The way they were – 50 years ago this month, some of movie industry’s biggest stars came to Schenectady

Barbra Streisand hustles across the Union College campus in Schenectady during the 1972 filming of “The Way We Were.” (photo provided)
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Barbra Streisand hustles across the Union College campus in Schenectady during the 1972 filming of “The Way We Were.” (photo provided)

Barbra Streisand was arguably the biggest star in show business during the fall of 1972, so when she showed up in Schenectady for the filming of “The Way We Were,” no one was surprised that she seemed a bit distant and reserved.

But Joe Fava, one of the many locals who hoped to land a role as one of the extras in the film, was happy to cut her some slack. After all, she had a lot on her mind.

“At the time some of us were thinking, ‘Oh yeah, she’s a real big shot.’ But in retrospect, when you think of the character and what she was going through, they didn’t want her to have any long conversations with anyone,” said Fava, still an active force in local community theater circles, particularly the Schenectady Civic Players. “She had to deal with a lot and they were trying to get the shooting done. So she was very quiet, but very nice.”

The film was about the political unrest in America before and after World War II, and was based largely on writer Arthur Laurents’ experience at Cornell University during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the 1950s. With two of the biggest names in the movies — Robert Redford was Streisand’s co-star — producer Ray Stark and director Sydney Pollack had little trouble luring locals to the Union College campus for two weeks in late September 1972. Fifty years later, Fava and others in the Schenectady and Union College communities have wonderful memories of that very unique experience.

Phil Johnson, currently the ski columnist for The Gazette, was working in the college’s news department at the time and was privy to many of the things happening behind the scenes.

“Ray Stark and Sydney Pollack had come over to the campus, and the way I understood it was that they had planned on filming at Smith College in Northampton [Massachusetts],” remembered Johnson. “But Smith had just gone through the filming of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf’ with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, and they also just had the president’s daughter, Julie Nixon, as a student there. They were familiar with what a disruption it would be, so they decided they weren’t interested.”

Stark and Pollack then checked in with Williams College in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts, and that school also politely declined.

“The shooting dates were going to be right around when the students started arriving at school, so Williams didn’t want to host either because they felt it would be too disruptive,” said Johnson, who added that filming also took place in Ballston Spa and on Ballston Lake. “Since Union started classes later in September and they thought the campus would be mostly empty, we got the bid.”

That arrangement didn’t work out exactly as planned.

“The filming all got pushed back for a number of reasons, so it ended up taking place right when the students were arriving,” said Johnson. “Then it rained heavily for two days, so the idea that things wouldn’t be disruptive went out the window.”

The Gazette covered the story nearly every day for two weeks, and on Sept. 30, 1972, Louise Boyka reported in her column, “Flicks ‘n Footlights,” that the filming, at least the Union College part, was complete. Boyka also told her readers that day how Streisand was forbidden by the film’s producers to talk to any of the extras.

“Did you know that, although Miss Streisand wasn’t speaking to anyone on the set [on penalty of that extra being fired], she did visit the Carl Company [on State Street in downtown Schenectady] and bought some Hallmark friendship books, some needlepoint embroidery kits and did price bedding for her son, Jason, although she didn’t remember the mattress size,” wrote Boyka, who died in 1994.

Nancy Johnsen Curran was Boyka’s sister and also wrote a column for The Gazette, “Clefs and Arpeggios.” She remembers her sister was involved in the filming, not only as a reporter for the newspaper but also as director of the Louise Boyka Fashion and Charm School at the former Hotel Van Curler and in the Proctors arcade.

“My sister had a lot of connections in New York and she was constantly taking her students down to New York on bus trips,” remembered Johnsen Curran. “When ‘The Way We Were’ came to Schenectady it was all very exciting. We were all hypnotized by movies back then, and it was like being backstage. It was a great opportunity for Louise to get some work for her students as extras, and I think around a dozen or so of her models were picked to be in the film. I was also an extra, but I don’t know if I got in.”

Betsie Hume Lind, a native of Niskayuna and a freshman at Kirkland College (now Hamilton) at the time, says she was also an extra, and like Johnsen Curran isn’t convinced she made the final cut. Hume Lind is currently chair of the board of directors for the Daily Gazette Newspapers.

“My mother used to always say that she saw me in one of the huge crowd shots, but I don’t know for sure,” she said. “A professor at Kirkland said I should go there for a week because it would be a good experience. I went to a casting call, I guess you would call it, and they said, ‘Good, you look like a communist.’ But then when I showed up the next day they called everyone together and said, ‘Everyone chosen to be a communist stand up.’ About 300 people stood up, so I became an extra at that point.”

Despite that minor disappointment, she remembers the experience fondly.

“It was so exciting to come from Hamilton for a week, to be on the Union campus and see Streisand and Redford walking around, and everything else that was going on,” Hume Lind said. “They kept all us extras moving around, but they kept us happy. It was a lot of fun.”

Joanne Westervelt, a longtime regular with the Schenectady Civic Players, was also an extra and did make the final cut, she says.

“The prom scene with Streisand and Redford dancing, if you look closely at that, you’ll see a shoulder in the corner,” said Westervliet, laughing. “That’s me.”

Westervelt was a young mother with two children at the time and heard about the call for extras from friends at Schenectady Civic.

“I went there and I guess I fit the stereotype they were looking for,” she said. “I thought it would be fun and it was. There was a lot of waiting around, for hours, but they fed us and kept us happy. It was a good time.”

Westervelt confirmed that approaching Streisand on the set was nearly impossible.

“They did a little scene in the garden behind the statue of the president [Chester Arthur], and when they were done Sidney Pollack, the director , ushered her out with his arm around her shoulder,” she said. “They were very protective of her.”

Westervelt did manage to get a little bit closer to Redford.

“I heard him say during the filming of the dance scene when we were standing around waiting, ‘Everybody from around here is Italian. How come?’ ” said Westervelt. “Yeah, there was a lot of waiting around, but most of the time that was fun, too.”

Officials at Union were very happy about the entire experience, according to Johnson, who actually did get the opportunity to meet Streisand.

“I was introduced to her once and she was nice, but she obviously wasn’t at all interested in meeting me,” said Johnson. “What I do remember is that she apparently played a lot of tennis, and they wanted us to have people on alert ready to play tennis with her. So we got some people lined up for her, but to my knowledge she never played tennis during her two weeks here.”

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