Recently, the Curve hit the road to take on the SeaWolves in Erie, PA, a place that conjures up a thousand images in my mind, all of them in spite of the fact that I had never, in fact, actually been to Erie, PA. Things like family-owned appliance stores and the words “You gotta be quick! You gotta be quick with me. I’m from Erie, PA!” and Del Paxton jazz album covers. (I swear, this will all make [relative] sense shortly.)
In the mid-1990s, Tom Hanks released a critically acclaimed (in the Maun household) motion picture about an upstart young 1960s band called The Wonders that challenged The Beatles to a hair-combing and awesomeness contest. The hair-combing part was actually just an awful joke about the band in the movie and not an actual part of the story, but the awesomeness part was. Even though the story was fictional, That Thing You Do! (exclamation point included, you see) became one of my favorite movies of all time. As a person who never expected to find himself in Erie at any point in my life (baseball has a way of making weird things happen like that), when I joined the Curve and knew I’d be headed on a roadie to Erie, finding the sights and sounds of one of the best movies of my childhood became my ultimate goal.
And then, show business happened. While doing my research on Wonders-related sites in Erie, I found out through the internet machine that, with the exception of one or two things, there basically are no Wonders-related sites in Erie. Virtually none of That Thing You Do! was actually filmed in Erie. The city street shots were filmed in Orange, California. Orange, California? (Cue that old salsa commercial. NEW YORK CITY?!) A movie based in Erie. Hardly any of it filmed in Erie. Thanks, Hollywood. Nevertheless, undaunted, I went in search of something—anything—on which my favorite fictional band left its mark.
In that pursuit, I didn’t get much of anywhere. Sooooo I had to improvise by finding things that seemed to fit the narrative. Hey! The main downtown street! That’s totally where the drummer Guy worked at his parents’ appliance store and where The Wonders (then spelled as the “One-ders”) first heard their hit single on the radio. That Italian restaurant! That HAS to be the place that served as the inspiration for Villapiano’s, where the band landed their first paid gig. THAT PARKING METER MUST BE THE ONE THAT THE BAND’S FIRST DRUMMER (played by a young Giovanni Ribisi who starred in That Thing You Do!, Friends, and Saving Private Ryanand then, evidently, entered the Witness Protection Program) CHAD TRIED TO JUMP OVER UNSUCCESSFULLY, THUS BREAKING HIS ARM AND OPENING THE DOOR TO GUY’S DEBUT AND THE BAND’S METEORIC RISE TO THE TOP OF THE PLAYTONE CHARTS!
It wasn’t quite as I imagined my day chasing the One-ders (or Wonders) to be. So I had to go for something concrete. And with that, my friend, Wonders tour guide, and Erie (well…North East) ambassador Jaci and I headed to Mercyhurst College, seemingly the only place in the entire Erie area that was actually used for a movie based in, you know, the Erie area. Makes perfect sense. Stupid fourth wall being broken.
Mercyhurst is a beautiful small campus, and it was there, in the movie, that the Wonders won the Mercyhurst College Talent Show, thus leading to their Villapiano’s gig, a local manager and local radio airtime, and, later, the Playtone Galaxy of Stars. Still following? Good. Mercyhurst is also the type of college campus where people notice two weirdos they don’t recognize driving around the campus, gawking
out of car windows, and searching for a theater or a gym or a performing arts hall or something of the like. That was us. In the process, we got odd looks from dozens of people who saw us circling three, four, and twelve times around campus in search of a theater that was vaguely pointed to on signs and seemingly not something that existed in the real world. Until, finally, we discovered it. And it wasn’t the right one. We wandered inside, took a gander at the beautiful but decidedly un-1960s-Mercyhurst-Talent-Show-contest-like theater, and went back out into the main lobby. I noticed a girl sitting in a reception area and said to Jaci, “I should probably ask her. Maybe they actually get people looking for this theater.”
Jaci looked at me with the type of “do you realize how ridiculous that last sentence of yours was?” type of face you’d imagine my comment to require. I pressed on.
I approached the window, and the girl, likely a freshman or sophomore, asked me if she could help.
“Yeah,” I tentatively offered. “Um…well first, have you heard of the movie That Thing You Do! by any chance? It had Tom Hanks and Liv Tyler and some other people in it.”
She looked back at me as if I had started speaking Swahili while juggling a hundred Shake Weights.
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t think I have.”
“Ok,” I continued, still pressing forward in pursuit of the One-ders, “Well, they supposedly filmed a big scene in the movie here in one of your theaters, but it isn’t this one, I don’t think. Is there a smaller, older theater on campus by any chance?”
“Yeah, actually, there is! There’s this small, little creepy one right under the library.”
GOLD! We departed and went hunting for the library. As we left the first building, I turned to Jaci and had one of those mid-20s-“man-I-am-getting-old”-type moments.
“So…let’s figure that girl was 19,” I said. “That movie came out in 1996. She would have been what? Three? Ugh. Now I feel uncomfortable being this weird and old as a 26-year-old on a college campus.”
Undaunted still, Jaci and I meandered to the library after getting extraordinarily well-intended but unhelpful directions from a girl who seemed inordinately stressed by our request for directions to the library and her subsequent failure to give easy-sounding directions. Still. We found it.
And its doors were locked.
16 years and 1,500 miles or so away from when I first discovered my love for the Wonders, the doors to the place of their discovery and road to fame and fortune were locked. Jaci and I wandered through some back halls looking for a side entrance, but there was nothing there. Just a sweet sign for an old dressing room. THIS IS TOTALLY WHERE THEY GOT READY BEFORE THEY WENT ON STAGE AND DOMINATED THE TALENT SHOW, GETTING A “WICKED” RATING FROM THE AUDIENCE AND THE $100 GRAND PRIZE.
It was a dead end. At some point, it dawned on me just how ridiculous the whole thing was. It’s not even a real band, you know, the logical part of my brain told the rest of my brain. We should probably get back to study more about SeaWolves hitters’ home-road splits.
You keep your mouth shut, the rest of my brain responded.
We went up a floor and into the main office of the tiny little theater building where we were greeted, again, by Swahili-listening-glazed-eyes looks from most of the people therein when I explained our predicament. One girl told us she’d be happy to let us see the theater, but there was a class in it right now. Unreal. We said thanks and decided to go give it one more look at the doors, take some pictures, and leave. Guy, Jimmy, Lenny, T.B. Player (Ethan Embry’s character, the bass player, was never named in the movie. He was literally called “The Bass Player” the whole time and listed as “T.B. Player” in the credits.) (Speaking of which, he’s another one! Whatever happened to Ethan Embry?! Anywho, neither here nor there.), Faye, and the rest would have to live on only in memories and DVD repeats of the movie and one exterior shot of the theater doors.
“Our director actually just told me that he thinks that class is over, and I can let you guys in!” A voice appeared from the top of the stairs. The woman from the office started down them with a smile. “He actually says he loves that movie, and he’s pretty sure this is the theater where the talent show scene was filmed.”
I was elated. The lady came down, unlocked the doors, and led us into a small theater that had been refurbished since the days of The Wonders. The carpet and fixed chairs felt new, and the gradually sloped floor led down to a stage, upon which was a drum set. Perfect. Had it only had “The Wonders” emblazoned on the front of it, it would have been a storybook ending. I took some pictures and tried to explain to the lady that we really weren’t crazy, I was just a big fan of the movie and never thought I’d find myself in Erie and that she should see it and that the theater felt smaller in real life than it looked in the film and that I would imagine nobody has ever gone looking for said theater in real life at Mercyhurst College. And then I realized I was babbling. So we left.
On the way out of Erie the next day, I decided to check my phone internet for something. There, a page opened on my browser that I forgot I had been looking at the day prior while driving around campus at Mercyhurst. It was this page, the history of a different Mercyhurst campus building, and explained to me:
The college’s old gym was used for physical education classrooms until the late ’60s and for intramurals until the campus center was built. That old gym was the site used by Hollywood director and film star Tom Hanks as the setting of the talent show in his 1996 film, “That Thing You Do!”