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How ‘The Blob’ transformed one town

Once, in 1958, “The Blob” came from beyond the stars and brought death to Phoenixville, Pa. Today, just as unexpectedly, it is bringing life.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There is a man. He carries a can, and inside it is a weird, blood-red hunk of goo the size and consistency of a generous bowl of lumpy raspberry Jell-O.

Each summer, man and can climb into the car and drive to a small town on the edge of the Philadelphia suburbs, not far from where Washington spent that bitter, long-ago winter in Valley Forge.

The town, Phoenixville, is a place of history, too. Fifty years ago, this place was touched by the spotlight. A small production company two towns over made a film that no one expected to go anywhere. Instead, it became one of the iconic sci-fi horror flicks of the 1950s and introduced the world to an actor named Steve McQueen.

In the movie, this happens: A mysterious hunk of extraterrestrial gelatin kills a physician in his home, menaces teenagers in a grocery store, surges toward a crowd of people in a darkened theater and engulfs a diner.

In real life, this happens: Each summer, hundreds of locals and folks from as far away as Oregon and Jamaica come to the center of Phoenixville. They visit the house where the doctor “died,” stop by the strip mall where the market once stood, eat at the diner on the site where the alien met its frozen end. And, on Phoenixville’s main drag, on a warm summer evening, more than 400 of them run screaming from the same theater, the Colonial, in a joyous re-enactment of the movie’s big scene.

The man and the can play starring roles in The Big Weekend and its ocean of science-fiction fans and weekend excursioneers. The man is Wes Shank, collector of movie memorabilia. The can contains his showpiece, the thing that gave rise to all the commotion in the first place.

It is a miniature film prop, nothing more, a chunk of silicone manufactured by Union Carbide in West Virginia. But it is also the centerpiece of a story of tourism and entertainment that, a half-century and six manned moon landings later, refuses to go away.

All around the hunk of goo, something odd unfolds: Because a movie was made long ago, because a town’s gotta do what a town’s gotta do, a festival has risen. A downtown has come back. A past has been leveraged — a fictional past, but a past nevertheless.

Once, in 1958, “The Blob” came from beyond the stars and brought death to Phoenixville. Today, just as unexpectedly, it is bringing life.

‘Historic sites for the ADD generation’“When you see something that was on film, it takes you into the movie. It’s almost like you are a character,” says Dave Perillo, an artist from Swarthmore, Pa. He has come to hawk his sci-fi caricatures at “Blobfest,” Phoenixville’s name for its annual street-fair excursion into the blobosphere.

“These places,” Perillo says, “are our new historic sites for the ADD generation.”

Entertainment can be an unpredictable beast. What appears up on the big screen — some of it, at least — was created in real places. And sometimes, because of the fiction, those real places begin to change.

In Scotland, an ancient castle has become a pilgrimage site because part of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” was filmed there. In Dyersville, Iowa, the baseball diamond carved from cornfields for “Field of Dreams” draws fans who consider it a real ballpark. Mount Airy, N.C., has taken pains to make itself feel like Mayberry, the quintessential small town from “The Andy Griffith Show.” And the bar exterior from “Cheers,” once called the Bull and Finch, has renamed itself; these days, it’s “Cheers Beacon Hill.”

We live in a land of big stories, in an age where entertainment trumps most everything. So events like Blobfest become natural leisure options at a time when towns need to stand out, to become on-site theme parks and draw tourist dollars.

And here in the cradle of American independence, where real-life history is everywhere, why shouldn’t fictional history become something tangible?

“History, the Liberty Bell, the significance of it gets lost of me,” says Ellen Plummer of Portland, Maine. “This,” she says, “is more real.”

She is walking up Bridge Street in Phoenixville with her boyfriend, Rick Naratil, a native who moved away years ago. He remembers, at 5, seeing “The Blob” on TV and thinking, hey — that’s the theater where I watch Disney movies.

While the diner and other filming locations draw gawkers during Blobfest, the Colonial Theater is the epicenter of all things blob. Inside, sci-fi flicks play to enthusiastic audiences, and people at the edges of fame like Kris Yeaworth, son of “Blob” director Shorty Yeaworth, discuss the intricacies of filming the movie originally titled “The Molten Meteor.”

Outside, the blobbery takes on as many forms as creativity and entrepreneurial savvy allow.

There is the wooden blob cutout that allows you to poke your head through a hole and pretend you’re being swallowed by its unearthly maw. There are the actual fire truck and the 1950 Ford coupe that McQueen drove in the movie. Outside the pizza parlor opposite the theater, the proprietors have created their own creamy, oozy pink mass, confined to a garbage bin for the moment.

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And there is the parade, led by a fire-extinguisher-wielding grand marshal dressed as McQueen, whose James Dean-like teenage leading man figured out that its frozen contents were lethal to the creature. The lookalike leads an unholy Conga line around the theater marquee while discharging bursts of carbon dioxide skyward.

Only in America, you might say. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

“Visitors bring their own imagination with them,” says Sue Beeton, author of a critical study called “Film-Induced Tourism.” She admits: She’s been moved to tears by sites she’s visited that figure in her favorite stories.

“Often, simply being in a place is sufficient ‘touchstone’ for their experience,” Beeton writes in an e-mail from Australia, where she teaches.

“People often respond extremely personally and passionately to film,” she says. “For many, their journeys verge on a pilgrimage.”

‘A gem like this can transform a community’Phoenixville, once home to an enormous steel mill, seems an unlikely place for a modern entertainment pilgrimage, but hundreds of “Blob” fans can’t be wrong.

The town may have been idyllic in the movie, but a decade ago Phoenixville’s main drag was dragging. The mill had closed, putting 2,000 people out of work. Storefronts were shuttered. There were problems with drug dealers and prostitutes. The Colonial was operating, but barely. “Those were really rough times,” says Mayor Leo Scoda.

Then Mary Foote came along.

Foote, a community organizer, noticed that the Colonial was for sale. Its previous owners hadn’t done much with it, which wasn’t a bad thing: The theater hadn’t been split into cramped “twins” like so many of its small-town counterparts.

Foote led a nonprofit consortium called the Association for the Colonial Theater, which bought the property and began restoring it. The focus was drawing entertainment to Phoenixville; the blob didn’t figure in until later.

“A gem like this can transform a community,” says Foote, sitting in her office on the theater’s second floor. In the background, the movie’s jaunty theme song, “Beware of the Blob,” plays in a continuous loop. But, Foote allows, “There’s gotta be a lot of stuff — not just a blob.”

Slowly, around the theater, downtown began to come back. New restaurants like Molly Maguire’s opened (it donates to the theater $1 of each $8.95 “Colonial BLT” it sells), as did a gourmet cafe and places like Phoenix Karate, which teaches martial arts to kids.

When McQueen walked these streets in front of Shorty Yeaworth’s camera, he moved through a Phoenixville that was the picture-perfect 1950s movie small town. It felt much farther from a big city than it really is. Today, as Phoenixville resurges, it is taking on that feeling again — a 2008 twist on Eisenhower-era America, surprisingly, and ironically, authentic.

Modeling one’s self after film can be thorny; real history can get lost. But it’s hard to find a downside in Phoenixville. The chain of custody is pretty basic. Theater came back. Community leveraged blob. Business resurged. Downtown got safer. Everybody’s happy.

Even now, almost a decade into Blobfest, a bemusement remains about the enthusiasm generated by the alien-visitation tale filmed the summer before Sputnik was launched.

“I take the ride. But do I get it? No,” Foote acknowledges. “The volunteers who work all year, half of them don’t get it. They say, ‘Why do they come?”’

Karin Williams, who does PR for the Phoenixville Chamber of Commerce, echoes many along Bridge Street when she assesses the whole affair: A community identifiable by something purely pop-cultural isn’t a bad thing amid the static of the 21st century.

“It puts our little town out there,” she says. “It’s something that Phoenixville can own.”

As American as the Empire State BuildingIf you’re one of the lucky few, the man will let you reach into the can and actually touch the blob. It’s sticky. It smells like flypaper. It oozes. Pull your fingers away — SQUIRSH — and a perfect set of prints are left behind.

Some wonder if the blob was intended as an allegory. Think about it: It’s the 1950s, and an enormous red mass is overrunning and suffocating the idyll of Main Street America.

Yeaworth’s son and others scoff. But there’s another take from a new DVD edition of “The Blob”: Film historian Bruce Kawin suggests the creature is a “hungry mass — comparable to if not incarnating the growing consumerism of 1950s America.” For moviegoers in 1958, he says, “their complacent desire to stuff themselves with goods and good times had shown itself to be a monster.”

We are consumers above all, and now more than ever we buy good times. Viewed through this prism, is Phoenixville’s Blobtown persona that far removed from, say, Universal Studios Hollywood? One, built for fantasy, became a tourist attraction; one, built for the real world, was used once for fantasy and became a tourist attraction.

Blobfest is the real and the movie, America and Hollywood, all at once. And that fits the modern American identity.

Our ancestors stamped monuments to themselves onto the physical landscape — the Lincoln Memorial, the Empire State Building, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Interstate Highway System. These days, some of our most cherished monuments are less solid — the stories we bring to life in movies, TV shows, videogames.

So we flock to Walt Disney World as eagerly as to Washington, D.C., to Universal Studios Hollywood as ravenously as to the Grand Canyon. We buy flex passes to places that re-create the experience of big-screen storytelling before our eyes. And some of us even traverse the landscape looking for movie sites so we can submerge themselves in the cool waters of entertainment.

Dave Perillo, the artist, has scoured the land for his favorite film locales. He’s walked the streets of San Francisco to find Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” seen the L.A. bowling alley from “The Big Lebowski,” tracked down the corners of coastal New Jersey that Kevin Smith used in “Clerks.” At each, he revels in the sheer movieness of it all — as do enough Americans to create a market for gazetteers of fantasy like “The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations.”

And in the era of the war on terror, for one moment on one evening in Phoenixville, the fear of attack by outsiders becomes just another thrill. Modern entertainment pilgrims get to run out of a theater and into the night, screaming as though their lives depended on it and having fun all the while.

Going to the movies is no longer enough; we must climb in and consume them, wherever that journey leads. Even to Phoenixville. And so many years later, in the very town it tried to consume, the blob has met its match: a roving band of 21st-century American consumers, weaned on entertainment, who are hungrier than it ever was.