Ligonier looks back on its role in iconic movie ‘Slap Shot’
Former Ligonier Mayor Chick Cicconi was a bit star-struck one morning 40 years ago when Art Newman, brother of Hollywood legend Paul Newman, walked into his office in town hall.
“Art looked identical to his brother except his head was shaved like Yul Brynner. Art said Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, were living just outside of Ligonier while he filmed a movie about hockey in Johnstown … and they really liked the town and wanted to shoot some scenes here,” Cicconi said.
So began Ligonier's little-known connection to the hockey cult film “Slap Shot.” The film was set in Johnstown, about 21 miles away, which will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the iconic film released Feb. 25, 1977.
The fictional Charlestown Chiefs were based on the real-life 1974-75 Johnstown Jets, which won the North America Hockey League championship.
During another hopeless season, the manager learns its owner plans to fold the team. Determined to save the team, the manager starts provoking fights at games and puts in the Hanson Brothers — three violent, bespectacled goons — and the Chiefs start to win.
Over lunch, Cicconi listened as Art Newman, a film production manager, outlined what the filmmakers planned for Ligonier. The mayor thought it was a little risque for the quaint, conservative town.
“One of the things they wanted to do was a ‘mooning' scene, where a couple of players would moon protesters out of the team bus windows. But I was told it wouldn't be too bad, and they'd film it late at night … when there wouldn't be too many people around,” Cicconi said.
“The protesters were to be from a small, well-to-do, pristine New England town who would boo and shout as the violent Chiefs drove into town for a game. And a few members of the Chiefs would moon them from the bus window,” he said.
Excited about a movie filming at the town's iconic white gazebo, “I agreed to it to promote the town,” Cicconi said and laughed.
Newman said the director wanted some local folks to act as protesters as the bus circled The Diamond. And he asked the mayor to keep one big secret.
“He didn't want me to tell anyone about the mooning to catch the actual reactions for the movie,” Cicconi said.
One local in the crowd was Robert “Rabbit” Tetkoski, 58, a senior at Ligonier Valley High School that year who lived a few blocks off the Diamond.
“My dad used to take me to hockey games in Johnstown, and I was a longtime hockey fan, so I was definitely going to be there,” said Tetkoski, who lives in Ligonier Township.
“Everybody who was waiting down there was excited, but the filming didn't start until real late, maybe after midnight. And when the bus came around and they mooned out the window, everyone was pretty shocked,” he said. “But I think that's exactly the reaction they wanted, and that's why they didn't tell us before.”
Tetkoski conceded that some scenes in the film are over the top. Still, “I can't watch it enough. I really think it's one of the best sports movies ever made,” he said. “Even today, when you're out of town talking to people at a game and mention you're from Ligonier and part of ‘Slap Shot' was filmed there … people just love it.”
Former Westmoreland County Commissioner Phil Light, who lives just outside Ligonier, said he decided to tag along for the filming that night with his wife, Gladys, who had signed up to be an extra. Sporting a beard and an orange-plaid coat, Light got “a few seconds” to himself in the film as he raised his fist toward the evil Chiefs.
“The bus first came through backwards and we yelled and shook our fists and all that. The director, George Roy Hill, then walked the same path as the bus and stopped and pointed at me and then measured from my nose to the middle of the road. … They shot it over and over again … at different angles,” Light said.
Filming lasted “well after 11 p.m. until something like 4 a.m.,” Light said.
Although her husband got a bigger role, Gladys Light got the last laugh.
“I got paid … he didn't,” she said — about $43.
Phil Light, 74, said he still enjoys the movie, especially because it spotlights Ligonier.
“It was good fun and a really good movie, too,” he said.
Another scene with Newman, who starred as foul-mouthed player-coach Reg Dunlop, and the Chief's female owner was shot at Henry Poerio's home in the Oakwood Hills section of Ligonier Township.
The team booster club buses traveling to a road game were filmed through the village of Waterford, as was a stop at a former delicatessen, Peter D's on Route 711 North.
As for the controversial scene, Cicconi said after word of it got out, “a couple of churches wrote letters to the editors that they were dismayed.”
But Cicconi, who also got a moment in the film, has no regrets.
“I'm happy I did it. Anything that promotes Ligonier, I'm for it — as long as it's not too bad,” he laughed.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].