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Fred Schwendel

Fred Schwendel
Credited as "Swing Gang"
during the filming of the movie October Sky.

Definition: Swing Gang: A group within the art department that construct and take down a set. The head of the swing gang is a leadman.

Photos received January 2, 2006:  Below are actual photographs of some of the locations used in the filming of the movie October Sky. They were taken by Fred Schwendel as he worked on the sets in Petros, Tennessee.  Downtown Petros was used for filming the Olga tipple, the Coalwood substation, interior shots of Homer's bedroom, and the exterior of the Hickam house.  You may click on the photos to enlarge them.


Fred writes, "This is a photo of the power station. I was assigned to build this after the construction crew got behind in the assembly of the tipple. As I recall, the assistant art director gave me a sketch, and we sort of built it to fit. The wires were actually nylon rope. The telephone poles were installed by the local power company.   Interestingly enough, they asked me if I wanted them in straight. Notice the weeds planted at the base of the fence for that 'been there awhile' look."  Photo compliments of the Fred Schwendel Collection. 


Fred writes, "This is Quentin's house exterior. Of course it was a night shot in the movie. That's CJ Pyles, Manny Serrano, Mike Calabrese (Breezy--he was the leadman) and me. I remember that this house had no indoor plumbing. Not a lot of places in Petros did. Breezy is a good friend of mine, and was also a very big reason I went to Tennessee in the first place."  Photo compliments of the Fred Schwendel Collection. 


Fred writes, "This beautiful shot is of Homer's house exterior at sunrise after it snowed. You can make out the fence that got blown up with the boy's first rocket. Across the street in the basement of that church, was Homer's bedroom set. It was of course another cover set, in case of inclement weather. This is on the main street of Petros. The rest of Homer's house interior was in Oliver Springs, just west of Oak Ridge." Photo compliments of the Fred Schwendel Collection. 


Fred writes, "This shot is from the base of the tipple. Man, those guys did a great job constructing this. Our crew put up a lot of period correct lighting, and signage, etc. It was a good long way to the top, and windy and sometimes icy too."  Photo compliments of the Fred Schwendel Collection. 


Fred writes, "This is my favorite picture, and it hangs on my wall. That's Manny Serrano, John Rabasca, CJ Pyles (top) Barry Robesin (production designer), me, Spencer Register, Margaret Thigpen, David Weathers, and the set decorator Chris Spellman. All these people were first rate, and helped me immensely. One person that is not pictured here was Ed Fitzgerald; he was like my right hand man in Petros.  He was probably working when this was taken. I am receiving a key to the city from the crew and the locals. I still have it, and it is signed by Homer."  Photo compliments of the Fred Schwendel Collection. 


We were lucky enough to get this wonderful e-mail
from Fred on December 6, 2005.


"I just got your web address from Homer's newsletter. I think your site is great, I've got to get enough time to peruse the entire thing.

I was fortunate enough to work in the Set Decorating Department on The Rocket Boys (October Sky) film. My name is in the credits (Fred Schwendel).  I have been involved in the stage and motion picture industry since 1978, and this movie was the best work experience of my life.

The people, the town, you just can't say enough good about them. I met Homer and Joe Johnston, but didn't realize it at first because they were dressed like everyone else -- jeans, denim or work jacket, boots, etc. And most importantly, they were regular guys. I will try to find some photos I have; you know I didn't take too many, it was a lot of hard work, and that was my first responsibility. I'll scan and send some if you'd like."


Of course, we told Fred we would love to see scans of his photos.  Fred sent five great photos on January 2, 2006, and we have included them above.  (He promises to send more!)

We are also in the process of "picking his brain" about his experiences on the movie set of October Sky.  We have a partial list of his answers below, and we expect to revise this as Fred provides additional information.  Thanks very much, Fred!

Note: at the time the movie was being filmed, the working title of the movie was The Rocket Boys.  Before the movie was released, Universal changed the title to October Sky.


Question: Where do you live?

Fred's Answer:  I live in Pembroke Pines, Florida, which is between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

Question: How did you get involved in the October Sky shoot?

Fred's Answer: Well, I have been involved in the technical side of showbiz since 1978, stage, screen, and television.  I was working on the movie Holy Man (Eddie Murphy, Jeff Goldblum) in Miami with the Set Decorator Chris Spellman. I was driving him around town looking for furnishings for sets when he received a phone call about the movie Rocket Boys.  He apparently got the job and asked me if I wanted to go to Tennessee and work on a film. I agreed without asking my wife, which is a whole other story.

Question: How did you get to Tennessee and where did you stay once you arrived?

Fred's Answer: I drove up sometime in February of 1998. I kinda got assigned to the Petros portion of the set (the mining town) although I sooner or later worked on just about every set.  I stayed at the Days Inn in Oak Ridge across from the Science Museum, which came in handy when I had to make most of the science fair projects. It was also a good point between Knoxville and Petros.


This building, in the 400 block of Main Street, in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, was the filming location of the company store in the movie October Sky.


Question: Please tell us about the company store filming.

Fred's Answer: The picture of the company store [shown above] brought back memories. That was a "cover" set, meaning it was ready far in advance so in case of inclement weather, the film company can "default" to it and not lose too much time. With the weather the way it was, just about every indoor set became a cover set. There was a lot of unseen detail in that set. We had no products inside the store that had a UPC code. Believe it or not, we actually found some items like paint cans for sale without UPC codes in local stores. They had to have been there a long time. The fluorescent lights were period correct, as was a large refrigerated cooler. I remember spending a lot of time on the day the train drove by "perfecting" the window displays with Barry Robesin the designer. Like a lot of films, you hardly see any of it.

[Webmaster's Note: for some great photographs of the Big Store interior movie set, be sure to read Barbara Hilemon's book!]

Question: Tell us about the rocket launches.

Fred's Answer: I only remember seeing one rocket launch, a test. In set dressing.  You are getting sets ready to film, and then "striking" them when filming is finished, so unless you are the "on set dresser" or it is a large set, I wasn't really there for most of the filming. As you can see from the film, there is not a lot of set dressing at the launch site, so I didn't need to be there.   I recall it being close to a guy named Mac Lindsay's mine on Highway 62 toward Wartburg, up a dirt road on a mountain.

Question: Will you have time to find more of your October Sky photos and information?

Fred's Answer: I will have to get some time to find my Rocket Boys "stuff" because a lot of things got pushed to the back with hurricanes Katrina and Wilma inflicting damage.



Fred Swendel's Page on the International Movie Database.