Engel Stadium transformed for Jackie Robinson film (with video)


Alonzo Highsmith - Friday Post Practice

Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith recaps the Razorbacks' practice on Friday.

Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith recaps the Razorbacks' practice on Friday.

photo Caara Fritz, on lift, and Sharon Davis prepare to trace patterns for signs on the outfield wall of Engel Stadium on Monday afternoon.

TONIGHTBecause of severe weather forecasts, there will be no street activities at the Carmike Majestic 12 on Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga, as previously planned. However, you may still purchase tickets at the movie theater box office to the 10 p.m. advance screening.COMING FRIDAYThe Times Free Press will publish a 32-page special section on Jackie Robinson and the movie "42."

ENGEL TRANSFORMED* Three plywood walls were built, one along the curve of the outfield and one down each baseline, to provide a backdrop for the digitally created ballfields that would be added later. In all, more than 1,100 feet of green wall was constructed, with about 500 feet of it standing 40 feet tall and the rest hitting 32 feet.* To build the framework for the green walls, 120 telephone poles were sunk 8 feet into the ground and 8 feet apart.* A 32-foot-high, three-story scoreboard -- with men actually behind it, changing out its numbers and letters during the games -- was put up. Then an 8-foot-tall clock was placed on top.* A new set of grandstands had to be built right next to the field, a task that required digging because, at Ebbets, some seats were at ground level.* Engel's dugouts had to be torn out and replaced with ones that looked like the dugouts at Ebbets.* A tunnel -- about 9 feet deep and 60 feet long -- was dug underneath Engel to stand in for the one that runs from Ebbets' locker rooms to the dugout.* Lead-based paint had to be removed from the outfield wall and some seats before any other work could be done.WRECKING CREWDemolishing the dugouts at Engel Stadium and taking down a two-story administration building beyond the right-field grandstands were among the first jobs to be tackled.Ernest "Butch" Pate, of Pate's Hauling and Demolition in Chattanooga, was tasked with the job, which he began the day after contracts were signed. It was "pretty tough," he said, because he only had a couple of days to get it done and also because Engel's dugouts were not going to crumble easily."The concrete was double-walled and double-reinforced with steel bars," he said. "We really had to bite and chew and really dig in."Not only did Pate and his crew of three get the job done on time, they did it for free."We were told specifically that, after everything was done and over with, it was going to be rebuilt and used for the smaller children to have their baseball games and that's what compelled me to do it," he said. "But I also knew that it was going to be the restoration of the stadium and that, to me, is something vital to the city of Chattanooga."

It wasn't the phone calls before dawn or sleep-robbing calls after midnight that wore out Janna Jahn. It was being buried beneath the avalanche.

"It wasn't early or late calls; it was constant, like every 15 minutes we had some new dragon to slay," said Jahn, executive director of the Engel Foundation, the group responsible for maintaining and promoting Engel Stadium.

The calls began in January 2012 after filmmakers first contacted the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga about using Engel for "42," the movie about the life of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in modern-era Major League Baseball.

There were calls from Warner Bros., the company making the film, to negotiate details; there were calls to UTC, which owns Engel, to get approval for those details; there were calls to engineering and construction companies to see if the stadium could even be used safely for filming; there were calls to Chattanooga's Department of Education, Arts and Culture and the mayor's office to smooth out permits and such; there were calls to historic preservation officials to see which parts of Engel, on the National Register of Historic Places, had to remain untouched.

"You cannot believe what we had to go through," Jahn said. "Night-and-day phone calls, it was unbelievable. ... We'd get one problem dealt with and another would pop up, but we decided, 'We're going to figure this out, no matter what,'" she said.

Before the film crew arrived, a massive amount of work had to be done to Engel. Not just repair work to the neglected stadium, either, although there was plenty of that. But filmmakers also wanted dugouts removed, buildings torn down, tunnels dug, grandstands installed, the infield moved and enormous green walls built along the curve of the outfield and down each baseline.

"We had to do a lot of stuff, a lot of work in a short amount of time," said Sharon Davis, the film's art director in charge of construction at Engel.

Davis, who has been in the movie and TV business for more than 25 years, said that, when you include the green walls -- used later for computer-generated graphics -- Engel was the largest building project she's ever handled on a production. Total budget for her end of the work was about $544,000, according to paperwork. About $300,000 was spent just for the green walls, Davis said.

And all of it needed to be done in five weeks.

"Ten weeks would've been nice," she said.

Getting started

For Jahn, the avalanche began rumbling after UTC officials forwarded an email from a location scout with Warner Bros. who was interested in looking at Engel.

"I about dropped my teeth," Davis recalls. "I got the guy on the phone and asked, 'How can I help you?' and he start gushing about Engel Stadium."

"He" was Eric Hooge, location manager for the film. At the point that he called Jahn, he had been looking at various ballparks around the country for a couple of months, including ones in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Alabama.

He said Engel fit best because it was in such a state of disrepair, the renovations needed for "42" were not going to be a problem. Nearby historic parks like Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., and Luther Williams Field in Macon, Ga., already had been renovated and rebuilt and couldn't be touched, he said.

"Engel Stadium turned out to be our crowning jewel of all our stadiums because of the freedom to manipulate it the way we needed to," says Hooge, who has been in the location scouting business for 13 years.

The upshot for Engel was, by the time the filming was done, "you're going to restore it to way better shape than it was before," he said.

"What we gave them in the end was a playable ballfield. We helped them to get started on the restoration of Engel, which is great."

The day after his phone call with Jahn, Hooge sent a photographer from Atlanta to take shots of the ballfield. More visits from other movie folks followed and, within a few weeks, the filmmaking team from Los Angeles, including director Brian Helgeland, flew in to look at Engel.

"Up until that point, I kept thinking, 'Oh, you know, chances are this isn't going to happen. I'm sure they're looking at other places after they see Engel,'" Jahn said. "But after seeing Engel, they changed their plan around. They were going to film more in other places, but Engel ended up being where they filmed the most."

That's when negotiations began in earnest -- how much the film company would pay for using Engel, what type of renovations the filmmakers wanted made to the historic stadium, getting filmmakers to promise to undo whatever changes they made. Matters were complicated because Engel is on the National Register of Historic Places, limiting what can be done to it. Certain parts -- many of the grandstand seats, for instance -- cannot be removed or damaged.

The hoop-jumping was so cumbersome, filmmakers were ready to go elsewhere at one point, Jahn said. But wrangling and horse-trading -- including calls to Gov. Bill Haslam's office -- nailed down the particulars. On March 8, 2012, all the necessary contracts were signed, about six weeks after Jahn received the first email.

"It was the determination of a few key people who knew it was important for this film to be made and knew that it was important for Engel that it be made there," Jahn said.

Hooge, who's based out of Los Angeles, said the enthusiasm for "42" by the people of Chattanooga was "refreshing."

"People were actually excited about having a movie in town," he said. "Out here, everybody's over it."

No time

The movie, reportedly made on a budget of about $40 million, had a tight schedule, with filmmakers wanting to start at Engel by May 2012. They needed the warm weather for the baseball scenes and they also wanted to release the film before April 15, 2013 -- the 65th anniversary of Robinson making his major-league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Joe Hutcherson, with local engineering firm March Adams and Associates, has worked on Engel Stadium for years. He was involved in the renovations there between 1986 and 1988 and he's called in once a year to give the stadium an engineering once-over. So before the film crew arrived in May, he was brought in to help get Engel up and running before filmmakers arrived, then to help out as needed. The stadium, neglected for years, wasn't in good shape.

"All the electrical and plumbing had to be working, and we had to get rid of the homeless people camping out underneath," recalls Hutcherson.

There was lead paint on the outfield wall, and some of the seats that had to be removed before anyone could come in to do more work. The removal was paid for by UTC and cost about $72,600, according to Jim Pulliam, manager of the school's Safety and Risk Managementd department.

"It was a lot of tiny small parts that had to be put together, and that is very time-consuming -- dealing with film industry and contractors and staying within budget," Hutcherson said.

Total cost for all the work done by UTC and the foundation was about $250,000, Jahn said. Some of that was by $25,000 from both the Chattanooga City Council and the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and $20,000 given by Cornerstones, a nonprofit historic preservation organization in Chattanooga.

Under the lease agreement with the film company, the foundation also received $15,000 a month for four months, she said.

Moving fast

Even after UTC and the Engel Foundation finished their work, the park needed significant refurbishing so Engel could stand in for several other 1940-era ballparks -- Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers; Crosley Field in Cincinnati; Sportsman's Park in St. Louis and Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Some of the work physically altered some parts of Engel -- the dugouts, the infield, the grandstand -- but the biggest job was plywood walls to provide the backdrop for the digitally created ballfields; the framework alone took 120 telephone poles sunk about 8 feet into the ground.

To get it all the work done, Davis said she used a crew of about 80 people.

And there were times when changeovers had to be almost instantaneous. The first couple of days of filming were focused on scenes at Crosley and Sportsman's. When the last of the shots was done, Davis had 18 hours overnight to transform Engel into Ebbets Field, a task that included taking down panels covering already-placed advertising signs along the outfield walls, replacing dugout railings and changing paint color on the stadium's other railings.

"We had to paint all the railings orange to match Ebbets," she recalled. "The paint was still wet when they started filming that morning and I got in trouble. But it was raining and there was so much moisture in the air, it just didn't dry in time."

Even after all the filming was completed, the job still wasn't finished; everything had to be put back the way it was before. Restoring Engel took from the end of July 2012 until Oct. 10, 2012, when Jahn signed paperwork declaring that Warner Bros. had fulfilled its end of the contract.

Having helped line the deal up and make sure everything was ready when the film crew arrived, Jahn didn't spend much time at Engel when the actual moviemaking was going on. She was just too tired.

"I went down there a few times, but honestly, by the time everything got set up and they were rolling, I needed a rest," Jahn said.

But there's no way she'll miss seeing "42."

"We should be proud of the fact that our team was involved in making a film that has really important message," she said, "and it'll be great to see certain scenes and know that that's our stadium."

Contact staff writer Shawn Ryan at 423-757-6327 or sryan@timesfreepress.com.