On the set with Disney

By Noel Gallagher, London Free Press
November 13, 1997

Movie magic has turned a historic St. Thomas landmark into Hollywood North.

The 120-year-old Alma College is the chief filming site of Mr. Headmistress, a two-hour TV movie comedy slated to air next year on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney.

"The college is architecturally impressive, has the right look we wanted and the fact it's empty made it more feasible, economically, than other locations," says the movie's director, James Frawley.

Chosen ahead of several Toronto-area locales, the long-vacant college is now a mini studio lot. Classrooms have been converted into dressing, equipment and make-up rooms, while the institution's chapel and outdoor amphitheatre are lending authenticity to movie scenes. The Sifton Hall dormitory has been transformed into the project's administrative headquarters, complete with offices, a nurse's station and dining room catering to the 100-plus filmmakers.

"We just fell in love with this place as soon as we saw it," recalls executive producer Jack Brodsky, referring to the college's being cast as the fictitious Rawlings Academy for Girls.

"The school definitely anchors this movie," says comic actor Harland Williams, who plays the movie's hero Tucker, an "ex-con and con man" who, on the run from his creditors, hides out in an all-girls school while pretending to be its headmistress, Ms. Bascombe.

"I was attracted to the idea of wearing women's clothing," jokes Williams, a 35-year-old North York native who made his movie-starring debut in Rocket Man. "Especially when the wind blows up my dress. I've never felt so born free in my life."

His 15-year-old co-star Shawna Waldron says working with Williams --"the funniest guy in the world" -- is the best part of being in the film, while the assignment's toughest challenge is the fall weather.

"Putting up with the cold has been the only real problem," agrees Katey Sagal while taking a warmup break in the college lobby prior to shooting an outdoors scene Wednesday.

Sagal, best known for her role as Peggy, the lovable, ditzy wife on the 11-year TV hit sitcom Married . . . With Children, is cast as the no-nonsense assistant headmistress Harriet Magnum, nicknamed "Dirty Harriet" by the academy's students.

Sagal and her movie company colleagues say the brisk weather's been offset by the warm welcome of local residents.

"The St. Thomas people couldn't be nicer and we've gotten wonderful co-operation from Mayor Steve Peters and the city's economic development commissioner Maurice Beaudry," says the movie unit's publicist Geoff Smither.

"The movie people have been very good to us, too. This has been a very exciting experience for everybody," says St. Thomas's Bertha Rive, who's employed as a $7-an-hour extra, playing a "parent" in the film.

"I like being in the movies," says Rive's 10-year-old granddaughter Krista, a Grade 5 pupil at Forest Park elementary school, of her small screen role.

Being Waldron's stand-in on the movie set has proven to be a valuable learning experience for West Lorne resident Lisa Vergeer.

"Acting is my dream profession," says the 18-year-old West Elgin secondary student council president who, next fall, expects to enter TV broadcasting courses at an Ontario university.

Sitting outside the college in front of a portable heater, Vergeer's only complaint is the chilly weather, a feeling shared by American actor Duane Martin, who plays Jim, the movie hero's streetwise sidekick.

"The cold's no fun but when it's show time you have to show up," says the 32-year-old former pro basketball player.

The movie company will occupy Alma College for another 10 days before moving to Waterloo for filming at an abandoned railway station, followed by a few days of location shooting in Toronto, where a filtration plant will become the prison from which the comedy's main character is released at the outset of Mr. Headmistress.