With the first rustles of spring, baseball players start their training, and a primal urge stirs in Western New Yorkers.
The urge to watch "The Natural."
With this classic baseball movie, set in the 1930s and filmed in Buffalo, we struck gold. Literally. Even if you've seen it only once, years ago, you'll recall its golden hue. The sun on the stadium. The glint of the ornate Ellicott Square Building. The waving grass. And, most unforgettably, Robert Redford's hair.
Redford starred as Roy Hobbs, a mysterious baseball player. His dream, oft repeated, is: "I want them to see me and say: 'Look, there's Roy Hobbs. The best there ever was.' "
In 1983, when the movie was made, Redford was at the height of his fame. Joining him in Buffalo were other big names: Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger, then the hottest Bond girl. The director was Barry Levinson. The lovely orchestral score, reminiscent of Aaron Copland, was by Randy Newman. Newman had recently written the lyrical music for the movie "Ragtime."
In short, as movies go, this one hit a home run. Other movies have been filmed here, and more will follow. But "The Natural" was truly big-league.
A competitive note made it extra sweet. Of all the cities in the world, ours was the chosen one. We owe this victory to our old War Memorial Stadium, nicknamed the Rockpile.
Built in the 1930s, it was the only stadium producers of "The Natural" could find that looked natural for the 1930s.
The producers spent a half a million dollars fixing up the Rockpile. They fitted it with a '30s-style scoreboard, and repainted the seats Depression-era gray and green.
Some 3,000 Western New Yorkers were hired as extras to fill the stands. Cardboard cutouts helped fill in the empty spaces. You still see those cutouts here and there, in taverns around town.
Not all the extras were paid. Kids were bused in from UB. I was one of them. They told us to wear white blouses and dark skirts and gave us free hot dogs.
My friend Barb managed to get near Robert Redford at the hot dog stand and said he was really nice, smiling and gabbing and signing autographs. We spent a lot of time going over that watershed moment, determining how close she was to Redford. "About as far as I'm standing from you, Barb? About as far as that pitcher of beer?"
Watching "The Natural" now can give you a funny feeling.
The beautiful, enigmatic story unfolds at a tempo slower than we're used to. It has the leisurely pace of baseball, the leisurely pace of the past.
Green grass, steam engines, romantic dining cars -- dining cars! -- and softly glowing lamps bring the 1930s to misty life.
But other scenes are so familiar that you do a double take. The camera lingers on the gorgeous mosaic floor of the Ellicott Square Building. Pivotal conversations take place by the Ellicott Square's elevators.
The Central Terminal, the sun filtering through its huge windows, looked glamorous. Hobbs muses, "I could hit a ball in here and not hit the end of it." The old Parkside Candy at Main and Oakwood Place stood in for a Chicago ice cream parlor.
Buffalo's All-High Stadium stepped up to the plate to play Chicago's Wrigley Field. Even the Richardson Complex got in on the action, as a hospital.
And who doesn't get teary watching the thrilling ending? What a moment of glory for our old stadium.
Such was people's nostalgia years later that Forgotten Buffalo designed a tour of locations from "The Natural." Alas, the tour now exists only online. In practice, it wasn't feasible. Too many sites were gone, or off limits. The Rockpile was finally torn down in 1988. The Central Terminal slipped into long-term decay.
On the plus side, the Ellicott Square Building still shines. The Richardson Complex is seeing a renaissance. All is not lost, reflected Eddy Dobosiewicz, the local history authority who runs Forgotten Buffalo.
"The producers of that film saw the potential in parts of Buffalo that few saw value in," he said. "The Rockpile, the Central Terminal, the Richardson Complex, Parkside Candy, etc., were places people knew of but had little interest in. I feel that this movie started a slow-growing conversation for preservation, or at least not ignoring our roots. Too bad people didn't pay closer attention then."
Well, we do now. And in "The Natural," our past comes alive. For years to come, folks who watch this movie will marvel at us. They'll say: Look, there's Buffalo: The best there ever was.
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