Fishtown on the small screen
Would a reality show, though it’s not a sure thing, celebrate Fishtown, or exploit it?
Fishtown is being sized up, like it or not.
A Boston-based television production company, Powderhouse Productions, is deciding if there is potential for a reality show about the neighborhood. Two casting representatives have been hunkering down in Philly since mid-October. Some of Powderhouse's clients are Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and PBS.
The first casting call was at Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap, at 1301 E. Susquehanna Ave., on Friday, from 7 to 10 p.m. Star was there for roughly the first two hours, by which time no Fishtowners had shown up to be cast.
What is the company looking for, you might ask? That depends on which casting advertisement you read.
Powderhouse posted its first casting advertisement on Craigslist.com on Oct. 11. It read, in part:
“Do you come from a LARGER THAN LIFE family living in Fishtown PA? Has your way-of-life changed by “outsiders” moving in? Is your neighborhood hardly recognizable with all the yuppies, hipsters & scenesters? Are you fed up with fighting to preserve the traditions only known to the locals? A major cable production company is currently casting for a born & bred Fishtown “family” that are pissed off about the new people moving into their neighborhood…what [do] you HATE about how the place has changed?”
The first post by Powderhouse on community message board Fishtown.us, on Oct. 22, read exactly the same, except “pissed off” had been changed to “vinegared off.”
The company’s Oct. 31 advertisement on Fishtown.us, for the Nov. 2 casting call at Happy Tap, was of a much different tone. It read:
“A major cable production company is currently in your town casting for original FISHTOWN FAMILIES that have heritage, personality and are not afraid to speak their minds! The potential show’s premise is to tell the story of one of the most historic neighborhoods in America and CELEBRATE the traditions and customs that make Fishtown so unique!”
That advertisement also appeared in print in The Spirit community newspaper on Oct. 31.
Star had scheduled an interview Thursday, Oct. 25, with Heather Johnstone, Powderhouse casting producer, along with another Powderhouse staff member, Sarah Yourgrau. Johnstone canceled that interview via email at midnight the night before and did not answer two follow-up emails requesting to reschedule the interview.
Alex Lunn, the Powderhouse production assistant who publishes the company’s posts on Fishtown.us, said in a phone interview earlier in October that the production company was looking for families who are “not liking how things are changing [in Fishtown]” because, as Lunn put it, that “makes for good drama.” However, Lunn said last week, since Powderhouse has been “learning more about Fishtown,” she posted the Oct. 31 ad with the new description of the show’s premise.
The original Craigslist casting ad, Lunn said, used the same language from Powderhouse’s casting call for its Boston-based show, “Southie Rules,” which would broadcast on A&E and was scheduled to begin production in May. A network release describing the family on that show reads:
“They rally together for their daily turf war against the yuppies that are overrunning their territory. These ‘Southies’ will stop at nothing to protect their way of life from the occupation, that is, if they don’t kill each other first.”
Yourgrau and Johnstone were present at the casting call Friday, but would not speak on the record about anything relating to the potential television show.
Doreen Thompson, owner of Les and Doreen’s Happy Tap, said in a phone interview Nov. 1 that, when Powderhouse approached her, she agreed to hold the casting call at her bar because she figured it would be good for business.
She said she was not aware of any of the casting advertisements. Asked how she would feel about a show based on the original casting advertisement, Thompson said, “I wouldn’t go for that. I don’t want negativity in the bar or in the neighborhood. I don’t care new or old, I want everybody to get along.”
George Kelley, who has worked at Johnny Brenda’s for almost seven years, said he’s very wary of the potential show.
“It’s reality TV, it’s manufactured drama, it’s sensational,” he said. “I think they’ve made it obvious about what they want — angry people, class divisions, education divisions, all those things that are negative. It’s inevitably going to make the neighborhood look bad.”
He also said that the casting team approached the owners of Johnny Brenda’s, but “they wanted nothing to do with it.”
A Powderhouse flier now posted at Primo Hoagies at 1501 E. Susquehanna Ave. calls for a “Big, loud PHILLY/FISHTOWN family,” with “LARGER-THAN-LIFE personalities that are meant for TV.”
An employee at Primo Hoagies, who wished to be identified only by “Fran,” said over the phone Monday he believes a television show won’t divide the neighborhood, and that what he’s heard so far has been mostly positive.
“It [the reaction he’s hearing] is mostly people joking around, like ‘You want a Fishtown family? I got one for ya.’ I haven’t had too much, ‘What the hell is this?’” Fran said.
Jill Betters, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, said in an email message: “I am very skeptical, as most reality shows today do not portray any of the people that participate in a good light. Clever editing and scripted storylines make the characters look simple and predictable.”
Betters also said she believes the show could be trying to make a “mountain out of a molehill.”
“Sure, Fishtown is changing, but the people who live here are not stupid,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you have lived here five months or 50 years, most everyone gets along and wants what’s best for the neighborhood,” she said.
Star Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE FROM PRINT VERSION: Powderhouse may be moving on from casting in Fishtown. A new Nov. 5 Craigslist post reads:
"Do you come from a large and LARGER THAN LIFE family living in South Philly, PA? Are you a cheesesteak eating, Eagles loving, prideful South Philly original that intends on being a local for life? Is your family full of big personalities that can't fit under one roof? Do you, your family and perhaps even extended family live in the same house or work in a family owned and operated business? We want to meet YOU!
A major cable production company is currently casting born & bred South Philly families that have big personalities and are not afraid to speak their mind! If you are interested, please provide us with a brief bio of you, your family and its dynamic, individual and family photos, your occupations and what you LOVE about your South Philly roots! Please include your contact information (phone number & email) as we have a production team in the area meeting families and local businesses. We will put you in touch if you would like to be considered!"