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'The Express' stops in Aurora

June 13, 2007

AURORA -- The year is 1949. Ernie Davis, then 9 years old -- and still 12 years away from becoming the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy -- is walking around his hometown of Uniontown, Pa., with his family.

They stop at an appliance store, mesmerized by what they see on the window display television -- Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to make the major leagues, hitting his team to victory. They applaud, overcome with joy at watching one of their own pave the way, little knowing the mark that young Davis will leave on his own sport in a scant few years.

In 2009, you'll be able to see that scene in a movie called The Express, which tells the life of Davis. And if you're really sharp, you may recognize some of the buildings -- that scene was shot Tuesday on LaSalle Street in downtown Aurora, between Benton Street and Downer Place.

Recognizing the street may take some doing -- the film crew spent the better part of a week transforming it into 1940s Uniontown, removing awnings from stores, crafting and hanging new signs, and changing each business along the strip into a period-accurate establishment.

Where Castle Keep, a store for war re-enactors, sat just one week ago, there is now an old-time hardware store.

The film stars Dennis Quaid as Davis' college coach, though he was not on hand Tuesday. But longtime character actor Charles S. Dutton (who starred in the TV show Roc and has appeared on House and The Sopranos) was, as he plays Davis' grandfather. And Rob Brown (Finding Forrester), who plays Davis himself, was waiting in the wings -- his scenes, set in 1959, were shot later in the afternoon.

According to the movie's publicist Dave Fulton, filmmakers aimed to wrap three scenes on Tuesday, which would represent a total of about five minutes in the finished movie. Fulton said that some second-unit shots would be taken today, but the street would be returned to its normal state by Friday.

The Express, a Universal Pictures production, is being filmed in and around Chicago. Filmmakers shot some scenes at Mooseheart, between Batavia and North Aurora, in April.

Fulton said producers chose Aurora's downtown because of the historic character and structure of the buildings. Many of the buildings on LaSalle Street are 100 years old or more, and the changes the crew made were mostly to signs and awnings.

"Location scouts look for streets with good bones," Fulton said. "This street, even without the dressing, has that visual, that period look."

Both Fulton and location manager Gretchen Brown said the city has been "wonderful" to work with, as have the business owners along LaSalle Street. Producers rented out the buildings for the duration of the filming and have promised to return them as they found them.

"The key is having access to and the cooperation of the stores here," he said. "Everything has been real good."

Shirley Flaherty agreed. Flaherty owns the northern half of 79 S. LaSalle St., which has sat vacant for years. The film crew turned Flaherty's building into a store for antiques and vintage jewelry, a choice that intrigued her.

"When I bought it, I was going to use it as an antique store, and that's what's in it (for the movie)," she said.

Flaherty said the producers have been good to work with, and she suggested to Brown that perhaps the film crew could leave the street as it is for the summer, as a tourist attraction. (Brown laughed, but declined.)

Stepping onto LaSalle Street Tuesday was like stepping back in time, and watching as assistant directors motioned for extras and vehicles at precise times during each take, it became clear that every detail was accounted for. When you watch it on the big screen, you'll be transported to Uniontown, in 1949.

"That's what Hollywood's all about," Fulton said. "It's transforming to a different reality. That's what Hollywood does best."