By Marla Brannan
It’s late afternoon on April 1, 2006. Huntington’s Fourth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets is packed with an estimated 10,000 screaming people assembled to greet some of the most famous faces to ever grace the Tri-State.
Meanwhile, the celebrities and the top brass from Warner Bros. are anticipating just another public relations outing. They have been to similar functions in cities bored with celebrity and filled with irritated citizens rolling their eyes at yet another movie-affiliated street closing. Places where, maybe, 500 people would show up. But this was new, special and heartwarming even.
An enormous crowd crammed in between the buildings that line Fourth Avenue, all cheering in unison for Hollywood’s arrival in Huntington. All Director McG, Producer Basil Iwanyk and actors David Strathairn and Matthew McConaughey could do was smile and wave, smile and wave, smile and wave. It was so beyond expectations that David Strathairn turned to McG and made his now-famous remark: “You know, McG, they’re going to elect you mayor here!”
The idea for a block party originated with Basil Iwanyk, producer of “We Are Marshall”. But it was Ernie Malik, unit publicist for Warner Bros. and Dr. Keith Spears, director of marketing and communications at Marshall University, who took it from there, planning an all-day affair.
First, they planned a preliminary reception at Marshall President Stephen Kopp’s home for some of the “We Are Marshall” cast and crew. According to Spears there had been some concern on the part of Malik about an A-list star like McConaughey being in an unfenced area near a public park. But Spears assured him that the event was a complete secret, unpublicized and far from open to the public.
“I told him that there wouldn’t be any teen-aged groupies hanging around, that this was an event for university intelligentsia and adults. Seventy-five people were invited but the party grew to 140! You know word’s leaked out when vans of paparazzi keep driving by including the National Enquirer.”
Despite numerous “friend of a friend of someone who was invited” attendees, things moved smoothly and according to plan. Strathairn, McG and Iwanyk all spoke and the crowd was interested and polite.
“But the mood changed when Matthew McConaughey showed up,” Spears noted. “A transition took place where mild-mannered females took on a new aura. When I noticed people climbing over the President’s back fence and saw Matthew McConaughey backed up against the garage, I knew we might have a potential problem on our hands!” Fortunately, for all involved, disaster didn’t strike, and the remainder of the event came off without a hitch.
It was time to move on to the day’s second event: a
press conference at the Keith-Albee. The plan initially had been to hold
it in the lobby in front of concessions, giving cameras a built-in movie
ambience and writers a perfect descriptive backdrop. But Malik suggested
holding it on the theatre’s stage instead since he could get the stars
safely in and out through the alley between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. It
turned out to be an
“Call it naïveté, but we had anticipated 15-20 local journalists,” Spears explained. “We were shocked and pleased when 55 regional and national reporters showed up in Huntington.”
At the press conference, Basil Iwanyk, the film’s producer, explained that “We Are Marshall” started with a beautifully written script by 26 year old Jamie Linden.
“I just could not believe how dramatic it was and how heartbreaking it was,” Iwanyk said. “It was incredible and filled with such emotional sensitivity that it really surprised a lot of people even in Los Angeles.”
Meanwhile, McConaughey told reporters how excited he was about the film.
“Very seldom do you read stories like this that are based on something that happened, something in history,” he explained. “My creed has always been to ‘Just keep livin’.’ That’s what happens in this story. Through the game of football, people, a team, a community comes together on the proverbial field to play and move on with memory and with hope.”
The film’s director agreed. “It was a difficult time,” McG said. “They did not have the resources. They did not have the money. It was going to be difficult to field a competitive team. Everyone knew that the team was going to lose an awful lot. I think one of the great moments in the film is when Lengyel comes to realize that we will play now so that ten years from now, it can be about winning. Right now, it’s about getting out there and playing, which is a great metaphor for living.”
Following the press conference, Huntington Police cleared an unexpected path from a side door of the theatre straight onto the stage area in the middle of Fourth Avenue. And that is when the crowd went wild.
“It was just a sea of humanity,” Spears recalls. “It was literally crammed with people from one end of the block to the other – it was a great atmosphere.”
Tri-State residents attending the event also thought it was great. Tammy Neuscheler, who resides in Prichard, W.Va., lived in Southern California for years and never saw a celebrity. “Since Matthew McConaughey was coming to town, I figured I had to go see him. Besides, he’s one of my favorites, and one of the best-looking men in Hollywood!”
She continues by noting how easy it was to come out for the block party due to Huntington’s size. “My friend and I spontaneously decided to go downtown, our three children in tow. We didn’t get down there until 20 minutes before it was supposed to start – which is something you can only enjoy in a small town and still get a parking spot! We kind of used our strollers to clear a path and managed to get pretty close to the stage and take some great pictures.”
John and Angie Hayes of Chesapeake, Ohio, wanted to attend the block party because “it’s not every day a major motion picture is filmed in your back yard!” The Hayes and their daughter Chloe benefited from the huge crowd and the fact that the stars came onto Fourth Avenue from an unexpected place. “The crowd was wall-to-wall, so we were only able to find a spot next to the Arcade Building,” John remembers. “As it happened, the cast made their way to the stage from the area where we were standing. We ended up with a great view of Matthew McConaughey, David Strathairn and McG coming and going to the stage.” The Hayes thought “the City of Huntington and Marshall University officials did a great job of planning the kickoff. With the band and cheerleaders, it seemed like the crowd’s excitement level gradually built until the cast made their appearance.”
Huntington resident Jeanie Poindexter agreed. “There was an electricity in the air that I have never experienced before in Huntington. Everyone was upbeat and excited – I have never heard a roar like the one when Matthew McConaughey took the stage. It was more than just women excited to see People magazine’s reigning “Sexiest Man Alive.” It was a community coming together to show their appreciation for this film finally being made.”
Regardless of whether you were invited to the President’s private fete, asked the stars questions at the press conference or cheered with the throng on Fourth Avenue, one thing is certain: April 1, 2006, is a day Huntington will never forget.
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