Palm trees are taking over Peekskill.
Well, not real ones, of course. But on a cold day in March, as I stood in a line that wrapped around the Paramount Theatre, I did see several of the tropical trees swaying in the wind. It was all part of the city’s magical transformation to Depression-era Hollywood as the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslet stepping into the role that was Joan Crawford’s 1945 tour de force) got ready to film. I was about to undergo a transformation of my own as I had answered the call for area locals to work as extras.
Soon, I found myself in a church school gymnasium-turned-wardrobe area, ready for my costume fitting. I changed out of my clothing to put on a full slip and the seamed pantyhose provided. My butt was cold on the folding chair. The suit that was chosen for me was shapeless and a sickly shade of sage; it scratched my bare arms as I uncomfortably stood there, appraised by the two women in charge. They seemed to like what they saw, and brought out shoes — low-heeled, broken in — followed by beige, shirred nylon gloves. I was a 1931 costume assembly line — last stop was the hat. I was ushered out to a long table with row upon row of caps and berets; brimmed felt numbers with grosgrain ribbon trim and feathers — little works of art that a woman of a certain time would never leave the house without.
Nickel and dime: Modern-day Peekskill is transformed to look like Depression-era Hollywood
The next day, I stood at the bus stop with a few others, waiting to board the Sunset Boulevard local. Through the long, narrow window I saw a young woman, harried and sweating, pushing her way forward to exit. She lurched down the step, brushed past the man next to me, then continued on around the corner — determined, yet seemingly on the cusp of collapse. The men paid her no mind, and boarded ahead of me. I hauled myself up onto the bus behind them. “CUT!” The cameraman and director were on the bus, not three feet from my cloche-hatted head.
This was my first 10 minutes of what became a 12-hour day of filming. The assistant director was not happy with our approach to boarding the bus. We gave way too much space and leeway to this woman who was trying to get off. We stood there, like dumb sheep, absorbing the fact that this was Kate Winslet coming at us; beautiful, acclaimed, multi-award-winning, effusive and passionate in the acceptance-speech-giving department; down-to-earth, ethereal, likable Kate.
“You want to get on this bus! Act like you’re New Yorkers!” Oh — well, that’s a direction of a different color. That I can do. Then we’re on to take two, take three, and eventually take four. Around take five it was decided that another woman and I should not board the bus at all, just the men. Apparently the shot just wasn’t working. This scene lasted until early afternoon and after the 12th take, I stopped counting.
Film extra Sharon Watts in her period garb
Eventually, veteran costume designer Ann Roth inspected us all with her disciplined and discerning eye, making sure that the wardrobe department hadn’t dropped the ball. One woman’s sassy and cute little red hat was declared “insipid” and banned from the shot, replaced by a snazzy mint green turban-esque cap. After she left, we joked that the red hat will probably be placed in the street and run over by the bus in all these takes.
The “lint lady” comes around to roll off any flying pollen or stray hairs, and the “hair lady” hovers and reinserts migrating bobby pins. Kate has two assistants, including one in charge of spraying artificial perspiration on her in each and every take. The extras on the bus get a squirt as well, but not as often.
On the last day of shooting I was paired with a tall, dapper gentleman by the name of Sullivan. I learned he was a retired Bronx butcher and former Marine, and was married to his wife Mary Ann for 54 years. I also was part of a ladies shopping couple with a clerical worker from Hopewell Junction, who recommended the free jazz concerts on the lawn at West Point in the summer. We were all shifted around and paired off in so many street ballets that it was dizzying. How would the editor and director choose? How could they keep us straight?
While the demographics of the production crew were generation-Y and multi-cultural, we in the crowd seemed mostly middle-aged and white. But by the end of the work day we’d congealed into a kind of club. Despite the tedium, the constant gusts of cold wind, the sore feet from standing for hours on end in vintage shoes, no one was complaining. We were sharing in the fun and work of being on a movie shoot, experiencing some Hollywood magic in good old Peekskill.