Two-time Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks was at Wright State University to dedicate the brand new Tom Hanks Center of Motion Pictures on April 19, 2016. The actor is also a director and producer. His film production company, Playtone, is collaborating with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough on an HBO miniseries based on McCullough's New York Times No. 1 bestseller, "The Wright Brothers."
Photo: Connie Post
Photo: Connie Post

Local groups united to impress Hanks with Dayton’s history

Tom Hanks’ itinerary here earlier this week was extensive, and spotlighted the collaboration of local people and groups working to elevate the profile of Dayton and its historical significance.

Besides attending the dedication of Wright State University’s brand new Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures, spending time with WSU film students and attending an invitation-only fundraising dinner at the Nutter Center, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor/producer/director visited local sites key to the understanding and telling of the Wright brothers’ story.

>> See photos from Tom Hanks' trip to Dayton

Hanks’ film-production company, Playtone, is collaborating with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough to transform his 2015 New York Times No. 1 bestseller, “The Wright Brothers,” into an HBO miniseries.

Hanks’ G4 jet dropped him off Monday at Springboro’s Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, where he visited the Wright B Flyer hangar, was welcomed by his local hosts, and watched the flyer take off for a demonstration flight.

On Thursday, more details emerged of his two days in the area. “We had a great interest in his plan to make an HBO miniseries about David McCullough’s book,” said Timothy Gaffney, communications director for the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

The NAHA is an alliance of 16 partners, including Dayton History and Wright “B” Flyer, Inc. “We all pulled together for this visit,” Gaffney said. “We wanted (Hanks) to have a good experience.

“Our motive is to try to persuade Hanks and his company, Playtone, to shoot some of his miniseries on some of these actual locations,” Gaffney said. “We’re ecstatic. It is a huge boost for NAHA as well as for Dayton as a region.”

NAHA prepared a 24-page “viewbook” of all the key locations in the Dayton area connected to the world’s first pilots. The viewbook includes photos, descriptions and points of contact for each of the places. Gaffney said the plan was to hand the viewbook to Hanks when he got off the plane, but the plan changed. “Playtone asked us to overnight the viewbook so Hanks and his producer could review them on their way to Dayton,” Gaffney said.

The viewbook includes the National Aviation Heritage Area, streetscapes of the Wright brothers’ neighborhood on West Third Street, the Wright home on Hawthorn Street in Dayton, the Wright print shop in Wright-Dunbar, some of the bicycle shops, the trolley the Wright brothers rode on, the Wright Flyer III and replicas of some of the Wright brothers’ early planes, the Wright Co. Factory in west Dayton and Woodland Cemetery.

“One of the things we had in the book was a list of resources — the Wright State archives, the Tom Hanks Center of Motion Pictures, Film Dayton and the Ohio Film Office,” Gaffney said.

When Hanks’ plane arrived at the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, he was greeted by the Wright brothers’ great-grandniece Amanda Wright Lane, with whom he co-chairs WSU’s national $150 million “Rise. Shine. The Campaign,” designed to provide state-of-the-art facilities, attract more top faculty and award scholarships to deserving students.

The group waiting at the airport also included Lane’s brother, Stephen Wright; Wright State President David Hopkins and his wife, Angelia; Stuart McDowell, chair and artistic director for the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motions Pictures, and his wife, Gloria Skurski; WSU’s assistant director of Public Relations, Jim Hannah, who would be embedded with Hanks for the next two days in order to record the story of his visit; Gaffney and other members of NAHA.

“It was like Tom Hanks just stepped off the screen and strolled into Dayton. He was exactly what you would expect — smart, funny, modest and genuine,” Hannah said.

Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, who released a self-titled album in March, briefly got off the plane then reboarded to fly to Nashville, Tenn.

Hanks was accompanied by Playtone staff, including a producer and screenwriter, Gaffney said.

While at the airport, Hanks toured the hangar then watched a demo flight of the Wright B Flyer over the runway. He “was offered a trip, but declined … but he was blown away by all of that, and chatted with the crew there for some time,” McDowell said.

“Whether they choose to film here or nearby is anybody’s guess,” McDowell said. “But Tom loves history, and did say that that’s the mission statement of Playtone, his production company in California: to tell the untold history. I did hear him say that it’s amazing that ‘the Wright brothers’ story has yet to be told on film.’ “

While in Dayton, Hanks and his staff saw Hawthorn Hill, Carillon Historical Park, the Wright Cycle Shop, the Wright Co. Factory, the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Huffman Prairie and Wright State University, including the Special Collections and Archives inside the Dunbar Library and the new motion pictures center that bears his name.

“Having Tom Hanks dedicate the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures puts Wright State in the national spotlight and elevates the reputation of the university’s motion-pictures program to new heights,” Hopkins said. “He chose Wright State to lend his name for motion pictures and forever brand us as his choice of places where people have a chance to be successful. It gives us a credential that nobody else could have given us.”

The motion pictures center is part of the $27 million newly renovated Creatives Arts Center at WSU.

The significance of Hanks visit, though, goes far beyond the WSU campus. “Imagine what an HBO miniseries by Tom Hanks will do for our city in telling the great story of Dayton,” Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said.

To a degree, Hanks’ visit overshadowed the presence of his HBO miniseries collaborator. McCullough was also in town, spending time at some of the key historical sites as well as meeting with WSU history students.

Whaley met McCullough at the Wright Co. Factory. “He was so gracious and amazing, as you would expect,” she said.

The mayor presented McCullough with a key to the city. “He’s given more to Dayton than many others because he made our city a character in his Wright brothers book — and because of his sharing with the world what’s possible in our city, he deserves the key to our city.”

She also said McCullough’s bestseller “has already peaked our tourist numbers,” she said.

The city is supportive of the miniseries project. “We’re really working through NAHA to see opportunities for how we can be helpful,” the mayor said. “We want as many local sites as possible for this movie, and I think it will help the movie be more authentic and show off Dayton.”

Another group offering support is FilmDayton. “It certainly seems natural for some of it to be filmed here,” said FilmDayton’s executive director, Lisa Grigsby. “But it’s still a ways away until we know anything.”

FilmDayton recently shifted more into an economic development role of filmmaking. The filming of the movie “Carol” in Hamilton County brought $400,000 to the region’s economy, Grigsby said. “When production is here, it’s not only the crew — it’s the hotels, it’s caterers, dry cleaning, transportation, security.

“It impacts the area,” Grigsby said. “It truly is driving jobs to the region in addition to notoriety.”

She added that most of the jobs on the set are union jobs that pay well and come with benefits.

Adding insight into the impact of the Hanks-McCullough HBO miniseries collaboration is the Wright family itself. “It’s important to have the Wright brothers’ names as associated with Dayton as they are with Kitty Hawk,” Lane said. “For Dayton, this will help to dispel the myth that the brothers were from North Carolina.”

“About five years ago, David McCullough contacted Stephen (Wright) and myself, and said he was interested in working on a book on the Wright brothers,” she said.

Lane said that McCullough originally intended to write only a chapter about the Wright brothers, but as he dug deeper into their story, he realized he would have to devote an entire book to do them justice.

“Such an iconic American author,” Lane said. “I knew it would mean good things for Dayton.”

“Our history books sort of stop on Dec. 17, 1903 (Orville Wright’s first flight at Kitty Hawk), but aviation and aerospace sprung from that.

“(The Wright brothers) had to build a practical flyer,” Lane said. “Who were they? What was the environment they lived in? This (miniseries) is the perfect example of the kind of follow-on story we need about the brothers.”

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