'West Wing' Dismays the North; New Hampshirites Unhappy That Va. Is Stand-In for Their State
By Rosalind S. Helderman
The old schoolhouse festooned with red, white and blue bunting is stark white, nestled into the trees. A line of green mountains is visible from the schoolhouse door. A set of risers and folding chairs awaits the visiting president as the local high school band prepares to play in his honor. Signs hung in front of the school read, "New Hampshire is Bartlet Country."
It's a beautiful scene, evoking the best of rural New Hampshire's traditional connection to old-time political stumping.
But this is not rural New Hampshire. It is Bluemont, a tiny Loudoun County community at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and near the West Virginia border. It is there that the cast, crew and more than 300 extras have come to film scenes for the season premiere of the NBC hit show "The West Wing."
Here, Josiah Bartlet, the fictional president and former New Hampshire governor played by Martin Sheen, will announce whether he plans to run again for the nation's highest office.
The snub is hard to take for a group of New Hampshirites who have been working since February to lure the show -- or at least its presidential star -- to the Granite State.
"You can find plenty of farmhouses and little towns in New Hampshire that look an awful lot like farmhouses and little towns in New Hampshire," Rick Broussard, editor of New Hampshire Magazine, which has organized the campaign, said in a telephone interview. "We built our own hopes up about this, and they were dashed forever by the news they are filming in Virginia."
The magazine began its lobbying last winter after running a cover story about the television program's connections to the state. With the slogan "Josiah, won't you please come home?," the magazine got more than 1,000 people to sign petitions urging Sheen or, even better, the entire "West Wing" cast and crew to visit their tiny state.
They held a bake sale to raise money to bring Josiah home. (The $100 proceeds went to a local library.) Two luxury hotels have offered free lodging for Sheen if he will visit.
New Hampshirites are quick to point out that there was a real Josiah Bartlett (that's with two T's). Bartlett was New Hampshire's first governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Ruth Bartlett Albert, his great-great-great-great granddaughter, who still lives in the colonial home Bartlett built in 1774, has joined the cause.
"We take our heritage very seriously," she said. "I was really shocked when I read in our local paper that they would be shooting in Virginia."
Broussard said his state is especially sensitive about impostors because New Hampshirites are almost uniformly portrayed in movies as a bunch of plaid-wearing farmers gathered around a little white church -- and filmed elsewhere.
But residents of little Bluemont, who gathered to collect autographs and hope for a shot as an extra, said New Hampshire's loss is Virginia's gain.
"It's very exciting for us here. This is the biggest thing that's ever happened to Bluemont," said resident Linda Sapp.
Broussard said that he understands the economics of the situation but that the show could still use a real New Hampshire touch.
Producers of "The West Wing" said it made financial sense to find a New Hampshire look-alike near Washington, where the show was filming exterior shots last week.
"We would have loved to go to New Hampshire, but we base everything out of D.C.," said producer Michael Hissrich. "It would be that much more authentic, but it would also be that much more expensive."
Earlier this month, the magazine officially declared a truce with the television show, after a New Hampshire think tank ran an essay contest for high school students offering to the winner a college scholarship and free airfare to watch the show's filming in Los Angeles; the show promised access on set for the student. Now, Broussard said, the truce may fall apart, and he may start looking for more signatures.
Several of the show's stars said that they sympathize with the New Hampshirites' cause but that they also understand the economics of their show.
"I certainly understand where the people from New Hampshire are coming from. But I think it's logistics. New Hampshire is not close enough," said John Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry. "I'm a northeasterner, and I do think this looks authentic."
In the show's season finale, Bartlet struggled to decide whether to run for office again, after revealing that he hid from the public the fact that he has multiple sclerosis. In the two-part premiere, set to debut Sept. 19, Bartlet returns to New Hampshire. There, he visits the old schoolhouse, played by the Bluemont Community Center. Other than those details, show producers are keeping the plot of the season premiere a carefully guarded secret.
"In order to get a second term and bring us to the promised land of syndication, President Bartlet might need to run again," said Bradley Whitford, who plays deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman. "But who knows? Diseases act up, you know."
Martin Sheen, who plays President Josiah Bartlet, receives direction in front of a prop sign in Bluemont, Loudoun County, which is substituting for Bartlet's home town in New Hampshire.Jon Monheim, a drummer with the Loudoun Valley High School band, gets ready for a rehearsal. The band members are playing extras in the "West Wing" season premiere.A script-toting Rob Lowe, who plays Sam Seaborn, waits to make his entrance. Kyla Johnson, left, and Anna Yates, of the Loudoun Valley band, spot an actor.The Bluemont Community Center substitutes as the old schoolhouse in a scene of the "West Wing" season premiere that is supposed to take place in New Hampshire.
© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company