Lorianne Stangl Burgess wanted to make her business look like it did in its heyday. But she couldn’t find a local contractor who was up for taking a time machine to both the interior and exterior of Stangl’s Bakery, a mainstay on Merchant Street in Ambridge.
Enter Sony Pictures, which was searching for a location to film a pivotal scene in its Tom Hanks-starring tearjerker “A Man Called Otto.” They approached Burgess, 41, of Ambridge, about giving Stangl’s a free makeover that included refurbishing the giant blue “Stangl’s” sign that had been in storage for years. When they were done, Stangl’s once again resembled the neighborhood sweets purveyor that has been in her family for more than a century.
“I’m really glad that somebody with their level of abilities did it,” Burgess told the Union Progress. “They took a lot of fear out of the process. … The fact they were willing to put in the work and make it more artistic rather than cookie-cutter was just an amazing gift to get.”
“A Man Called Otto” was released in theaters earlier his month, and Stangl’s still mostly resembles the bakery in which Otto (Hanks) and Marisol (Mariana Treviño) share a tender moment over Swedish pastries. Its revitalization is just one of many ways a Hollywood movie or television show in Western Pennsylvania has left a lasting mark on a local entity.
“It’s very gratifying,” said “Otto” location manager John Adkins. “That’s just one example of many in my career where somebody has benefited from our presence beyond our immediate presence.”
An act of imagination
Much of “A Man Called Otto” is centered around Marisol schooling Otto in the art of being a good neighbor. At one point, Otto gives Marisol a driving lesson on Merchant Street that culminates with the two of them bonding over semlor at Stangl’s.
Adkins said the production was looking for both a local bakery and “a really good-looking street that served the action” for those two pivotal sequences. He was familiar with Ambridge from his days as a location manager on the Netflix series “Mindhunter,” which used Merchant Street as a stand-in for Kansas. The “Otto” team wanted an area “with kind of a quaint feel,” so it also opted to shoot on Merchant Street.
Another selling point for Merchant Street was Stangl’s, which has a rich history in Western Pennsylvania. Burgess said that the first Stangl’s location opened in Homestead around 1900 shortly after her great grandfather emigrated from Austria. Stangl’s had eight locations at one point, with the Ambridge shop making its debut in 1920. The franchise shut down completely in the early 2000s before Burgess opened a reimagined Stangl’s in 2009.
When Adkins first stumbled across Stangl’s, it was acting as a combination bakery and curio retailer. The exterior was looking a tad withered, and it was “super cluttered” on the inside, Adkins said. And yet, production designer Barbara Ling, who won an Academy Award in 2020 for her work on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” still believed Merchant Street and Stangl’s were the right locations to shoot the driving and bakery scenes.
“It looks vastly different than it did when we scouted it,” Adkins said. “You’d have to have a lot of imagination and an incredible confidence to believe you can do what [Ling] did with that.”
Adkins said the whole project took between two and three weeks to complete. Burgess recalled first being asked if she would be interested in having Stangl’s featured in “A Man Called Otto” in October 2021. The work on getting Stangl’s camera-ready began in March and shooting took place in April, according to Burgess.
She had always wanted to update the facade “to look like the ’50s version” of Stangl’s. The “Otto” production team ended up doing much more than that. They gussied up the “Stangl’s” sign and mounted it over the front door, retiled the floors, painted the walls, removed clutter, tweaked the lighting, and took down a metal awning over the front window that had been there since the late 1950s and had fallen into disrepair.
“They fell in love with the whole building,” Burgess said. “It was great because someone saw my vision of, instead of ripping all the metal off the front and scrapping everything, to refinish it and make it look like it did when it first opened.”
Winning the lottery
Stangl’s good fortune isn’t always what happens when Hollywood comes to town. Usually, the most tangible impacts of these productions are street closures and both residents and local businesses being compensated for the practical inconveniences of shooting in their neighborhood. Adkins said that one of the reasons Ambridge has become a hotbed for filming in recent years is because “the community is very welcoming.”
There are, however, quite a few cases where these productions left the places in which they filmed better than when they found them.
“When a film comes knocking at your door, it’s almost like the circus coming to town,” said Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer. “They come, unpack their tents, do their work and leave. If they paint your wall this pale shade of blue you love, you can keep that blue.”
As Keezer explained, whether certain upgrades or aesthetic changes are kept after production finishes is usually a matter of contractual understandings. The general rule of thumb is for the affected areas and businesses to be reverted back to their previous states unless otherwise indicated. Stangl’s wanted those changes to be permanent, and permanent they became.
Similar examples in recent years include Amazon Studios and Sony Pictures Television building a brand-new baseball stadium on the campus of CCAC Boyce for its “A League of Their Own” series, and Showtime setting up a scholarship with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania after production ended on season one of “American Rust.”
Keezer mentioned some other examples, including when a pedestrian bridge built for the 1998 action-thriller “Desperate Measures” was repurposed by Rails-to-Trails for a bike path, the crew of the 1996 made-for-TV movie “The Christmas Tree” upgrading stables and building a greenhouse at Hartwood Acres, and the 2012 Viola Davis-Maggie Gyllenhaal drama “Won’t Back Down” donating leftover academic supplies to local school districts.
She also said that in recent years, just about every production gives its unused supplies to Free Store 15104, a nonprofit founded by Gisele Fetterman that provides donated necessities to community members in need.
“I would equate it to sometimes winning the lottery,” Keezer said. “Thankfully, due to the film tax credit, there will be more opportunities for local businesses to win this lottery too.”
‘More than I ever could’ve imagined’
Burgess is a small business owner raising two young children by herself after her husband died in October 2020. She grew up in the same building that currently houses Stangl’s, and her mother still lives there. Fun fact: Burgess was actually running to be mayor of Ambridge as a Green Party candidate around the time “A Man Called Otto” first came into her life.
Though she wasn’t around for much of the filming, Burgess did get to meet Hanks, Treviño and director Marc Forster. She remembered one particularly bizarre moment where she was hanging out upstairs by her mother’s apartment.
“I could hear downstairs what sounded like Woody from ‘Toy Story’ talking to the other actors,” Burgess said. “It was the most surreal moment of my life, hearing Tom Hanks’ voice through my mother’s stairs.”
She eventually mustered up the courage to go downstairs and thank Hanks for being at her humble bakery. He said that he was happy to be there and that after everyone sees “A Man Called Otto,” “Hopefully your bakery becomes as famous as the diner in ‘Seinfeld.’”
That may or may not be in the cards, but Burgess said that she has already experienced customers coming to Stangl’s because they saw it in a Tom Hanks film. She recently launched a website for online orders, which she “would’ve never done if this movie hadn’t happened.” After experiencing doubt that Stangl’s was even worth keeping open, this renovation and free advertising were exactly what Burgess needed.
“They did give me a lot more motivation to keep going,” she said.
All that matters to Adkins is that Burgess, whom he regards as “a great human,” liked the work the “Otto” crew did on Stangl’s. Likewise, Keezer was glad Burgess “had such a wonderful experience with ‘Otto.’”
“This is more than I could’ve ever imagined I would be lucky enough to receive,” Burgess said. “Academy Award-winning people worked on this. It’s more than words can express how thankful I am.”