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Blowing up the neighborhood in Jersey

Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo in Brian De Palma's "Wise Guys."

Jersey City, NJ – “This guy came and rang the bell, and said his name and that he was from MGM,” Mrs. Delores Brady was explaining. She stood in the center of her kitchen floor, and you got the impression she had played this scene before.

“Did he say they’re gonna blow up a house?” asked her uncle, Anthony Rokoszak.

“He says they’re thinking about making a movie down here in Jersey City. He says it’s going to be a comedy. And then later they told us they’re going to blow up the house.”

“And so you tell him…”

“What I told him was, You tellin’ me the end of the picture? Because I hate it when somebody gives away the end of the picture.”

“So, in other words,” her uncle said, “it was okay with you, they were planning an explosion across the street?” He was feeding Mrs. Brady the lines like a straight man.

“They said they’d pay for any damages. All I thought was, I get a bird’s-eye view while they’re shooting the movie. I sat right in that front window when the actors playing the Mafia drove up. They were very good-looking. One of them looked like Trapper John.

“Also, I met Danny DeVito, although I’m sorry to say that when Joe Piscopo came to have his hair washed in my kitchen sink, I was out to dinner.”

An assistant director walked into the kitchen, holding a walkie-talkie.

“They’re ready to blow her,” he said.

I walked out of Mrs. Brady’s front door and into a drizzling rain. The two houses across the street from the Bradys were good matches for the other houses on the block, but they weren’t real houses. They were sets, built to be blown up in “Wise Guys,” a comedy being directed by Brian De Palma.

The movie was being produced by Aaron Russo, a big, bearded man in a goose down coat and soaking-wet running shoes, who came across the street, banging his arms against his sides to keep warm, and told me to get into one of the bunkers. These were plywood and Plexiglas shelters that had been built to protect the seven cameras that were going to film the explosion. I walked into the nearest bunker and found myself standing next to Danny DeVito, the movie’s star.

“So what’s the story so far?” I said.

“The story is, me and Joe Piscopo are in trouble with the boys,” DeVito said, holding a finger against his nose in the universal shorthand for the Mob. “If we don’t convince them we are dead, we are dead. So we go into the house and sneak out the back and blow it up.”

Aaron Russo stuck his head back into the bunker.

“Okay, now, does everybody here know they are in a dangerous place?” he asked. “Glass and nails and s--t are gonna be flying all over here. Is everybody aware of that?”

Yeah, everybody said.

“Because this is your official warning,” Russo said. Since the deaths during a stunt sequence in “The Twilight Zone” movie, dangerous scenes have been handled with an appropriate degree of paranoia on big Hollywood productions.

Russo was halfway to the next bunker when he turned around and came back. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not gonna have my star of my whole picture standing here where he can get killed. Danny, I want you back behind the fire truck.” He looked at me. “Also you,” he said.

“Hey, no problem,” I said.

Danny DeVito and I trudged through the rain to back where they had stationed the fire trucks and the mobile paramedic squad. Then somebody blew a whistle, and a very intent silence fell. We all stood very still and squinted through the rain at the houses that were going to explode.

Thirty seconds passed in a trance. Then somebody blew another whistle. “False alarm,” an A-D said.

We all laughed, and the firemen inhaled the steam from their paper cups of hot coffee, and then another whistle blew, and we all squinted at the houses again, not so intently this time, and then when we weren’t really expecting anything, the houses blew up in a giant ball of red and yellow flames.

I walked down an alley to a position behind the blast site, where Fred Schuler, the cinematographer, had set up his camera. He checked by walkie-talkie with his other six camera positions, and said it looked like a good stunt, no injuries, everything went okay.

“You like a nice grey overcast day like today,” he said, “because the fireball shows up better. On a sunny day, you can blow up a whole city block and not see anything on the film.”

Connie Brink, the expert in charge of blowing up the house, trudged through the back yards from his inspection of the rubble. I asked him what sort of explosives he had used.

“I never like to say,” he said. “You get kids messing around, they believe everything they read in the paper.”

Do you like your work?

“Am I a happy guy? Hey! And we got one more explosion to go, an after-blast from a slightly different angle. One thing, since what happened out on the coast, the studio now hires a second special effects man, accountable only to them, who is called the Safety Officer and has to approve every stunt. That takes the pressure off the first guy, if the director is making all kinds of demands.”

Brian De Palma, the director, walked past, and I asked him what his philosophy was when he was blowing up a building.

“I hire people I trust, and do exactly what they tell me to do,” he said.

I walked back down the street to the Bradys’ house, and let myself in the front door.

“Whoo-ee!” Delores Brady said. “Wasn’t that something!”

“Where were you?” I asked.

“In my kitchen. They told us to stand back out of the living room.”

“Was there any damage?”

“Maybe two, three windows got blown out. They had them taped up, but they blew out anyway. And I think I lost a doorjamb. But before, you had to push and shove to open the storm door. Now you just push it, and it goes open real easy.”

Paul Brady, her husband, came downstairs from an inspection tour. “We lost one window up there, that’s it,” he reported. He said he had come home from his job at Joseph Vita Plumbing and Heating to watch the explosion.

“We were all born on this block,” Anthony Rokoszak said. “We used to play our football games across the street, throwing around a rolled-up Newark Star-Ledger newspaper we used for a football. You know who this is?” He put his arm around a sweet-faced older lady. “Our mother, Tessie Pirecki.”

“Don’t tell him your age,” Mrs. Brady said.

“Seventy-one,” said Mrs. Pirecki.

“She lives in number 96,” Mrs. Brady said. “This whole block has always been family. I have another sister lives across the street. This is one of the safest blocks in Jersey City. All for one, one for all.”

“So don’t print the address so they’ll know where to come,” Rokoszak said.

“Henry Krajewski, who used to live in the next block, ran for president of the United States one time.”

“That used to be farmland at the end of the street, before they put the highway up,” Mrs. Brady said.

“They ruined it,” Mrs. Pirecki said. “They put the skyway up, and the can company up. It was a beautiful neighborhood.”

“There was a rock pile at the end of the block,” Rokoszak said “That’s where they put all the stones from when they dug the tunnel. Then they turned them all into gravel, and hauled them away, and built the can company. I was No. 2 man with them, until I quit.”

“What party ticket did Henry Krajewski run on?” I asked.

“One of those parties,” Mrs. Brady said.

Just then there was another loud explosion, and the whole house shook.

“Hurray for Hollywood,” Tessie Pirecki said.

Rokoszak looked into the living room, “There’s another window broken,” he said. “Some molding is gone around the venetian blinds.”

“Oh, well, what the heck,” said Mrs. Brady.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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