, ‘This building was built in 1930, it sagged and just forget it.'”

They built the booths and tables. “They went to such extremes, that when we built the tables for the booths, where you would put your arms, we had to sand that so it had wear points. Nobody would ever see it, but that’s how extreme they were,” he continued.

“And then they had a foot rail at the bottom of the bar — it could have been a plastic pipe or something else, but they wanted brass, and that’s what they got,” he said.

“They had a pool table, and we built a false column in the middle of that room somehow, and one of the guys got a belt sander and the guy stood up against the column and put his foot up and said if a guy’s standing here watching pool, he’d probably put his foot up against the wall so he ran the belt sander where a foot would be to put a wear point and make it look realistic,” Phillipson said, noting another project involved making a false mill gate entrance.

“They spent the money,” Phillipson said of the movie budget.

“No, I don’t think I was that romantic about it,” Phillipson responded when asked about whether being a part of making movie sets was something special at the time. He and his peers, however, liked that the construction manager would buy a big box of doughnuts. “The guys would dive in that like there was no tomorrow. Even if you bought a pack of cigarettes, and you gave him a receipt they would reimburse you for it. The budget when they came was something like $2 million, and by the time they left, it was more than $10 million, but the movie made millions,” he said.

There wasn’t a lot of after-work talk about movie set projects, according to Phillipson, who noted Welsh’s quit doing business in the part of the bar used in the movie. “They built an addition in the back and after work, we would go there and get a beer, and DeNiro came in there one afternoon, and I did see him. He had on a plaid shirt and a hat and was talking to some of the locals, including John “Boom Boom” Buchmelter of Mingo Junction, who had a small role in the movie.

“The Deer Hunter” would not be his only movie connection during his carpentry career.

“When I was business manager, I signed a contract with Reckless Co., and I had to forward my contracts to Youngstown because Steubenville was a branch regional office, and when I sent it up, my boss at that time, the regional manager, said ‘What the hell is this? Why would you ever sign a contract with a company called the Reckless Co.?'” Phillipson would explain it involved carpenters local work with another locally made movie called “Reckless.” The 1984 film starred Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah and had a steel-town setting.

“I said that’s the company, and that’s the movie. We had a very small part in that,” explained Phillipson, who became the union’s business agent in 1983, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1997.

Phillipson didn’t set out to be a carpenter.

“I had a couple things I thought I wanted to be,” he said. “I was a big fan of Red Donley’s, and I thought I wanted to be a sports announcer. I had a friend who was manager of Hadley’s Furniture in Steubenville, and he worked for WEIR and he offered me a job. I asked how much does it pay, maybe a buck an hour,” he chuckled at the recollection.

He also toyed with the idea of becoming a trooper for the Ohio Highway Patrol.

“My dad Dad died in 1957, the year I graduated from high school,” Phillipson said. After graduating from Catholic Central High School, he joined the Marines as part of a special two-year cadet program. He was 17 when he graduated on June 9, heading off to the Marines on July 30 of that year. He turned 20 a week after he returned, anticipating he might get his job back at Loblaw’s Supermarket as promised.

He didn’t.

The Bloomingdale area where he and his wife would ultimately live is near the Jefferson County Joint Vocational School. Phillipson recalled the Belvedere Subdivision was “hardly built,” but neighbors had decided they needed to build a volunteer fire department.

Those neighbors included “a contractor named Ted Brehm, Don Long, a boss for Ohio Bell, and some guys who worked for the power company — just all neighbors, and we had a meeting in Bloomingdale at their firehouse, and Don Long I remember asked, ‘Where do you work?’ and I said, ‘I don’t have a job.’ I was embarrassed, and old Ted Brehm sitting there said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have a job?’ He said, ‘you be at my office Monday morning at 7 o’clock.'”

Phillipson showed up, despite a call from the employment office for a job to run a fork loader. “It paid a buck and a half an hour or something, and I didn’t ask Brehm what he was paying, but I knew construction paid a little better.”

He went to work as a laborer in 1959-60 for $2.30 an hour, became a union member in 1961 and went to apprentice school for four years, taking classes at Steubenville High School taught by Mike Merrick, city building inspector. “Back then you were indentured to the contractor, and the apprenticeship was four years, so I said OK,” Phillipson said.

From residential to commercial and industrial, Phillipson has worked on varied projects during his career.

“In 1964 when the Cardinal Plant down at Brilliant started, he was one of the first hired persons to work on that job,” Marsha said. “There was a big sign out front about it being the future site of the Cardinal Plant, and he had his picture taken with that sign, and that was in the Wheeling Intelligencer,” Marsha said.

“We worked on referral,” Phillipson said of union protocol. “Some guys go to work for employers, some work for local contractors all the time, and you worked there and stayed there as long as they had work, but if you weren’t satisfied with that kind of work or didn’t like your employer or your buddies, you left and went back to the union hall,” he explained. “We had a ‘Get on the ball, go to the hall,’ kind of a phrase and the business agent, we kept a list of guys laid off, the dates of that and had a pretty good idea of what their skills were. There are a multitude of skills in the autonomy of carpentry — welders, riggers, pile drivers, furniture makers, door hangers, framers, concrete and construction guys, and in this area in particular, you’d better be pretty well schooled in any field because there aren’t that many opportunities,” Phillipson said.

“Even when the market was as good as it was, you’d better be versatile,” he said, remembering how one year he had as many as 14 employers, a credit, he said, to a broad range of skills, be it fix a door, do a sidewalk form or cut a roof.

“I had sense enough to know you’d better increase your skills or you’ll be out of work a lot more,” he said, noting such times would come and were eased thanks to the income of a spouse. Marsha worked for the Department of Agriculture as office manager/executive director with the first work site being the basement of the old post office in Steubenville. Then it relocated to Main Street, Wintersville. “She was called county executive director,” he said.

Phillipson would teach carpentry for several years, and his sense of community has been demonstrated in various ways, having served on the board of the United Way of Jefferson County and on the advisory board at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. “I even worked for them for a while as a project manager when they did the Twilight Lounge conversion into student housing.”

The couple have a two-set VHS package of “The Deer Hunter,” a more than three-hour movie.

“I remember scenes that I thought were very intense. If you saw the movie whenever they were playing Russian roulette, I found that very difficult to deal with and thought what a shame it was.”

Marsha said she watched the movie only once. “I told people Bob did this and that. They were very, very surprised and impressed,” she said.

“It is kind of unique when you see things you actually had a hand in doing,” Phillipson said. “It was interesting.”

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)


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