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By Sharon Littlepage, Special to Roane Newspapers
Charles Tichy, a retired TVA historical architect, likes old things. It’s just his nature.
The Oliver Springs resident especially loves the little town he’s called home for 30 years.
“It’s special,” he said. “There’s a real sense of community here. People are proud of their heritage and are working hard to preserve it for future generations.”
Although Oliver Springs was originally founded in 1830 as Winter’s Gap, it was once a bustling burg with two major railroads, the grand old Oliver Springs Hotel, several department stores, professionals like doctors, dentists, and pharmacists, funeral homes, three churches — even a soft drink bottler.
After the coal mining industry went bust, many workers went looking for jobs in neighboring Oak Ridge, which was assembling a massive government project that would literally shake up the world in the mid-1940s.
The secret operation, called the Manhattan Project, included uranium-enrichment facilities in Oak Ridge that were used to develop the first atomic bomb.
And the rest, they say, is history.
More recently, in 1997, Hollywood went to Oliver Springs when crews showed up to begin filming a new movie called “October Sky,” starring a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal, veteran actor Chris Cooper and Natalie Canerday, who had played Billy Bob Thornton’s mom in the Academy Award-winning film “Sling Blade” two years earlier.
“October Sky” was based on the book “Rocket Boys.” The title is actually an anagram, meaning that the two titles are spelled using the same alphabetical letters.
“Rocket Boys” is based on the memoirs of Homer Hickam Jr., who started an amateur rocketry club in his hometown of Coalwood, W.Va.
Hickam’s inspiration was the launching of the Russian spaceship Sputnik, which left the United States behind in the Cold War-era race for space in 1957. At the time, this was a big concern for Americans, even teenagers like Hickam.
Shortly after “Rocket Boys” was published, Universal Pictures announced it would make a movie of the book.
Coalwood, in the mountainous coal-mining region of southern West Virginia, was ruled too remote for such a big project.
Instead, several small towns in East Tennessee were chosen as venues, including Oliver Springs, Petros, Wartburg and Harriman, along with the more metropolitan Oak Ridge and Knoxville.
When a casting call was announced in the local newspaper, Tichy decided to apply.
“I was one of many people who waited in long lines at Oliver Springs High School to fill out an application,” he remembered. “There were no auditions, per se. Pay was $14 a day plus meals.”
Tichy was hired to be a coal miner in several scenes and played a schoolteacher in the regional science fair scene, which was shot at Gresham Middle School in Knoxville.
“It was an interesting experience,” the Wisconsin native related. “We went in early in the morning for makeup and checked out our costumes from the wardrobe trailer each day.”
Although extras weren’t given a copy of the daily script, Tichy acquired several after filming ended.
In fact, he’s become quite a collector of “October Sky memorabilia.”
After filming was over, the production company sold most of the props, wardrobe, posters, set decorations, signs, and other items to interested buyers, including Tichy.
Several artifacts are on display in a storefront window at 107 Roane St. in Oliver Springs, including the “Miss Riley” rocket, a United Mine Workers of America seal and banners, Miss Riley’s hospital bed, a display used in a science fair scene and directors’ chairs.
Every effort was made to make the action realistic. However, Tichy said, the coal mining scenes were actually filmed in a warehouse in Knoxville.
“Pieces of black Styrofoam were used to simulate the interior of the mine,” he revealed.
Another example was the use of fiberglass boards applied to concrete block buildings to make them look like brick. The movie buff also has some of these materials in his collection.
Of course, Tichy had read “Rocket Boys” before filming began, and
he’s seen “October Sky” several times.
“Shooting the movie was done out of sequence, and some liberties were taken by the director to tweak the story to make it more dramatic,” Tichy said. “There was a lot of just waiting around until the extras were needed for a particular scene.”
Since the film came out, it’s become a family classic. The book has been studied in more than 400 schools and colleges across the United States and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.
Only last month it was translated into Vietnamese and, coincidentally, the film was in theaters when Hickam toured the South Asian nation three weeks ago.
A member of the nonprofit Oliver Springs Historical Society, Tichy enjoys getting involved with projects like the October Sky Fall Festival on Oct. 16.
He will serve as the tour guide of some of the 17 sites in town that were used in the filming.
Tichy has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Iowa State and a master’s in historic preservation from New York University.
One of the historical society’s major projects is to help fund the restoration of the historic Abston Building, which was built in 1915 and used as, among other things, an automobile showroom, movie theater, garage, bowling alley and snack bar.
Proceeds from the festival will go toward the renovation of the once-crumbling structure at 505 Winter Gap Ave.
Tichy chaired the committee that worked with the East Tennessee Design Center in Knoxville to develop plans for rehabilitating the structure.
“We want to use it as a museum for housing a large collection of documents, photos, and other artifacts as well as a venue to educate and entertain the public about the history of the area,” he said.
The October Sky Fall Festival opens at 9 a.m. with a parade downtown and continues until 6 p.m.
A “Rocket Boys” Extras Reunion has been added to this year’s festival.
The reunion will be on Oct. 15 in the Disabled American Veterans Building on Kingston Avenue in Oliver Springs.
A chili supper kicks off the reunion at 5 p.m. Cost is $5.
For additional information or to RSVP, call Barbara Hilemon at 435-5064.
Hilemon coordinated several past reunions and encourages movie extras or anyone who was involved in the production of “October Sky” to contact her.
Copies of her full-color book, “The Making of Rocket Boys/October Sky” (as seen through the eyes of the movie extras) will be available for $25 at the reunion.
For additional information, go to the historical society’s website at www.oshistorical.com/what’snew.htm or, call Lorraine Boling at 435-0385.
For information about the filming of “October Sky” in East Tennessee, go to http://coalwoodwestvirginia.com/oliver_springs_1.htm.
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Sharon Littlepage is publicity chairwoman for Oliver Springs Historical Society, organizers of the October Sky Festival and “Rocket Boys” Extras Reunion.