FAR-FLUNG CORRESPONDENTS, CITY SLICKERS
"Northern Exposure" may be a hit, but on location in Roslyn, Washington (pop. 869),
it usually plays more like a scene out of "Bad Day at Black Rock. "
The New Yorker, March 22, 1993
BY BRYAN DI SALVATORE
You might come here on a Thursday in the rain, to this lopsided and homely hamlet, eighty miles east of Seattle, where nothing is not built on a slope and the houses are wood and are fastened to the sides of a burled, narrow ravine. The bare ones, as dark as the coal smoke that stained them for decades, seem as everlasting as caves. Others, patted with aluminum siding, look recent, ill-advised. The yards meld, unfenced, with the streets and each other, and are spotted with stuff: gleam-lost pickup trucks, sedan hulks, motorcycle frames, stacks of brush, plywood gone to corduroy, pipe, water heaters, bathtubs, bales of hay, the odd horse.
The town exists in a state of gonna-get-to-it-someday clutter, as if a long-ago foreman had looked at his watch and said, "Hell, boys, this'll hold. Let's knock off and go pound some Budweiser." This is the town that moonlights as Cicely, Alaska, in the CBS television series "Northern Exposure." Early of a day, it looks suspended, like Frontier Town between shoot-'em-up skits. Its Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, is four blocks of stone buildings, vacant lots, and tall, narrow wooden buildings with false fronts: a bank, a hardware store, two taverns, two cafes, a restaurant and bar, a pizza parlor, a museum, a drugstore, a post office, a microbrewery, a gift shop, a gift shop, a gift shop. There's hardly a car to be seen.
At a cafe, men meet for coffee and breakfast before the young ones leave for work and the old ones don't. The thick newspapers from the coast haven't yet arrived. The taverns won't open for hours. A log truck blats its engine brake, and its high, shaggy load spills moss and plates of bark along State Highway 903, which bisects Pennsylvania Avenue and deadends north of town in a national forest.
As far as Christine Lewis--the manager of the Washington State Film and Video Office--was concerned, Roslyn was the perfect location for filming a television series about contemporary Alaska. "In the winter of 1990, I took a call from Matt Nodella, a producer for Cine-Nevada Productions," she says. "They had no script, but they did have a story line for a television series that would take place in a remote Alaskan town. Immediately, I thought of Roslyn. I described it to them, pleaded with them to take a look, but they insisted that any site in the state had to be no more than forty-five minutes from Greater Seattle--where the soundstages would be located--and Roslyn is an hour and a quarter on a good day. We made a trip anyway, but bad weather prevented us from topping Snoqualmie Pass. Not a, great selling point, I hardly have to point out!
At the time, Cine-Nevada was scouting all over the West--Colorado, British Columbia. Alaska, of course, was out of the question: too far, too expensive. More pleading, and they finally humored me. We piled into a four-wheel-drive, flew over the pass, turned off the Interstate, drove up 903, and turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue. "Their eyes grew wide. They jumped out of the car, looked around for a few seconds. Then Matt turned to me and said, 'Christine, this is Alaska!' "NORTHERN EXPOSURE" is a tinkling, wafty piece of work (far too delicate to bear the braying of a laugh track, for example) that originally centered on a cerebral urban brat who, forced to relocate to a dreary backwater, finds his hard-edged pomposity becoming daily more bevelled.
The beached fish in "Northern Exposure" is Joel Fleischman, a newly licensed physician from Manhattan. To pay off medical school loans granted him by the State of Alaska, he must practice for four years in Cicely, five hours by bus from Anchorage. Over time, the "Northern Exposure" writers have turned their attention away from Fleischman's one-note predicament--variations on a theme of bagel-and-culture deprivation--and toward Cicey's mildly eccentric residents. Cicely is an assortment of the socially halt and the artistically pensive: a logorrheic exconvict incessanty searching for Truth; a grouchy former astronaut searching for new challenges; a young, not quite dim former beauty queen searching for self respect, her much older lover, who runs the Brick Tavern, searching for surcease from his worries about dhe age-and-energy gap between him and the beauty queen; a Midwestern Wasp tomboy searching for true love and an identity independent of her stifling, moneyed roots; a young Alaskan Indian searching for the inspiration to make the Great American Film; and Ruth-Anne, a plainspoken old dame who dispenses bushels of wisdom over the counter of her general store.
These characters flutter between benign contumacy and cooperation. They expend much energy disagreeing, then agreeing to disagree. They experience mild epiphanies weekly and become ever worthier, certainly more self-intimate, souls. Feuds are short-lived. Transgressions and flaws are routinely forgiven. The dead return regularly to communicate with the living.
We're all strangers here, so Welcome, Stranger. Roslyn, on the other hand, has always been stoutly tethered to the messier, fiercer actual world. Although individual residents, like those of Cicely, can be open-minded and generous and tolerant--curious and light on their worldly feet--the place on the whole has the disposition of a jumped rhinoceros and the memory of an elephant.
It was conceived, on purpose, in 1886, a company town for the coal miners who fed the engines of the Northern Pacific Railway. It grew up grimy and clanking on the seam of the vast forest to the west and the ranch- and farmland to the east; a polyethnic municipality of Italians, Slavs of every sort, blacks, Syrians, and French in a lonely, blue-eyed land of Swedes, Finns, Irish, and Norwegians. It began dying in 1915, the year its population peaked at four thousand.
By 1963, when the last mine closed, nearly all of Roslyn's men had already been working elsewhere for a decade: logging, railroading, trucking, or building dams and highways for the federal government. For the last twenty years, it has watched the Seattle rich--attracted to nearby lakes and forests--pick up properties in town and out, for recreation, for retirement, for investment.
"You should have been around here a couple of years ago," Dee Tucker, a real-estate agent from the nearby town of Cle Elum, told me. "Seattle was booming, and it was 'Come on in and take a number.' This office was like Sunday morning at the pancake house." Though its residents like to evoke a Cicelian social history colorful but convivial--Roslyn has in fact never got along with itself very well. Its twenty-four or so nationalities distrusted each other. They drank at separate bars, joined separate fraternal lodges, and buried their dead in a dozen or so ethnically defined cemeteries, which today form an intricate necropolis on the western edge of town: blacks here; -ichs and -vichs there; -ellis and -bellos and -inis here; Masons here; New Knights of Pythias here; Old Knights of Pythias there; Red Men here; Cacciatori D'Africa there.
But, like an isolated post of bored and squabbling soldiers, the town is capable of unanimity if it can turn its attention toward an outside world it considers ugly from the front. It battled strikebreakers in the eighteen-eighties; hippies (the term is still au courant in Roslyn) in the nineteen-seventies; the Burlington Northern Corporation's lumber subsidiary, which attempted to log Roslyn's watershed, in the late nineteenseventies; and then the coastal rich, whose only contributions to community life, as far as most Roslynites are concerned, have been traffic, sniffy attitudes, and whorehouse property prices.
THOUGH in general the mayor and city council welcomed the film people, it took a New York minute before the dashing CBS newcomers got crossways with Roslyn. The making of a television show is a clumsy, imperfect business. Schedules verge on fiction. When Pipeline Productions--which took over production of the show from Cine-Nevada--heads over Snoqualmie Pass, it brings a cast and crew numbering a hundred, on the average, as well as personal vehicles, equipment trucks and trailers, and a catering van. A film company at work sets up what amounts to an alfresco factory--its cables, cameras, camera dollies, light stands, and risers scattered around like a dog's dinner. Filming in Roslyn created special problems.
Many of the non-human stars of the show--the Brick Tavern, Ruth-Anne's General Store, radio station KBHR, a prominent totem pole, the clapboard storefront office of Dr. Joel Fleischman--are inconveniently located on Pennsylvania Avenue and just a shout away from busy Highway 903. And, of course, there was local traffic--Roslynites driving to the post office (Roslyn doesn't have home delivery), the cafes or taverns, the bank, the hardware store.
Early on, people complained that the crew commandeered too many parking places; that traffic was continually being stopped or rerouted; that a production vehicle pulled onto 903 just as a school bus was unloading children; that people on their way downtown were left waiting "for hours" outside the post office while a scene was shot. Before too many months of this kind of thing had passed, Roslynites felt that their guest was outstaying its welcome. And not only was the crew crowding the town but, as the show snuggled into dhe hearts of America, the numbers of tourists and gawkers increased.
ONE afternoon not long ago, because an important filmic moment was in the making, I stood for the better part of an hour waiting to cross Pennsylvania Avenue and Highway 903 to get to the bank. A pickup truck with a large dead wild ruminant tied across its hood drove a few dozen yards along Pennsylvania, waited for another vehicle to pass it going dhe opposite way, made a wide turn in the street, and parked in front of KBHR, whereupon dhe truck's occupants got out and were met by a pair of passersby. The four men stood around and commented on the animal. The action was repeated half a dozen times. Each time everything was in place for another run-through, a message was relayed to crew members holding walkie-talkie radios, who relayed the word to a pair of red-vested traffic controllers holding stop signs. They stood in the highway and halted traffic. The pickup truck made its run-and-turn-and-stop and the four actors convened. The controllers got a second message, lowered their signs, and waved traffic through. A crowd of about a hundred and fifty tourists clapped and chattered. Some of the traffic, when it was allowed to roll, did so at a crawl, with drivers and passengers craning right and left, and pointing at banks of lights and cameras, and at the actors themselves. Some drivers kept their eyes straight ahead. One log-truck driver rolled down his window, yelled at crew members, and extended his middle finger. One of the walkie-talkie people watched this and spoke into his microphones. The answer, though distorted, included the words "one more redneck jerkoff." Another message sent the stop signs aloft again.
STEVE MOORE, a potter with the gaunt, vital mien of a long-distance runner, lives in a converted commercial building just off Pennsylvania Avenue. He began to sight crew members poking around his yard, wandering through his garage, lifting apples from his trees, pushing dirt and snow into his lot. "It wasn't one thing, but a series of small violations," he said. "I complained to City Hall and nothing happened. I wrote to the production company, and they apologized. Things were O.K. for a while, the workers polite and conscientious. Then the alley began getting blocked again. I still find trash left around."
Dan Dusek, who, as Pipeline's location manager, is the company's emollient in Roslyn, says that Moore is "the kind of guy who says, 'Hey,you're breathing near my property, those are my molecules.' " Sometimes filming went on deep into the night. ("That may have happened--we don't walk on water," Dusek told me.) Crew members supposedly filmed on Bobbie Woodell's property without permission. (Not true, according to Dusek. "Not exactly true," Woodell says. "I came home one day and these jokers were taking closeups of my front gate--it was thick with snow. I went by them, and heard one of them say, 'Oh, great. Now we've got tracks in the snow.' I walked back and slammed the gate so hard all the snow dropped off.") A pair of antlers was attached to a building front without permission. ("We had the owner's husband's permission," Dusek says.)
A crew member was said to have told an eighty-four-year-old woman to "kiss my ass." ("None of us hear so good at eighty-four," says Dusek.) Rumors fast-walked around town: The writers "burned" one of the characters' houses out of the script because the owner wanted more money. (False, says the owner.) The mayor, the city clerk and her son, certain city councilmen, and the three-person police force had all been on Pipeline's payroll as extras, guards, or gofers. (True.) Pipeline bought off the authorities after a group of actors, including Rob Morrow, who plays Fleischman, ran naked down Pennsylvania Avenue. ("We decided not to prosecute," Jack Denning, the mayor, says. "They donated a couple of thousand dollars to the park fund, and apologized.")
Slow-burn resentment gave rise to a flinty local jargon: The "Northern Exposure" cast and crew are "movie groovies" and "mooseheads." (A moose wanders around a deserted predawn Cicely during the series opening credits.) Thetraffic controllers are "hall monitor"; Roslyn is "Mooseville." (Certain residents, without being asked, will put their hands to their temples, with their fingers extended, and wave them--the "moose salute." Then they will laugh and do it again.) "Northern Exposure" tourists are "Looky Lous" or "cleans"--the latter term distinguishing them from garden-variety campers and off-road-vehicle enthusiasts, who are "dirts" and "fluorescent armadillos." Looky Lous from Greater Seattle are "coasties" or "wets" or, because Seattle's area code differs from Roslyn's, "206ers"; visitors from the rest of the known world are "flatlanders."
ON September 24, 1991--eighteen months after "Northern Exposure" adopted Roslyn, and the day after its debut (in which it cracked the Nielsen Top Twenty)--Lea Beardsley, who lives a few blocks from downtown Roslyn, presented the city council with a petition of grievance, signed by a hundred and thirty-five of her neighbors. The petition read: We, the undersigned, object to the presence of the Northern Exposure film crew in Roslyn. We feel that when they are filming, Roslyn is under siege.... [Roslyn's] residents... have the right to travel unobstructed city streets, perform banking and post office business at their will, and do business along Pennsylvania Avenue unmolested. Roslyn is not a movie set! As residents here we shall have a voice in conditions and requirements imposed upon the film crew to maintain the integrity of Roslyn. Then, speaking from typewritten notes, Beardsley amplified her concerns, citing the Steve Moore business, the antlers-placed-without-permission business, the school-bus business, the filming-at-night business, and the kiss-my-ass business.
She thought that Roslyn's Special Use Permit, which listed Pipeline's responsibilities, was a loophole-ridden mockery ("written by the city's liaison officer who can't even spell 'liaison'")--not least because it charged Pipeline a pitiful hundred dollars a day to disrupt an entire town. She accused Mayor Denning and members of the council of kowtowing to Pipeline, and strongly suggested that some of these officials had conflicts of interest. She proposed that the Mayor form a committee to address grievances, rewrite the Special Use Permit, and enforce its provisions--a committee consisting of Roslynites who "have not and will not in future receive payment from the film crew." Mayor Denning refused. Within a few weeks, the regional and national press checked in: "Too Much Exposure" (Chicago Tribune); "Exposure: Roslyn Wrestles with Fame" (Vancouver Sun); "Faked Alaska" (People); and "Overexposed?" (The Oregonian).
The climax of this brouhaha was Beardsley's appearance on "Entertainment Tonight," for which she was interviewed standing in front of the Brick Tavern. "I really wish she hadn't done that interview," Dino Enrico told me. Enrico is Lea's brother and, with Lea and her husband, Roger Beardsley, a co-owner of Roslyn Brewing, the microbrewery, which was begun in 1990. One of its best customers was the Brick. "Jimmy"--Jimmy Luster, the owner of the Brick--"was more than a little pissed. He figured Lea made it look as if the Brick was angry at 'Northern Exposure'--that he was in on the insurrection. He said, 'God damn it, Dino.' I said, 'Jimmy, you ever have a sister?' He said, 'No, and I don't care.' I said, 'We're old friends, man, let's talk.' He said 'No.' I said 'That's bullshit.' He said 'That's Roslyn.' Then he threw the tap handle at me. Two days later, they had Redhook in there."
MAN, Lea Beardsley got brushed off. For every person that signed her petition, there were three that wanted to. The old people here, the constants, tend to be shy about some things. The Mayor, the downtown businesses--they got this place locked up. We are prisoners, man, in our own town. Crushed by the groovies." Four of us were sitting in a tavern not far from Roslyn. "I'll tell you what this place is like now in the summer, but you absolutely no way in hell can use my name. If my boss found out I was badmouthing the groovies he'd fire my ass like a Zippo. It was noon and I headed to town for beans--" "We'll name you Bud," I said. Bud's friend said, "His boss did fifty bucks' worth of business with 'em once, and he thinks he's in on the ground floor of the entertainment business." "We'll call you Butch," I said. "And he's Chuck." I motioned to the fourth member of our party, who was resting his head on the table. "His boss doesn't care about the neon," Butch explained. "He just has his heart set on being taken advantage of on the casting couch." I bought another round.
We lost track of the conversation, because Bud and Butch made me shake their hands and swear that I wouldn't use their names, and then they made me do it again. "This is wartime and we're the resistance," Bud said. Then Bud remembered the story about the time they filmed the moose--the animal that opens the show. It was three in the morning, and everybody was frantic. "You got to remember," he said gravely, "this show is more important than you can even imagine." Crews of kids had been enlisted to hold up twelve-foot-high temporary fences at strategic locations to keep the moose from wandering. There were scores of spectators, and banks of lights everywhere.
"Pennsylvania Avenue was lit like the bull yard at the state pen," Bud said. "That moose was high, man," Butch said. "At first, he was skittish, freaked out," Bud said. "Who wouldn't be? So they tranked him. He loves bananas--they use them as lures--but he was so merged on drugs he had lost his appetite." "Been there," Butch said. "Anyway, they finally jump-start that poor dumb animal and manage to get him over by the cafe," Bud said. "He was so rubbery they had to prop him up to get their shot. It was just like Lee Marvin's horse in 'Cat Ballou.' " "Just like 'Cat Ballou,'" Butch said. "Believe it, sport." Then they recited their autobiographies.
Then we had another round. Then they told me about a bear used in one episode. "He looked more rug than bear," Butch said. "Only way that animal could kill you was to gum you to death, or maybe fall asleep on your head." Then they made me swear I wouldn't repeat their autobiographies. I lost patience, and suggested that we cut to the chase with a blood vow of silence. Butch took out a folding knife, and we all looked at it. Then Bud allowed as how he'd trust me, because I wasn't from Seattle or New York. Butch wondered how they knew I wasn't. I reached for my wallet and dropped it on the floor. Then I picked it up and took out my driver's license and said, "There, damn it. Just tell me the story." Bud and Butch looked at me and said, 'What story?" And I said. "About what it's like in the summer in Roslyn."
"It's not that good of a story," Bud said. "Yeah, it is," Butch said. "'It was noon and I headed to town for beans . . .' " I said. "Right," Bud said. "It was noon and I headed to town for beans. I have to drive halfway to Tacoma to find a parking place. I walk down Second, and a bunch of Lous from Europe, or maybe Quebec, ask me to take their picture in front of the cafe mural. So I do. Then they ask me where the moose is. Then they take my picture. Then I head down Pennsylvania, which is thick with a thousand Lous. I push my way to the cafe and have to stand and wait for a table--in Roslyn! I order. I reach for my smokes and realize I left 'em in the truck. I stick my head out the door to see if I can dart out and down to Central Sundries without throwing too many wrenches into the Hollywood wheel. The groovies are everywhere--nothing new. And they're just standing around--nothing new, either. I figure the coast is clear. Off I go. I buy my smokes, b.s. a little bit, and walk out. About ten steps later I hear 'Cut! Cut! Cut!' I look over, and this guy is waving his arms, cussing into his walkie-talkie, looking at me like I had asked his sister to pose for Hustler. 'Can't you see we're rolling!' he screams. For about half a second--out of habit, I suppose--I felt small. I mean, I'm a workingman and I'm willing to go half out of my way for another workingman, but--the details aren't important, let's just say that I'd rolled out that morning on the wrong side of the car seat. So instead of apologizing I stopped and yelled back, 'No shit! You sons of bitches have been rolling around here for a year and a half!' Went on and ate my lunch. Tell you this, it about made my goddam day. Oh, yeah, Dusek finds me a few days later." "Does Suck," Butch said. "All apologetic. And he offers to buy my lunch." "Does Suck's Brown-Nose Special."
LEA ENRICO BEARDSLEY is a high cheekboned brunette a couple of inches shy of six feet, and a couple of years shy of forty. Her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived in Roslyn in 1889. Lea and her brother grew up in Aberdeen, on the Washington coast, but spent most of every summer in Roslyn. In 1977, she graduated from Mills College, in Oakland, California, with a degree in English literature. She married Roger Beardsley in 1979, and the two moved to Woodinville, near Seattle, in 1981. Roger, an engineer, and Dino began research into starting a brewery. Construction of the Roslyn Brewing Company--Roger and Dino and Lea were the constructors--began in the spring of 1988, the same year the Beardsleys bought a house in Roslyn.
Beardsley's petition created a furor. Word went out that the petition demanded that"Northern Exposure" leave town; that it had been signed by children and the senile; that Pipeline had formulated plans to build a duplicate Roslyn elsewhere; that the Mayor had passed the petition along to Dan Dusek and Dusek had said, "Don't worry, they'll never find work with us." (Both Denning and Dusek vehemently deny this.) "Did they think I held people at gunpoint to sign the petition?" Beardsley said to me. "I didn't. People were anxious to sign. We never wanted to kick Pipeline out--we were just asking forsome controls, a better deal. Look at this Special Use Permit--the only ones who seem to matter are the merchants. They are notified of street closures and disruptive filming, and they are paid for their inconvenience, as they should be, but the merchants aren't the only people in town. I've had to wait the longest times to be allowed into the post office. There are a lot of old people here. Think about being seventy-five years old and waiting in the sun or the cold to finish an errand while fourteen people put makeup on some actress. It isn't fair. "I remember a town where the kids could go downtown without fear. Everybody knew everybody. Now there's so much traffic, so many strangers. One day, Pipeline will be gone, but the tourists will be coming for years.
Think about North Bend and 'Twin Peaks'--the've got tour buses of Japanese coming in daily. What is intolerable is the sycophancy of the Mayor and his cronies. The Mayor worked for them as a guard; Jim Hathaway, on the council--his house is used as a location, for pay. Is that going to affect his vote?" (Hathaway says no.) "I saw Dusek downtown the other day. I said hello; he said hello back. They've cleaned up their act, I admit. I'd like to think the petition had something to do with that. I've stepped back a bit, but that doesn't mean that I'm not still irritated--irritated that Pipeline can come in and have its way for so cheap; irritated that the Mayor and most of the council think that Pipeline can do no wrong and that any critic is a troublemaker. "Looking back, I was naive to believe that money didn't talk here; naive to think I could crack the old-boy network. There have been repercussions. Mary Andler"--who runs the Roslyn museum--"was like a grandmother to Dino and me. Now she refuses to speak to us. I don't regret what I did, but some people here will never forget. They'll go to their graves remembering me as the woman with the petition."
JACK DENNING has been Roslyn's chief executive since 1983. He likes to point out that he has spoken with "at least two hundred" reporters about "Northern Exposure," and that most of those reporters--he apologizes for his frankness--twisted things all around. A public servant has got to be careful, and that's why he issued a gag order on all city employees, and that's why Mike Mullin, Roslyn's chief of police, won't speak to the press until he gets Jack's O.K. I mention that Jack's nickname, in some circles, is God, and he says, "Look, if being in political life teaches you one thing, it's that you can't please everybody, and if you try to you'll end up not pleasing anybody." But we need to get down to business, because Jack hasn't eaten supper yet after his ten-hour shift with the Washington Department of Transportation. Did I know how long and hard a man has to work to raise three kids? "This mayor's job, it pays three hundred a month, but, with all the time I put in, it might as well be a labor of love," he says. "I eat, breathe, and sleep Roslyn." Lea Beardsley's petition? He rubs his weathered face (he is fifty-five years old), lifts and re-settles his California Raisins baseball cap. "I look around and see people alive here. People who were here way before the last mine closed, in 1963, people who have lived through this town's depression.
Then someone walks in from California waving a petition, a newcomer like Lea Beardsley, saying, 'Keep it like it was.' Well, I tend to get a little short with that. This is a tough town that's gone through tough times, and during those tough times some people weren't here scraping by, they were in California going to college. "I have nothing against petitions. Petitions are the American way. But, hell, hers was signed by old people who sometimes can't remember yesterday. And it was presented like 'My way or the highway.' They wanted that special committee--isn't that what the city council's for? Maybe the Special Use Permit wasn't perfect. But we're learning. Rome wasn't built in a day."
A couple of months after the petition, Roslyn acquired a used fire truck for the bargain-basement price of twelve thousand dollars--a fire truck that Denning had found after months of searching. With great fanfare, Pipeline Productions donated the truck to the city. "That fire truck is where the petition and all the bad publicity maybe helped," Denning says. "The film people figured, probably to smooth oil on the waters, 'Hell, let's get us a million dollars of free publicity for twelve thousand dollars.' Now people say, 'Well, that truck had to be refitted, and you have to build a new firehouse, because the new truck is too big.' That's gratitude for you. We needed some new storage space anyway. "Maybe my reaction to the petition is something personal, but we have the chance to enter a boom time here. Used to be we'd have to stretch every dollar seven or eight ways. Maybe next year we'll be down to two or three. Look at our new businesses"--he ticks off the names of several gift shops and a bakery--"and our new jobs." One cafe added eight people last summer, and the pizza parlor added a dozen or so. Roslynites are working as extras, at fifty dollars a day. "Look at the museum--it's gone from five thousand visitors in 1990 to over thirty thousand in 1992. Busy as hell. I sit here and look you right in the eye and say I don't care if that boom is caused by 'Northern Exposure' or Alcoa Aluminum or the Mustang Ranch."
DAN DUSEK is an extremely personable, well-spoken, and organized man. He is forty-five years old, tall, lanky, and sandy-haired, with a thick, clipped mustache, wire-rim glasses, a soft North Texas accent that fades in and out like a radio station from the next county, and the long face of a hound dog: a face that becomes longer--sorrowfully long, in fact--when people criticize the job that Pipeline Productions has done. "I just received a new script, so I've been checking in with the places we'll be shooting," he said. "I have a unique and different relationship with each person in this town. Is everything going all right? Any complaints? I've made friends here. I think things were rocky at first. I've done a lot of repair work, smoothed a lot of feathers. That's part of my job.
"I don't understand why Lea Beardsley has such a chip on her shoulder. That business about Denning and other councilmen who have been on our payroll some--I tell you, those same people have chewed my ass out when we've stepped out of line. She thinks a hundred dollars a day to the town is chump change? The permit was up for review and we asked the council if they wanted to change the terms. They voted to leave it the same. If you are selling me a car for a thousand dollars, I'm not gonna say, 'That's too low, here's fifteen hundred.' And I'm not saying that a hundred dollars is too low. They set the price. People think we have bottomless pockets. We don't. Everybody has a budget. Roslyn. Pipeline. Ross Perot.
"Maybe Lea came here with a vision of a quiet little town, away from all the fuss. She has to remember that Roslyn was growing, on the map, a recreational hot spot, before we got on the scene. I guarantee you, no one out there watches the show and says, 'Let's move to Roslyn.' "My God, the town has come alive. Other towns spend millions trying to attract people, to gain this sort of publicity. We come here and give it to Roslyn on a platter. Our influence has been major, I understand that. My God, there are sometimes two thousand people standing around watching us shoot. There used to be maybe three cars parked on the street, and now it is difficult to park anywhere. But think of it this way If you build a new water system, you have to dig trenches. If you have a hardware store, you have semis parked in the middle of the street delivering supplies. And both of those happen in Roslyn, by the way. "What no one understands is that those crowds cause us problems. They make extra work for us. We have to herd these people around. But, we can't forget, these are the same people who keep us on the air. So we work around them. "Look at what we've done: We bought them a fire truck. We sponsored a 10-k race. We filled up holiday food baskets, and nearly every crew member contributed to the Toys for Tots drive. We bought a light bar for the police car. We even contributed to the auction for the new firehouse, with signed photographs and T-shirts. To drive to Roslyn, shoot, stay overnight, and shoot the next day costs us ten thousand dollars over and above what we would spend back at the soundstages. Ten thousand dollars. That's big money."
BOBBIE WOODELL flat out does not care what people think of her. "I'm known as the bitch of town," she told me, not without pride. "I'm an old, fat, short, ugly manic-depressive with cancer and osteoporosis. I don't trust anyone from Ohio or Arkansas. I had a son-in-law who was murdered in Pendleton, Oregon. My son tends bar at the Brick. In the summer, I call him up and say, 'This is your mother. It's ten o'clock at night--turn down that music and shut the front door.' "Pipeline's left a bus idling right in front of the house. Their filming lights hit smack on my parlor mirror. I gave them a piece of my mind, and Dusek apologized. He's class, but, like I told him, 'Dan, all your cowboys don't wear white hats.' "Pipeline's presence has changed this town, whether they wanted it to or not. Motive doesn't matter, the end does. I came back to Roslyn from Oregon in 1987, for two reasons--to bury my man, who grew up here, and to be left alone. They won't leave me alone. We got a mayor and a city council and a city clerk who are thick as thieves with these people. I'm watching a person--and I mean Roslyn--die. The businesses aren't dead--Pipeline saw to that--but Roslyn's heart is being torn out. The tourists flock to this television show like pigeons. They use the town, abuse it, throw it away. They go to the bathroom and change baby diapers in the lot next door. Wariness and hostility reign. "'This is a new economy, a boom,' people say. You tell me if umpteen gift shops is a new economy. Go to the bank with your minimum wage. I lock my door now. To keep all this progress from breaking and entering. I saw a lady from church the other day, a woman I hadn't seen for a while. She looked so glad to see me, and so sad at the same time. 'Bobbie,' she said. 'Bobbie, what's happened? We've lost our town.' "They lost me, too. I'm moving out. Gonna put my house up for sale. They want new blood? They got it. I'm not gonna sell my house to anyone but a hippie or a Rajneeshi."
JOE NEILAND is a handyman. He was born and raised in Roslyn (he's forty-four years old) and has been on the city council since 1991. He is a polite, good-natured, soft-spoken man with startlingly blue eyes and the hefty build of a linebacker. He lives with his widowed mother, Victoria--a tall, gray-haired woman with a handsome, Katharine Hepburn face. I love the show," he said. "We watch it every week. We have to tape it--Mom falls asleep before it's over. But I'm not a downtown businessman. I'm not an extra. They haven't used this house for a scene, and I have to ask--I did ask--as a city councilman, as a citizen, 'What has "Northern Exposure" done for the common man?"' Victoria Neiland came into the kitchen from the basement, where she had been washing clothes by hand. "Now, Joseph," she said. "I think it is thrilling to have 'Northern Exposure' here. Thrilling. Oh, I'd never complain. I look at the television and say, 'There's our town "Mom," Joe said. "I'm not complaining, just wondering. They pay the town, directly, one hundred dollars a day. One hundred dollars. That's the wages, for a day, for two extras. The show has become very popular, very profitable. They'll bring up the ten thousand dollars they spend on location, but at least one-third of that gets spent on lodging, and Roslyn doesn't have any motels." "I saw that girl, Maggie, on television selling Chevrolets," Victoria added. "And I've seen her right here on our streets."
"That's what I mean, Mom. Everybody's getting paid but Roslyn. One hundred dollars. They take up a lot of space. We have to put in portable latrines. We have crime. They say, 'We gave you a fire truck,' but I say, 'Yes, but we give you our town.' " Victoria returned to her washing, and Joe walked me to my car. "A lot of people in town think like Mom. A lot of people don't. Lea took a beating. That isn't fair--she had the nerve to stand up to people. "Did you ever see that movie 'The Blob'? That's what's happened to Roslyn. Here we are, living our lives, and someone runs into town saying, 'There's a thing heading this way!' And it's a thing no one has ever seen before. Once it gets here, no one knows exactly what to do about it. Kill it? Feed it? Tame it?"
TAKING what I could recall of Bud and Butch's advice, I walked from old Roslyn to new, down Pennsylvania Avenue from the locals' bar, the Pastime Tavern, to what has become the visitors' hangout, the Brick. The Brick, founded in 1889, makes much of its claim to being the oldest tavern in Washington state--or the oldest continuously operated tavern in Washington state, or the oldest continuously operated tavern in the same location in Washington state--and occupies a tall, handsome building on the southwest corner of Pennsylvania and Highway 903.
The Pastime, which makes a point of claiming nothing about itself, is a detached wooden rectangle--more worn and utilitarian than the Brick--with a shaded beer garden. It sits a long block east of the Brick. Except for the running-water trough spittoon at the base of the Brick's bar, and the fact that both places, with their ample displays of"Northern Exposure" action wear, have come to resemble clothing stores, neither place is readily distinguishable from most taverns in the state. They smell of cigarettes and pooled tap beer, the counters are lined with jars of pickled eggs and packages of chips; the bars are long and dark and as worn as cathedral pews. There are dart boards, pool tables, jukeboxes, sports-team schedules, and signs with ancient waggeries: "Our credit manager is Mrs. Helen Waite. If you want credit go to Helen Waite." The Pastime's clientele dress in flannel shirts and Frisco jeans and suspenders and boots. Clothes are specked with sawdust. Or torn and patched. Skin is stained with grease. Fingers are missing.
No one acknowledged me when I walked in. I settled at the bar between a thin, worn man who was seriously drunk and a wide, red-faced man who was seriously drunk. 'What brings you into town, cowboy? Hollywood?" the thin man asked. "Is that your Jap truck?" the wide man asked. "Yes," I said to the thin man. "No," I lied to the wide man. "You work for 'Northern Exposure'? " asked the thin man. "I just saw you get out of that ricegrinding piece of shit," said thewide man. "No," I said to the thin man. "It's the wife's," I lied to the wide man. "The Ford's in the shop." There followed a fifteen minute exchange during which I more or less established my right to take up space in the Pastime. ("Damn right all politicians are crooked," I crowed at one point. "Lying bastards.")
We got onto real estate. I ventured that the recent reassessment--it had doubled the previous rate seemed usurious. "God damn right it's serious," said the wide man. Then I asked when he had last been reassessed. "Wait just a minute. You sound like a politician yourself. Let's just stop right here, Mister. What's your drill? Why don't you come dean?" I readied to leave, not amused by the general drift of things, when in walked a man in his late twenties, with Eddie Bauer clothes and expensive hair. His hands, like mine, were pink and soft. He worked, I found out, for Pipeline. He sat around the corner of the bar and ordered a beer. His smile was bright, and his tone of voice, I feared, a bit flush with unearned heartiness. The barmaid said the seat was taken. He moved down one. The barmaid said that seat was taken. He moved down one more. My companions were staring at him. They started in.
"I'm so honored to be drinking with someone in show biz, aren't you?" The wide man blew cigarette smoke toward the newcomer's face. "Arrogant bastards. Show-biz big shots." The guy stared at his beer, silent. The newcomer left. A beer and a pickled egg later, I did, too.
A HALF-DOZEN drinkers hunched at the Brick's bar, a dozen or so customers sat at nearby tables. The tables were occupied by Canadians, Germans, French, and one Spaniard. The Canadians docilely took a licking on the bartender's impromptu exchange rate. The Germans mocked the size of American beer glasses. The French--two couples in their twenties--stared intently at the door, video cameras ready on the table. Faces appeared against the tavern's windows. Once, the door opened and a large man with Southern accent asked if he could "take a few feet" with his video camera. The Spaniard, a young man who said he hailed from Malaga ("That's nice," said the bartender), kept returning to the bar. "Do they make here?" He mimed hand-cranking a camera. "In this place?" "No. They shoot interiors in Renton, near Seattle." "No film here ever, no?" "Yes." "They are not filming today tonight?" "That's right." "When is to film?" "Maybe two, three days every couple of weeks." "Does Janine Turner-Maggie--yes?" "Right." "She is here?" "Not right now." "Is Maggie beautiful in life?" "She is pretty, yeah."
The man from Malaga smiled and nodded and cupped his hands in front of his chest. The bartender was a wire-muscled banty with a lined face, a gray beard, a tattoo on one arm, and a missing tooth. "Do you get many questions like that guy asked?" I asked. He looked at me as if it were none of my business. He pulled a beer. "Forty times a day." "Must get old." "It's working that gets old, man." You might leave here on a Thursday in the rain. The newspapers from the coast are in. The taverns are open. A dog in a vacant lot barks ceaselessly as one tour bus of senior citizens unloads near the museum and another turns onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Logging trucks brake down Highway 903.
Four people ask if they are filming today, and when you say they aren't, someone takes your photograph. A semi is parked in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, unloading at Harper's Lumber Company. A pair of old men talk in front of the post office, each holding a thin bundle of mail. The post-office parking slots read "10 Minute Parking Only 8 A.M. to 6 P.M." The parking slots next to the semi read "Parking for Harper's Customers Only." A sandwich board in front of Central Sundries announces the store's alter ego: "Ruth-Anne's General Store in the CBS Television Network Series Northern Exposure." Nearly every shopwindow features "Northern Exposure" souvenir merchandise. Several have "Rest rooms for Patrons Only" signs.
You walk toward N.W.I.--Northwest Improvement, which was the old company store. The windows are tattooed with neon--green, red, blue. The place looks cheap, as bright as a rough-side gin mill. Its new name is Memory Makers. You try the door. It opens: "Northern Exposure" T-shirts, baseball caps, singlets, sweatshirts, long johns, aprons, satin jackets, Frisbees, postcards, bumper stickers, mugs, shot glasses, thimbles, sewing kits, Super Sippers, key chains, pillboxes, foam-rubber sleeves for soft-drink and beer cans, moose-shaped refrigerator magnets. You read the posted signs: "Please No Video Taping Inside Shop," "$20 Minimum on Credit Card Purchases," "Notice--Due to Shoplifting, This Store Is Now Monitored by Cameras."
The owner, Roxy Sherrell--around Roslyn, her last name is usually pronounced "Shrill"--is a busy woman, with a busy head of bright-black hair. You suggest that her signs seem a bit urban in a place like Roslyn. "Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? You ever see shoppers with video cameras in a K mart? You ever see shoppers with video cameras in Wal-Mart? That sign is there for security reasons. Lots of stores have twenty-dollar minimums on credit card purchases. I don't like checks--I was getting so many hot checks you wouldn't believe it. Hot checks and shoplifters--that's why it says 'Monitored by Cameras.' Tons of stuff was flying out of here." A clerk approaches and tries to get Sherrell's attention. The door opens, and four customers enter, then quickly split off in different directions. "This may seem like a one-horse town to you, but, believe me, quiet time in Roslyn is long gone. Any more stupid questions, or can I go back to work?" -
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