One of the region’s most storied football rivalries will be renewed Friday night at Trojan Stadium.
Ampipe vs. Walnut Heights.
It’s been nearly 30 years since 20th Century Fox filmed the Tom Cruise motion picture “All the Right Moves” in Johnstown. To commemorate the milestone, Johnstown High and Westmont Hilltop will take on the roles of Ampipe and Walnut Heights during a Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference game at 7 p.m. Friday. This contest won’t appear in theaters, but the players, coaches and fans will resemble actors and extras who filled Point Stadium during filming in 1983.
“We’re so excited about it. It’s such a great story,” said Johnstown High coach Tony Penna Jr., who also is the school’s athletic director. “It’s hard to imagine a little town like Johnstown having two movies filmed here.”
The Paul Newman sports classic “Slap Shot” was filmed in the city in 1976 and based on the Johnstown Jets hockey team.
Seven years later, Cruise and Lea Thompson were relatively unknown actors in leading roles – Cruise as Stefan Djordjevic, the tough cornerback trying to earn a football scholarship and escape a dying steel mill town, and Thompson as his girlfriend, Lisa Lietzke, who had her own dreams of going to college to study music. Craig T. Nelson, whose credits at the time included a role in “Poltergeist,” played coach Vern Nickerson, who revived the blue-collar Ampipe program, but couldn’t find a way to defeat the affluent Walnut Heights team.
“A lot of the story lines have stayed the same 30 years later,” Penna said.
“A lot of these kids are trying to not necessarily find a way out of Johnstown, but they’re trying to find a way into college through football.”
The Trojans (1-1) will wear Ampipe black and gold uniforms while Westmont (0-2) will don the red and white Walnut Heights attire. Penna credited Sportsman’s, an athletic equipment distributor on Horner Street, for producing replica uniforms for the game.
“What a great way to celebrate the movie than to play a game to honor those two teams,” said Westmont Athletic Director Tom Callihan, who appeared in the “All the Right Moves” as an Ampipe player and had his share of close-ups and even a scene in which he showed off some dance moves.
“The teams will wear the respective uniforms,” he said. “Local sponsorship has been huge. AmeriServ is our corporate sponsor. We’ve reached out to the people who have been in the movie. The players who appeared in the movie are going to show up.”
A Facebook page – “All the Right Moves” Reunion – has spread the word across the country and caught the attention of Johnstown High graduate Ray Jones, the Class of 1983 vice president.
“Our principal, Mr. Irwin, knew our class officers’ schedules, and if there was something he needed to pull us together for, he’d schedule it around lunch or when it was convenient,” said Jones, 47, an emergency room nursing director in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I was actually sitting in a sociology class. I knew when I got called out I hadn’t done anything bad. I knew something was up.”
Jones said he joined class president Roxanne Brazill, treasurer Kelly Kanuch and secretary Christine Stahl in the principal’s office.
“Mr. Irwin said that Gary Morton wanted to talk to us about an opportunity for our class to be a part of a movie,” Jones said. “We were like, ‘Mr. Irwin, this is a nice joke.’ We didn’t believe him.”
Morton was the executive producer of “All the Right Moves.” Morton’s wife was actress Lucille Ball of “I Love Lucy” fame.
Once the Johnstown seniors realized their principal wasn’t kidding, they quickly agreed to do whatever was necessary for their class to be a part of the movie.
At that time, Johnstown High School was located in the old Cochran school, which also is the site of the current building constructed about a decade ago. The original Johnstown High School building located across the Stonycreek River from the Cambria County War Memorial Arena was vacant in 1983, but soon was brought back to life with the help of local construction workers and electricians. The old Johnstown High was used in most of the school scenes
“I was an extra,” Jones said. “We did the classroom scenes, the pep rallies. We were at the Point Stadium for the football game. The long nights. It was incredible.
“At that time (of the filming) the teachers were on strike, so we weren’t attending school at that point. It really gave us a unique opportunity to do something, keep focused and keep our relationships going. I have so many fond memories of hanging out with friends in the band and choir. Some of those relationships I still have today.”
Jones reflected on his vocal performance alongside future movie stars such as Thompson, whose biggest roles prior to “All the Right Moves” were in Burger King commercials. She later starred in hits such as “Back to the Future,” “Red Dawn,” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” before playing the lead role in her own TV series “Caroline in the City,” from 1995 to 2000.
“The choir scene, being a part of that was special,” Jones said. “We knew we were singing with these people who were stars or were on their way to being stars. We just spent hours on the stage shooting and reshooting.”
The movie did more than bring future stars to a city struggling as the demise of the big steel and coal industries set in.
Reports stated that about half of the “All the Right Moves” $5 million budget was spent in Johnstown. The movie provided a combined 2,800 days of work for local people in jobs ranging from on-screen extras to set construction workers and painters.
Johnstown faced a 23 percent unemployment rate in 1983, the highest in the country. Ironically, special effects were used to produce artificial smoke for the tall smokestacks located in the mills in Franklin Borough and near Old Conemaugh Borough because some of Bethlehem Steel’s plants already had shut down and others were running below capacity.
Interest in the movie and the chance to earn some money – or even hot dogs and a Coke – became evident on an April 1983 night at Point Stadium. After an advertisement that extras would receive a free hot dog, a Coke and perhaps a spot in the movie, 14,300 people turned out for the first day of filming the big game at Point Stadium. Another 10,210 fans showed for the second day of the scene that concluded in an artificially produced downpour courtesy of local fire departments’ hoses.
“I’ve been saying it all along,” executive producer Morton said in a 1983 Tribune-Democrat article about the large crowds at the Point. “The people here are beautiful.”
Some of the locker room scenes for the Walnut Heights game were filmed at the former Johnstown Vo-Tech, from which Theresa Subich graduated in 1983. Subich, wife of current Johnstown assistant coach Brian Subich and mother of Trojans standout senior lineman Nick Subich, had the idea of an “All the Right Moves” reunion.
“About a year ago, we were watching TV and flipping the channels and ‘All the Right Moves’ was playing,” Theresa Subich said. “I joked with Brian that I was actually in this movie. They used the seniors of Vo-Tech, Johnstown, Conemaugh Valley and Ferndale for scenes with the extras. I said, ‘Next year is the 30th anniversary of the movie, wouldn’t it be cool to have a rematch of that game?’ Brian approached Tony Penna and he thought it was a great idea. Tony went to Tom Callihan at Westmont, and he thought it was a great idea. I didn’t know my little idea would turn into a big event.”
Nick Subich and Penna were scheduled to film a TV commercial on Market Street in which the player and coach re-enact the scene in which Cruise’s Djordjevic questions Nelson’s Nickerson about the coach’s control over his players’ futures through his influence with college recruiters.
In the movie, Cruise runs up the street near the former Act III Restaurant (now Blaine Boring’s Chocolates) shouting, “You’re not God, Nickerson. You’re just a typing teacher.”
Turning back the clock
A Cruise representative said the actor is working and was unavailable for comment for this story. Brian Subich reached out to Cruise’s and Nelson’s agents in hopes of having some type of presence from the now big-name actors. Nelson is working on the TV series “Parenthood.”
“All the Right Moves” premiered with a charity event at the Duke Theater in the Richland Mall on Sept. 29, 1983.
In a Tribune-Democrat interview on the eve of the premiere, Cruise recalled filming in Johnstown.
Back then, Cruise said he embraced the role of Stef Djordjevic because it contrasted his character in “Risky Business.” In that movie, Joel Goodsen was a kid raised in an upper-middle-class family in suburban Chicago. “Risky Business” hadn’t been released when “All the Right Moves” was being filmed but became a hit that summer.
“Joel Goodsen in ‘Risky Business’ comes from a very secure environment, which gives him room to question things such as education and money,” Cruise said in the 1983 interview. “Stef Djordjevic in ‘All the Right Moves’ comes from a very unstable environment. ... The mill’s closed, and he feels that education is his only way for opportunity.”
Cruise commented on the Flood City, saying, “The way Johnstown looks, the whole look of the film, is beautiful.”
Prior to filming, Cruise spent a brief time at Johnstown High trying to learn about life as a student. His identity was revealed when some of his “classmates” recognized him from his role in the movie “Taps.”
Thompson didn’t have such a problem at nearby Ferndale High, where she fit in for most of a week until then-Principal Richard Rigby told the students a future star was in their classroom.
Back in 1983, Thompson was impressed by the tight-knit group of students at Ferndale.
“Most of these people have gone to school together since kindergarten,” she said in a 1983 Tribune-Democrat interview. She noted the students were “very innocent, very nice.”
When asked to contrast “All the Right Moves” with another movie she starred in that year, “Jaws 3-D,” Thompson said, “(‘All the Right Moves’) is real life. No sharks, no nothin’. This is a movie about this town – real people and real problems.”
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