If there was any doubt that Worcester has become a hotbed for Hollywood productions, all you have to do is look at the success of 2021, which has turned out to be the city’s busiest film-making year yet.
In 2021, major motion-picture and television projects with scenes shot in Worcester included “Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever,” “Confess, Fletch,” “Dexter: New Blood,” “Salvation,” “Spirited,” “The Tender Bar” and the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” while projects released this year with scenes shot in Worcester include “New Guy,” a majority of “Dexter: New Blood,” “Don’t Look Up” and, once again, “The Tender Bar.”
And rumor has it, there are already two movies projects lined up to film in Worcester for 2022.
Despite the stranglehold of COVID-19, Spider-Man and his multiverses have nothing on Worcester when it comes to the different stories, realities and timelines unfolding in front of the camera.
The following is a look back at the year that was.
Local girl makes good
In 2021, movie producer Andrea Ajemian continued her hot streak.
The Worcester native who grew up in Rutland served as executive producer/unit production manager on two movies released in 2021, “I Care a Lot” and “The Unholy.”
Filmed all over the Bay State (but nowhere near Worcester), “I Care a Lot” also featured Alicia Witt in a supporting role. The Netflix hit marks the first time the two Worcester natives, Ajemian and Witt, have worked on the same film project together.
Although primarily shot at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, “The Unholy” (which was originally titled “Shrine”) has scenes filmed inside the Clinton Historical Society.
On April 5, I tweeted: “It was a good Easter Weekend for Jeffrey Dean Morgan fans. Not only did he deliver the best episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ in years with a compelling, heart-wrenching backstory on Negan, he also spooked us on the big-screen with the nifty little horror movie ‘The Unholy.'”
Coincidentally, my Jeffrey Dean Morgan tweet was my most popular tweet of the year with 149K impressions, 143 retweets, 833 likes and 32 comments.
Variety is the spice of life
Not only did Alicia Witt keep her collective wits during COVID-19, she made the most out of her downtime by staying very busy during the pandemic.
While she is best known as an actress, Witt — who made her acting debut in David Lynch’s “Dune” at the age of 7 — released a stellar new album, “The Conduit,” and a combination cookbook/memoir/lifestyle guide, “Small Changes: A Rules-Free Guide to Add More Plant-Based Foods, Peace & Power to Your Life.”
Arguably her most fully realized showcase as a singer/songwriter to date, “The Conduit” is a confident throwback to the classic singer-songwriter albums of the ‘70s. Like Carole King, Carly Simon and Karen Carpenter before her, Witt is intimate and unguarded, honest and real. Her elegant, understated piano playing enhances her probing, precise words while lavish (but never overpowering) strings make it sound like nothing on mainstream pop music today.
“Small Changes” is not your typical self-help book; Witt doesn’t pretend to be self-help expert or know-it-all fitness guru but a friendly, reassuring voice sharing her personal experience with fads, diets, exercise and veganism (although she’s a sucker for an occasional piece of salmon) and saying this works for her; if you make a few changes in your life, it may work for you.
2021 had all the makings of a great year for Alicia, one of her best in recent years. A successful concert and book tour introduced the personable celebrity to a whole new audience. Then, suddenly, a few days before Christmas, an unspeakable tragedy struck. Bob and Diane Witt, Alicia Witt’s parents, were found dead in the family home.
They were her biggest fans and supporters, who were there for her when she was a 5-year-old reciting Shakespeare to John Davidson on “That’s Incredible,” who were there for her when David Lynch called the house to see if she was interested in starring in “Dune,” and every little and major success that has followed
The first time I met Alicia was when I invited her to attend a “Twin Peaks” finale party I was throwing on June 10, 1991.
Witt, who was 15 at the time (but mature beyond her years), briefly appeared as Donna Hayward’s ivory-tickling kid sister Gersten Hayward on David Lynch’s nighttime soap. Understandably, Alicia brought to the party her parents, Bob and Diane, who arrived wearing “Bob” and “Diane” nametags.
Over the years, I have seen Bob and Diane numerous times, in places like Mechanics Hall and Emerson College, just radiating with the joy of seeing their daughter share her art and grow as a person and a performer.
The Iceman Cometh to the Commonwealth
You don’t have to be a forensic expert to see that Worcester and some of the surrounding neighborhoods have contaminated the various crime scenes in “Dexter: New Blood.”
In the opening scene of the first episode of “Dexter: New Blood,” everybody’s favorite fictional serial killer is seen running through the snow-covered backwoods of Iron Falls, New York, where the weekly-run, 10-episode Showtime series is set.
But, in actuality, actor Michael C. Hall (who plays the show’s title character and his alias, Jim Lindsay) was filmed running through the woods of Camp Collier in Gardner, while his encounter with an albino deer took place at 535 Harvard Road in Lancaster.
Dexter goes to the Iron Lake Tavern to meet Angela Bishop (played by Julia Jones), who is not only his girlfriend but the police chief of Iron Falls. Decorated with holiday lights and trimming, the interior of the tavern is, in fact, the Bull Run in Shirley.
We go to Iron Lake High School for the first of many times in episode three, which is, in reality, Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, complete with fake snow outside.
In episode five, the action unfolds at a law enforcement conference at the AC Hotel by Marriott Worcester, 125 Front St., in Worcester.
In the same episode, Dexter is seen driving his 1995, two-tone Ford F-150 in the parking lot of The Crystal Bar, a local dive where one of the drug dealers responsible for Dexter’s son overdosing at a party hangs out. It turns out that The Crystal Bar is none other than the B-Man’s 140 Tavern at 344 Redemption Rock Trail (Route 140) in Sterling. The same bar was also used as Dell’s for the latest remake of “Salem’s Lot,” which also filmed scenes at the Princeton Public Library.
Dexter waits for neighborhood drug dealer No. 2 outside his home, who (at least, on the show) lives at 29 Colby St., Worcester. Despite the scene filmed in May, the ground is also covered with (fake) snow.
In episode six, Chief Bishop goes home and you can clearly see this is 3 Chestnut St. in Grafton.
And we still have a few more episodes left.
Paging Dr. Ross
In April, George Clooney, best known as Dr. Doug Ross on TV’s “ER” and twice named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, came to Worcester to film scenes for “The Tender Bar.”
A week earlier, Clooney and actor Ben Affleck (who plays Uncle Charlie) shot exterior scenes on Maverick and Cane streets in Fitchburg.
Clooney, who is the director of the flick, filmed interior shots on the third floor of the 93-year-old Commerce High School building. For the Worcester shoot, “The New York Times” newsroom was reconstructed inside the walls of the old school building.
Worcester Common Deadpool Outlet
After seeing its original release date delayed for 13 months due to the pandemic shutdown, “Free Guy” finally hit the big screen in 2021.
With elements of “The Truman Show,” “Ready Player One,” “They Live,” “Groundhog Day” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Deadpool” (also starring Reynolds), “Free Guy” is a visually eye-popping feast for the senses that deserves to be seen on the big screen. It also has plenty of heart, soul, humor and smarts.
And, in three key scenes that take place inside Brew on the Grid at the corner of Portland and Franklin streets, you can clearly see some very strange things happening in the background on these downtown streets, as well as the Worcester Common.
In “Free Guy,” Reynolds plays Guy, an unassuming, nametag-wearing, bank teller who repeats the same mundane, daily routine day after day.
Routinely each day, Guy walks into Worcester’s Brew on the Grid and gives Missy (Britne Oldford) his regular morning order — a medium coffee, cream and two sugars. For those who question if it’s really is the local coffeehouse at 56 Franklin St., you can clearly see the number “56” over the doorway backward as it stands today.
In the background, heavily armored soldiers firing heavy artillery run down Portland Street and cross Franklin Street, while explosions can be clearly seen on the Worcester Common. When filmed, the Telegram & Gazette reported an explosion, with 10-foot-high flames, and the sound of gunfire, which prompted the Police Department to broadcast an “FYI” to officers throughout the city.
In addition to “Free Guy,” Reynolds stars in “Spirited,” a musical reimagining of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” filmed at Mechanics Hall, making this Hollywood hunk (and another former People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”) the inaugural member of Worcester’s two-timer club.
For the week-long “Spirited” shoot, Mechanics Hall’s Great Hall was made to look like a Rockettes-inspired “Christmas Spectacular” stage show.
In addition to Reynolds, “Spirited” stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and SNL funnyman Will Ferrell.
From ‘Mad Men’ to newsmen
If you didn’t realize that Jon Hamm and John Slattery were in town filming “Confess, Fletch,” you might have concluded it was a mini-“Mad Men” reunion unfolding in the Heart of the Commonwealth.
But, instead of playing Don Draper and Roger Sterling, respectively, Hamm is playing unorthodox investigative reporter Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher reaching out to his crusty, old-school editor Frank Jaffe (played by Slattery) for some help.
“Fletch” is the character from Shrewsbury native Gregory Mcdonald’s series of 1970s mystery novels first portrayed on screen by Chevy Chase in 1985.
While Chevy Chase’s take on Fletch was more about broad comedy and sight gags, Hamm’s Fletch is supposed to be more about clever dialogue, witty banter and the art of investigation. We’ll see.
For the eagerly anticipated “Fletch” reboot, the T&G office, located in Mercantile Center at 100 Front St., was transformed into the newsroom of the fictitious tabloid The Boston Sentinel.
Scenes from “Confess, Fletch” were filmed in the T&G’s main newsroom on the third floor, the reception area on the fifth floor, and in the executive editor’s office, also on the fifth floor.
Props included a news rack, home subscription mailboxes, tote bags and wall calendars sporting the logo of the fictitious newspaper Fletch works for.
Hamm and Slattery also were shot in a scene inside Cicero’s Café on Suffolk Street, while “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who plays Detective Monroe, aka the chief investigator in a murder (or two) in which Fletch is the prime suspect, most likely interrogated Hamm at the Worcester Police Department film shoot.
The Bizarro Worcester
I lived my whole life in Worcester and watching the first two episodes of AMC’s “Kevin Can F**K Himself” that is supposedly set in Worcester, I saw very little, if anything, that resembled Worcester.
In fact, the two-minute teaser released for the second season “Star Trek: Picard” reminded me more of Worcester than the first two hours of “Kevin Can F**K Himself.”
Seeing the “Picard” teaser, I started remembering watching first-run “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes in my family home in the Greendale section of Worcester with my brother, every Saturday at 7 p.m. on WCVB Channel 5 Boston.
Even the 11 season finale of “Blue Bloods,” a show set in New York, captured Worcester better when Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) corrects Jamie (Will Estes) on the pronunciation of the second largest city in New England.
“It looks like Worchester, Mass., is the place,” Jamie said.
“That’s pronounced Woosta, Jamie,” Danny said.
True, “Kevin Can F**K Himself” has plenty of sarcasm and cynicism, which are arguably Worcester’s two biggest exports.
But the closest we come to a legitimate Worcester or “Wormtown” reference is a “Wormtown Brewery” sign hanging up in a liquor store that Allison (“Schitt’s Creek” star Annie Murphy) works at.
And never is the liquor store ever referred to as a “liquor parlor,” “packie” or “packie store,” which is a missed opportunity and fine example of true Worcester vernacular at its finest.
There also is a generic reference to hard seltzer but none to Polar Seltzer. What gives?
None of the scenes for “Kevin Can F**K Himself” were filmed in Worcester and it shows.
And for a true Worcesterite, it sticks out like Smiley Ball trying to rally up fans at a WooSox game at Polar Park — sadly none of which is referenced in “Kevin Can F**K Himself.”
The creators of the show think a character wearing a T-shirt sporting a Worcester logo (including George’s Coney Island Hot Dogs and Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner) makes the show Worcester. All it does is makes you look like a poser to anyone who has ever wined or dined at Ralph’s or Coney Island.
The show also tries to compensate for its lack of Worcester authenticity with the actors all adopting grating, exaggerated Boston (not Worcester) accents that are more Hanna-Barbara than Kelley Square.
And you thought only the makers of Worcester Monopoly had absolutely no clue on the first thing about Worcester.
Wakanda Forever? No, Worcester Forever!
In the biggest movie productions to ever hit Worcester, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” filmed a complex chase scene in blocked-off downtown consisting of three police cruisers barreling down Main Street toward Lincoln Square to block an armored Humvee.
The cruisers came to a screeching halt in front of the Worcester County Courthouse, positioned on Main Street, to block the Humvee coming from the other direction.
After several run-throughs, actress Letitia Wright walked on the set wearing a long-flowing black cape covering her outfit.
Wright plays the Black Panther’s sister, Princess Shuri, the chief science officer for Wakanda, whose throne’s left vacant due to the real-life death of fan favorite Chadwick Boseman.
The Humvee circles back with a sky-blue motocross bike perched upright and fixed firmly on the roof. And a person who appeared to be Wright, or possibly her stunt double, puts on a motorcycle helmet, hops aboard and is fastened to the bike.
The Humvee roars down Main Street with the motorcycle and its driver fastened to the roof of the armored vehicle. It stops short of hitting the cruisers.
Wright (or who appeared to be Wright) gets off the bike and puts her cape back on while a realistic-looking, crash-test dummy of the actress is firmly fastened to the bike.
The Humvee with the dummy perched on the bike on the roof came speeding down Main Street again and spins out without hitting any vehicles.
The Ernest A. Johnson Tunnel that runs beneath Lincoln Square hasn’t seen this much excitement since the New England Summer Nationals.
And that wasn’t the only big scene for “Black Panther” filmed in Worcester. Another highly involved combination chase and fight scene, involving motocross motorcycles and police cruisers, was filmed in front of The Cathedral of Saint Paul at 38 Chatham St.
Next time Disney wants to roll into town for a not-so-secret, secret filming, they might want to do it on something other than the back of mammoth, adamantium-enforced transport trucks covered with signage that boasts “Leased to: Marvel Film Productions” posted prominently on its side.
Houston, we have a problem
Hot on the heels of the Academy Award-winning Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” and the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” Whitney Houston is the next beloved popstar to get her story told in a Hollywood movie.
In October, cast and crew rolled into the city to film scenes for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at the Worcester Regional Airport.
For the scenes filmed for the Whitney Houston biopic in Worcester, it appeared that Whitney (played by British actress Naomi Ackie) was going to get in or get off a private jet on the airport’s runway and jump into or out of a limo surrounded by an entourage.
The former church choir singer turned chart-topping sensation played a sold-out show Nov. 9, 1987, at the Worcester Centrum.
Although she somehow got into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the only thing rock ‘n’ roll Houston ever did was the way she died.
Don’t get me wrong. Houston was drop-dead gorgeous, had an incredible voice and grew up in happy household. Everything came easy and early to her in life, unlike her musical biopic comrades.
So most likely, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is going to be devoid of drama until the film introduces Bobby Brown as the bad guy.
Houston’s first cousin is Dionne Warwick, who is a member of the Psychic Friends Network.
Now, I have absolutely nothing close to psychic powers but I would have had enough sense to know Bobby Brown was bad news and I would have told Whitney on day one to stay away from him.
Despite painfully recreating Houston’s vapid videos and her rousing, lip-synced performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV at Tampa Stadium in Florida during the Persian Gulf War, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” sounds like it’s going to be a massive (and unwelcomed) downer.
Boulevard Diner Travelling Salvation Show
Repent sinners. “Salvation” has come to Worcester.
A scene for the new movie starring Ashley Moore and Thomas Jane was filmed in November at the Boulevard Diner on Shrewsbury Street.
Moore — who stars in the Amazon Prime Video series “I Know What You Did Last Summer” — plays Angela, a troubled foster child who discovers the snake-handling Pentecostal community she has developed a kinship to is not what it seems.
Jane — who has starred in “The Punisher,” “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The Mist” — plays the charismatic Pastor Wally.
Moore’s scene at the Boulevard Diner (renamed Coot’s Diner in the film) consisted of her waitressing in the greasy spoon, exiting a side door carrying a bag of trash and walking to the back, where someone pushes her to the ground near a trash container.
Inside, the grill was filled with pancakes, which probably indicates that the scene filmed inside take place during the breakfast rush.
The next day, “Salvation” filmed at the UMass Memorial Medical Center Hahnemann Campus at 281 Lincoln St., Worcester. Someone gotten bitten by a snake, perhaps?
Prior to Worcester, scenes for “Salvation” had been filmed at the old Philbin Farm on West Berlin Road in Bolton, which doubled as the home for the sacred snake-charmers.
The sky is falling. The sky is falling
Pop quiz, hot shot. What do Frank Sinatra and Meryl Streep have in common?
ANSWER: They have both performed at the Centrum in Worcester.
We’re not here to talk about The Chairman of the Board. Next year, to celebrate Ol’ Blues Eyes opening the Centrum 40 years ago (on September 2, 1982), we’re going to talk plenty.
We’re here to talk about the three-time Academy Award-winning actress in “Don’t Look Up.”
On Dec. 4, 2020, during the height of the pandemic outbreak, Streep was filmed playing the president of the United States on the DCU Center stage alongside her sniveling Secretary of State (and son), played by a scene-stealing Jonah Hill.
Together, Streep and Hill rallied supporters to take a blind eye toward science and deny the existence of a comet on a collision course with Earth by merely not looking up at the sky.
Coincidently, roughly five years earlier (on Nov. 18, 2015), Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump conducted a campaign rally in the very same spot that Streep mocked the POTUS in “Don’t Look Up,” the latest from Academy Award-winner scriptwriter and Academy Award-nominated director Adam McKay, who grew up in Worcester.
The movie also stars fellow Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.
Unfortunately, DiCaprio and Lawrence didn’t shoot any scenes in Worcester, because, if they did, Lawrence (who was shot in scenes for “American Hustle” at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant on Millbury Street and Union Station) would be in Worcester’s two-timer club with Ryan Reynolds. Well, maybe, next time.
Rags to Riches
I would be remiss if I did a year in review and not mention the passing of “The Big Ragoo.”
Once called the most talented man to ever grace the Burncoat High School’s variety show stage by the show’s longtime academic advisor Samuel McClure, Eddie Mekka (born Rudolph Edward Mekjian) died Nov. 27. He was 69.
Mekka is best known for playing Carmine Ragusa, aka “The Big Ragoo,” on ABC’s hit ‘70s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” He also danced the jitterbug with Madonna in “A League of Their Own,” directed by former cast-mate Penny Marshall (who played Laverne).
So open your arms and your heart and may 2022 bring every treasure you’re hoping for.