The Market on the Big Screen

By Carolyn Wyman

Originally published on February 2013

As you sit down to watch the Oscars competition between Black Panther, A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody this February 24, remember that some just-as-exciting Hollywood movies were filmed at the place you shop every week.

Hollywood filmmakers have found the busy Market to be a perfect place for their fictional characters to get lost, and Pearl’s Oyster Bar and Martin’s Meats, among the most photogenic of backdrops.

The Market is probably best-known for its role in one of many chase scenes in the action-adventure movie National Treasure.

It happens an hour and 20 minutes into this surprise 2004 box-office hit: The bad guys have just caught up with Ben (Nicolas Cage) and friends Abigail (Diane Kruger) and Riley (Justin Bartha) minutes after they find some glasses that enable them to read the clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence and so they decide to split up (to confuse the bad guys and to keep the glasses and document separate in case they’re caught).

Just seconds after leaving Independence Hall (thanks to the magic of moviemaking and the geographic ignorance of a national theater audience), Abigail and Riley duck into Reading Terminal Market, and are quickly separated. Declaration in hand, Abigail leaps over the wooden partition on the south side of Martin’s meat stand and hunkers down to hide.

“If you’re not a steak, you don’t belong here,” deadpans the stand’s African-American proprietress (really actress Sharon Wilkins).

“I’m hiding from my ex-husband,” Abigail lies.

“Who, baldy?” Wilkins says, spotting the evil Shaw (David Fisher), who had stopped there to figure out where Abigail went.

“Honey, stay as long as you like,” Wilkins tells her, sotto voce, after sizing him up.

Then to Shaw: “Do you want something?

“Shut up,” he snarls in reply in his British accent, before moving along.

“I see why you left him,” the butcher lady concludes, providing one of the few moments of comic relief in a tension-filled chase scene.

Back when National Treasure was filmed in October 2003, the Market wasn’t open on Sundays and selected merchants and about 50 extras were paid to come in for 14 hours on two consecutive Sundays to create this two-minute Market sequence, which also included shots of Old City Coffee, Pearl’s and Market Blooms.

The producers paid the Market and individual merchants on a sliding scale, depending on whether they just needed to turn the lights on or actually stock their cases and cook food, recalls market manager Paul Steinke. Ironically (stupidly, to Market lovers), cast and crew were fed meals provided by an outside caterer out of a trailer set up across the street, rather than from any of the opened Market stands.

Larry Sharkey remembers standing at the front of Martin’s with several fellow employees, pretending to wait on pretend customers countless numbers of times for shots that never ended up in the movie. Which could explain why he says the most exciting day he ever experienced in the Market was “the day of the parade after the Phillies won the World Series, not National Treasure.”

The only other movie to give the Market major screen time was filmed more than two decades earlier.

About 46 minutes into Philly native Brian De Palma’s dark thriller Blow Out, a psychopath played by John Lithgow who is trying to snuff out a prostitute who knows a bit too much about the assassination of a Pennsylvania governor follows her look-alike from the escalator in the Gallery mall into the Market. There Lithgow picks up a fish knife, which he uses to both kill the woman and mutilate her body with an outline of the Liberty Bell

No, this isn’t a movie to watch before having lunch in the Market or anywhere else, though there has been increased recent interest in John Travolta’s first adult role, including a 2011 Criterion Collection DVD release of Blow Out.

The doomed woman walks by Pearl’s, Termini Bakery and Pierce & Schurr, Martin’s butcher predecessor. “It was really a meat place but the movie crew put some fish on the corner for the purposes of the fish knife,” recalled Noelle Margerum recently, who appears on camera fleetingly at her family’s Margerum’s Old Fashion Corner store right across the aisle.

Margerum says filming was after closing the night before Thanksgiving, 1980,  one of the busiest days of any year in the Market, and her parents had gone home to cook Thanksgiving dinner. “They paid us $500 for a case of Stella D’oro cookies that they said they were going to knock over, though they never did.”

As with National Treasure, there was “take after take after take. I could never be an actor,” says Margerum. “Nick Ochs [of Harry G. Ochs & Sons butchers] ripped off a big sheet of paper to wrap up some meat for every shot and by the end of the night, he told me he had counted over a hundred sheets.”

On the plus side, for Margerum, was the chance to meet film co-star Karen Allen; for Market shoppers viewing the film today, the chance to see their favorite food shopping place circa 1980, complete with smoking customers.

The cast and crew of the 1983 Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places also shot in and around the Market but the only footage to make it into the movie is a few seconds of a butcher in the film’s Philadelphia scene-setting opening (so identified by the triangular green Reading Terminal Market logo on a bag hanging on the back wall of his stand).

As to why the Market accommodates often-fickle filmmakers, Steinke says, “They give you visibility you cannot get any other way.”

Echoes Philly Film Office director Sharon Pickenson, “I’d be very surprised if the Market didn’t get extra business after a movie appearance. Tourists want to see where their favorite films were made.” And Market regulars eat up the glamour such star turns bring to their everyday shopping and eating.

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