By Jeff Martin
Walter Pluta looked a little lost standing beside the railroad tracks in South Dayton.
Dressed in overalls and an engineer cap, Pluta looked patiently on as the giant New York and Lake Erie Railroad engine idled. Riders, slipping out of passenger cars like slow-flying bees from a hive, stood for a moment before proceeding into the town square.
Pluta and Western New Yorkers remember when, in August 1983, movie crews and movie stars descended on the small town and, as some described it, “took over.” Stars like Robert Redford, Robert Duvall and Barbara Hershey arrived and filmed the opening scenes of what many consider to be the best baseball movie ever made, “The Natural.”
As many as 30 small towns were considered prior to filming, but location managers chose South Dayton because of the railroad station, which is currently being restored, and its location to town. It certainly helped that town leaders were preparing for its annual Gala Days, which included a carnival, which helped convince location managers that South Dayton could be easily transformed into a Nebraska town in the 1920s.
Step off the train and you’re nearly standing in the center of the square, which was crammed with kiddie rides, vendors and other assortments on Sept. 7 and 8 as South Dayton celebrated the 30th anniversary of the film and the summer it was filmed there.
Pluta arrived from Tennessee for the celebration. Back in 1983, he was living in Northeast Ohio, working on the engine crew for the Cuyahoga Line. Crews for the film arrived and were looking for extras and workers. Chosen for his skills as much as his appearance, Pluta not only appeared briefly in the film (during the pitching contest), but he also kept hot the engine of the massive steam engine filmmakers brought from Ohio.
And, yes, Pluta met Redford. Perhaps that’s where Pluta’s “lost” look came from — just remembering a special time.
“He came onto the train one night pretty late,” Pluta said. “We sat and talked for a long time. He was just, you know, a regular guy.”
Much of the conversation Pluta had with Redford has been lost to memory.
“I do remember that Redford wanted more of the train in the film, but they had to cut a lot of it out,” he said.
Even Pluta’s two sons were in the film — his oldest who is seen in the crowd and, later, his youngest, who stood in on the sly for his older brother after he left for college.
And does he watch the film now 30 years later?
“I watch it occasionally, but my VCR went kaput,” he said, laughing.
Taking almost center square was Dennis Gould, a 41-year-old state trooper who was 11 when the film was shot. He was the only local among dozens who got a prominent speaking role in the film. Gould played the part of a carnival boy who runs after Roy Hobbs, Redford’s character in the film, as he is getting back on the train.
“I yell out to him that he has forgotten his jacket and (Redford) throws a baseball to me as a souvenir,” Gould said.
That same baseball Redford later autographed for Gould, who carried it with him during the festival. Scrawled in blue were the words, “Thanks for the help, Robert Redford.”
Gould, who remembers going to see the finished film in Gowanda at the historic Hollywood Theater, said he didn’t realize how big a deal it was.
“I got a standing ovation,” he said. “People still tease me about it. A lot of people can’t believe it was me, but it was. It makes me feel good every time I watch it.”
Jim Bickhart of Dunkirk came to South Dayton in 1983 to audition after his wife, Theresa, egged him on.
“I never would have come if it hadn’t been for her,” he said, sitting at a picnic table with a photo album. In it were pictures of the shoot — director Barry Levinson standing under a tree, Redford and Duvall sitting in their chairs, cameramen, extras milling about in early 20th century dress.
Bickhart was later chosen as the carnival barker, or the man who announces in the film, “There goes the Whammer, the best baseball player in the world.” He appears about three minutes into the film.
It still surprises Bickhart that he got chosen.
“My wife was the one who wanted to be in the movie, but I got picked,” he said, laughing. “That’s how it works, I guess.”
Bickhart even had his pay stub for his work — $387 for nine hours.
“Not bad for back then,” he said, grinning. “Union wages.”
Bickhart said it was impressive how much work went into shooting what would eventually become a few minutes of a real Hollywood movie.
“You just can’t believe how much work was involved, how many people were involved,” he said.
Photos by Jeff Martin