Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ray Werner: Strip District

Tommy and Me

Editor’s Note: As Pittsburgh celebrates its big 250, Andrew Halasz and Kristen Lauth Shaeffer have found their own way to commemorate the city – through a series of short films collectively titled Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives. To make their project even more interesting, Halasz and Shaeffer invited local filmmakers to submit story treatments highlighting one of the many diverse neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. This article is the eighth in a series profiling each of the filmmakers selected for participation. Be sure to check back in a weeks for the next profile.

A Saturday afternoon spent strolling through the Strip District is a mysterious kind of fun, luring Pittsburghers with ethnic fare, fresh produce, and gourmet coffee. The challenge lies in navigating one’s way through a sea of street merchants without surrendering to each and every persuasive aroma. It’s like Ulysses and the “song of the siren,” except the song is really an enchanting smell that threatens to overwhelm the wallet.

For some, such as local filmmaker Ray Werner, 69, this unique part of town is more than a Saturday trip – it’s a treasure trove of memories. Years ago, Ray and his wife transformed the No. 7 Engine Co. – the building now known as the Firehouse Lounge – into a family-owned advertising agency. It was not only the first historically restored building in the Strip, but their agency was also the first service company to be established in the area.

This is one reason why Ray chose the Strip District as the setting for his Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives film, Tommy and Me. But he also holds a deep appreciation for the culture of the Strip.

“The Strip really draws its own crowd. It has its own personality,” he said.

The majority of Ray’s narrative takes place in a store called Mike’s Stuff, modeled after and filmed in Mike Feinberg’s novelty shop. An old friend of Feinberg’s, Ray said that “the film couldn’t take place anywhere but the Strip” because Feinberg’s store is truly one-of-a-kind.

The main character, and narrator, is Schmoo – a young new hire at the novelty shop. When a homeless man named Tommy makes a habit of panhandling outside the shop, Schmoo decides to “make him useful.” So, he puts a retail scarf on Tommy. Sure enough, passers-by come into the shop to purchase the scarf “the guy out front” is wearing. Recognizing an opportunity, Schmoo makes a habit of outfitting Tommy in merchandise.

One day, when Tommy dons Steeler pajamas, he is given the nickname “Steeler Santa.” The Steeler Santa quickly becomes a Pittsburgh icon.

“It catches on and people love the guy,” said Ray. “He’s a media celebrity.”

Ray’s story takes its listeners on an emotional journey, allowing them to fall in love with Tommy while at the same time introducing them to the harsh realities of street life. When asked how / when his fascination with the homeless started, Ray begins with “I’m a very serious bread maker …” As he continues, one also learns that Ray plays concertina in an Irish band called Hooley and that the flute player’s brother ran a non-profit organization dedicated to the homeless. The brother’s name is Dr. Jim Withers, and the organization is called Operation Safety Net. The bread came in when Ray, Jim and several others distributed 200 loaves of fresh, homemade bread to Pittsburgh’s homeless.

“Ask their name. No one ever asks their name,” said Ray, remembering Jim’s advice on how to treat the homeless.

But Ray’s compassion for the homeless runs even deeper than his film lets on. Tommy and Me is dedicated to Jim, and all proceeds from the screening at the Firehouse Lounge will benefit Operation Safety Net. Ray also cast four homeless men as extras in his film. Johnny, Michael, Ray (not Werner) and George were the only extras to be paid.

According to Ray, the filming of Tommy and Me went extremely well – thanks to good weather, a “terrific” cast and crew, and the generosity of local residents / businesses. The Steelers organization also came through for Ray. One of the scenes was filmed in Heinz Stadium, and the organization was eager to grant permission when it learned of the connection to Operation Safety Net.

But perhaps the best part of filming Tommy and Me was that it allowed Ray the opportunity to work alongside his wife and four kids – Larkin the production designer, Brendan the editor, Brian the financial consultant, and Katie the Production Assistant (along with Ray’s wife Susan).

“This was a real family production,” said Ray. “I proved to my kids that I can still work a 21-hour day,” he added, laughing.

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