In 1983, Baseball's Greatest Movie Captured on Film Many Famous Forgotten Buffalo Sites
Image from film: News Reel sequence from Knights Field. Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium was fitted with 1930s scoreboard. Note "Rich Products" ad in right field.
Image from film: Roy Hobbs shows off his pitching skills at the Rockpile
Hollywood came to Buffalo during the summer of 1983. Famed actors Robert Redford and Glenn Close would use the Queen City as the back drop for one of the most beloved movies in cinematic history. The film "The Natural", was an adaptation of Bernard Malamud's novel. Set in the 1930s, Buffalo, New York offered the production company a wealth of setting perfect for the script. For lovers of Forgotten Buffalo, the Natural did more than tell the story of fictional baseball player Rob Hobbs, it captured on film, some locations for the last time, many popular city landmarks.
The production staff had been searching for a location for the summertime scenes which would authentically recapture the time and spirit of the 1930's as the home of the fictional New York Knights baseball team. Buffalo was "a natural", utilizing the Parkside Candy Shoppe, All-High Stadium, the Ellicott Square Building and War Memorial Stadium. Filming on "The Natural" began on August 1, 1983, but weeks before shooting started, Barry Levinson and key members of his crew were scouting locations. Their primary concern was finding a baseball stadium that looked the way stadiums looked in the '30s. "We quickly determined there were only three appropriate major league parks," says Production Executive Patrick Markey, "but preliminary investigation proved they had such intractable schedules that we realized they would not work. We then started looking for big minor league parks of the right size and period." Early in the search, Markey and Production Designer Mel Bourne were told about a possible stadium in Buffalo. On calling a local newsman they were told that the stadium had been torn down. Having gotten pictures of about 50 stadiums, Markey and Bourne covered the country--Portland, Oregon, Birmingham, Alabama, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the state of Texas, Jamestown, Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, Indianapolis, Jersey City, Louisville, Kentucky. "We even investigated Mexico and Puerto Rico," says Bourne. "Barry told me there was a good stadium in Louisville and I ran down to see it. The stadium was wrong but the people were lovely. I was sitting in the locker room feeling dejected, when an elderly man who had been Satchel Paige's catcher and was now the trainer of the Louisville Red Birds came up to me. 'What's the matter?' he asked. I told him about my search for the right stadium. 'What about Buffalo?' he asked. 'The stadium's been torn down,' I said. 'The hell it is,' he replied, 'we played the Bisons there this year." Bourne was off and running. He called the Buffalo Bisons and contacted Mike Billoni, the public relations director, for the team which is owned by Robert Rich Jr. Bourne explained he was the production designer of the movie "The Natural" and that he was coming to Buffalo to take a look at War Memorial Stadium. Billoni admits that at first he thought the phone call was a prank. "But we thought it best to play it safe," he says. They sent their best limo to pick him up at the airport and then drove him not just to the stadium, but onto the field right up to home plate. "I went out of my mind," says Bourne. "It was so like what I thought the stadium should be. I called Barry and told him he had to see it--there was no question about it--this was our stadium."
Robert Redford enjoys a lighter moment with the War Memorial crowd in between takes.
CHICAGO TRAIN STATION played by Buffalo Central Terminal
Image from the film: Roy Hobbs enters New York City through Grand Central Terminal, actually Buffalo Central Terminal (1983)
Today: Buffalo Central Terminal after years of neglect is coming back to life thanks to an army of volunteers
Buffalo Central Terminal, Memorial at Paderewski Drives, Buffalo
Hobbs walks through Chicago's cathedral-like train station with the scout, Sam Simpson (John Finnegan). Film crew used the main concourse of Buffalo Central Terminal for the scene in which Hobbs arrive in Chicago in 1924. When it opened in 1929, just months before the start of the Great Depression, Buffalo Central Terminal was considered the last word in elegance. Designed by architects Fellheimer & Warner of New York, the terminal is an architectural gem. The images captured during the filming of the Natural show the Terminal in its glory. The station’s art deco lighting, golden clock and terrazzo flooring would NEVER look this way again. In the early 90s, the interior was completely destroyed by vandals, thieves and treasure hunters.
Current Status: No longer in use as a train station, and the subject to decades of neglect and vandalism, the remiants of the concourse are currently owned by the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. Open to the public during speical events and tours, the building, even in its current ruin state, is a must see while visiting Buffalo. Visit website at www.BuffaloCentralTerminal.org
Terminal in 2005
HOTEL ELLICOTT - Chicago Played by the Ellicott Square Building
Image from film: Ellicott Square Building used as location for New York and Chicago Hotel scenes (1983)
Today: The Historic Ellicott Square Building is open to the public during business hours
Ellicott Square Building, 295 Main Street, Buffalo
The central court of the Ellicott Square Office Building was used as a Chicago hotel lobby in the movie. The court, finished in Italian marble, with a mosaic floor, is canopied under a glass roof, 70 x 110 feet. Lit by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with smoke provided by the special effects men, the lobby had a wonderful look of turn-of-the-century richness. Ellicott Square Building was designed by famed American architect D. H. Burnham. At the time of its completion in 1865, it was the largest commercial office structure in the world. Streetcar tracks in-front of the Ellicott Square Building are actually tracks from Buffalo's light rail rapid transit system completed in the early 80s.
Current Status: Still one of Buffalo’s premier business addresses. Has gone through many historial restroations. Lobby is open to the public during week day business hours.
NEW YORK KNIGHTS FIELD Played by War Memorial Stadium
Image from film: The Rockpile NEVER looked better than it did in 1983 as it played Knights Field (1983)
Today: All that remains from the 1930s era War Memorial Stadium, home to the Buffalo Bisons, Buffalo Bills and the New York Knights of the Natural
War Memorial Stadium, 285 Dodge Street, Buffalo.
The "star" of the show. Known affectionately to Buffalonians as "the old rockpile," the stadium was built between 1935 and 1937 as a New Deal relief project. Situated on the grounds of an old reservoir, the rockpile arose out of muddy red clay with the help of an army of 1,300 federal workers, whose shanties and work sheds looked like "a town sprung up overnight following the discovery of gold." Estimated at just under $1 million, the stadium ended up costing a little less than $3 million, of which the city grumblingly chipped in about a tenth. On its completion, sports writers hailed it as a great stadium. "I never saw a better one," wrote Charles Dufour of the New Orleans Item Tribune. But Vincent X. Flaherty of the Washington Times-Herald, although acknowledging that it was "one of the finest," pointed out that "it is now equipped to accommodate no more than 38,000 persons, which in Buffalo's case happens to be too many--mostly because Buffalo doesn't have anything to put in it." He was right. Despite two halcyon periods in the '40s and the '60s, the stadium, whose name was changed four times beginning with Roesch Memorial and ending with War Memorial in 1960, did not find a regular, thriving tenant. When the Bills, members of the fledgling American Football League, ended their agreement with the Rockpile in 1972, the stadium stood empty until 1979. It was written off as officially dead. In Sports Illustrated, Brocks Yates wrote that it was "an arena that looked as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines." Then in 1983, the Rockpile was born anew. Robert Rich, Jr., president of Rich Products, bought the baseball Bisons, helped refurbish the stadium, paid the city of Buffalo $15,000 in rental and pushed attendance to an AA Eastern League leading 122,000. And in the summer of the same year, THE NATURAL chose the rockpile for its fictional Knights park. Director Barry Levinson had a hard time finding ballparks that had that 1930s look and feel. "We quickly determined there were only three appropriate major-league parks," said the film's production executive, Patrick Markey. But the movie was filmed between August and October 1983, in clear conflict with major-league schedules. They finally settled on Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium, where the AA Bisons played. The producers spent about $500,000 fixing up the ballpark, which had been built in the mid-1930s. Work included building of a scoreboard and repainting of the seats in the stands in the big league shade of the '30s--gray and green. About 3,000 people were recruited to play extras in the stands -- at the then-minimum wage of $3.35 an hour. Obviously, there still weren't enough folks to fill the stadium. According to a contributor to Digital City Buffalo's Movies bulletin board, "FN Burt, [a printing company] made cardboard people to be placed in the stadium during filming to cut back on the cost of extras."
Current Status: Nothing remains from the "Natural" era. In 1988, Buffalo’s Triple A baseball team moved into a new stadium downtown and left the Rockpile. The site was cleared to made way for a youth athletic field. Only three of its majestic entrances survive, but were not used in the filming of the movie.
Rob Hobb's Field of Dreams 2007. Youth diamond at the site of War Memorial Stadium
A CHICAGO ICE CREAM PARLOR Played by the Parkside Candy Store
Image from the film: Parkside Candies on Main Street. Note Chicago "El" structural supports (1983)
Today: Parkside Candies, Main Street, Buffalo as it looked in 2007. Forgotten Buffalo considers this location one of Buffalo's “Most Endangered Sites.”
Parkside Candy Shop, 2305 Main Street at Oakwood Place, Buffalo
Parkside Candies began operation in the late '20s and at the time of filming looked much as it did the day it opened. In the film, Roy's boyhood love, Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) walks into the Parkside Candy Shoppe in "Chicago," when she hears about Roy and "Wonderboy." Later, she and Roy meet at Parkside for a lemonade.
Current Status: After the restaurant closed in the early 1990s, the historic interior was removed. Over the last 20 years, the building has housed offices, a daycare center and now sites unused. The "neon" sign was removed and its location is unknown. In 2007, it was proposed that the City of Buffalo?s film office take over the place to use as offices. Although this site is not open to the public, you must visit the "flagship" location of Parkside Candies just up Main Street from the "Natural" location. The preserved art deco soda shop still services up ice cream and the finest in craft chocolates.
WRIGLEY FIELD Played by All-High Stadium
Image from film-New York Knights travel to Chicago to face the Cubs at Wrigley Field, A.K.A Buffalo's All High Stadium (1983)
Today-All High Stadium under renovations during the summer of 2007. 30s era signage, added for the filming of the Natural is still evident.
All High Stadium, 50 Mercer Street, Buffalo
Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) attends the Knights vs. Chicago game at Wrigley Stadium. As Hobbs is preparing to bat, she stands up in the grandstand and sunlight brilliantly illuminates her flowing blond hair and yellow outfit. Built in 1929, All High Stadium is located behind Bennett Public High School, just off Main Street and a short drive from Parkside Candy. With a little ivy and the addition of a brick outfield wall, the venerable old site stood in for Wrigley Field. A 1930's era ticket booth and period signs painted on the walls were added for the film and were still in use in 2007. In the "outfield," you can see the large smokestack where a large 30s era scoreboard was temporarily constructed for the film and the top of Bethune Hall, were "Chicago" fans stood to see the game ticket free.
Current Status: Completely renovated in 2007, All High Stadium lost much of its 30s film appearance during the processes. Open to the public during sporting events.
ROY'S HOSPITAL - New York City Played by the Buffalo Psychiatric Center
Buffalo Psychiatric Center standing in for a 1930s hospital
Buffalo Psychiatric Center, Forest at Elmwood Ave, Buffalo
For the hospital scenes in the Natural, crews used one of the oldest buildings at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. Built in 1895, the architect Henry Richardson is generally regarded by architectural historians as the first of the three greatest American architects. The other two are Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (All have works in Buffalo). Of the original 10 buildings in the complex, three were torn down in 1969 and the remaining seven were not in use at time of filming. The dignity of the majestic brown sandstones and red brick building was ideal for the film.
Current Status: Although public monies have been set aside for its restoration, the Richardson Complex has been sitting mostly vacant since the 1980s. Decades of Buffalo winters have taken its toll on the center that has been designated as a National Historical Landmark. Not open to the public.
WATER STOP & CARNIVAL Played by South Dayton, New York
Image from film: Starting in the carnival sequence, where Roy strikes out "The Whammer"... South Dayton, New York
South Dayton, New York
It's 1923, and Hobbs is a promising pitcher, on his way to Chicago for a tryout with the Cubs. His train stops for a half hour near a carnival. There he gets into a pitcher-batter duel with "The Whammer" (Joe Don Baker), a Ruthian baseball star who happens to be on the train. Hobbs strikes him out on three pitches. The carnival and the strikeout scene took place in South Dayton, just south of Buffalo. It "was absolutely the biggest thing to have happened to South Dayton since the deer jumped through the post office window," said the town's mayor, Larry Tollinger. And, after looking at more than 30 small towns, Markey chose the village of South Dayton as the ideal location for the carnival sequence during which Roy Hobbs strikes out "The Whammer," the American League's leading hitter. The steam locomotive used in the scene was Grand Trunk Railroad #4070. The engine traveled from Cleveland to give the shot a big "mainline" steam feel.
Current Status: South Dayton has not changed much since 1983. Depot sits at the end of the Buffalo Southern Railroad line from Buffalo. Steam locomotive is currently the property of a Cleveland historical group and is inoperable.
HOBBS' FAMILY FARM Played by Stafford, New York
Image from film: An All American scene found 40mins east of Buffalo
Stafford, New York
On the recommendation of the location manager, crews visited the town of Stafford, New York about an hour outside of Buffalo (near Batavia & Leroy) and found the farm house of Victor Reamer which served as the Hobbs' family farm. Within a few yards of the Reamer house, he found a suitable building to serve as Iris' home.
Click on image to enlarge:
Ellicott Square Building
Ellicott Square Building
Parkside Candy Shoppe
Parkside Candy Shoppe
All High Stadium
All High Stadium
All High Stadium
Buffalo Central Terminal 1983
War Memorial Stadium
War Memorial Stadium
War Memorial Stadium (Grandstand ramps)
BONUS - Buffalo Mayor Makes Film Debut!
Mayor Jimmy Griffin was rewarded for his willing to assist the production of the Natural with a cameo roll in the film. In a scene were Roy Hobbs hits the casing off the baseball, Griffin (right) plays a coach of the opposing team.
Other Western New York Locations:
A store, yet to be documented, on Allen Street in Buffalo was transformed by Set Decorator Bruce Weintraub and his staff into an Italian restaurant where coach Red Blow takes rookie Roy Hobbs to dinner on first joining the Knights. Right across from the Rockpile, the production found the Masten Street Armory, a mammoth structure, that not only had office space on the third floor suitable for a production office, but also a space for an editing room, the wardrobe department, the casting department and, on the ground floor, an arena large enough to hold four different sets at the same time. In the Armory, designers constructed the interiors of the Knight's locker room, the Judge's tower office, Max Mercy's press box and Iris' apartment.
1) "The Natural," Production Notes, Barry Levinson 2) Reel Life "The Natural," by Jeff Merron, ESPN 3) DVD Notes, "The Natural," 2007
Movie images from Columbia/Tristar Pictures, "The Natural"