The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 9, 2013

Scranton bonds with NBC's 'The Office'

MICHAEL RUBINKAM Associated Press
The Mankato Free Press

---- — SCRANTON, Pa. — NBC’s long-running “The Office” was a faux documentary about cubicle life. The Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. didn’t exist.

Try telling that to merchants, tourism officials and regular folks here in the real-world city of 76,000, for whom the Emmy-winning comedy — which ends its nine-season run next week — had a tangible and lasting impact.

Even though “The Office” was shot in California, it was set in Scranton, and every “Office” booze cruise on Lake Wallenpaupack, shopping excursion to the Steamtown mall and after-work party at Poor Richard’s Pub meant real cash in real registers as the show’s intensely loyal fans flocked to northeastern Pennsylvania to see where their favorite characters lived, worked and played.

“If people weren’t talking about Scranton before this show aired,” said Tracy Barone, executive director of the Lackawanna County Convention and Visitors Bureau, “they were talking about it afterward.”

Plenty of TV series have been set in real places, but “The Office” was different. Residents and businesses in Scranton donated hundreds of props over the years, and the show gave shout-outs and notoriety to dozens of local landmarks, from restaurants to radio stations.

Fans of the cult comedy from around the country still come to Cooper’s Seafood House — a 65-year-old, family-run restaurant that boasts a lighthouse and full-size pirate ship — to see where clueless boss Michael Scott and his put-upon “Office” underlings got their grub.

“They’ll say, can you tell us where they sat and ate, what they ate, what kind of beer they drank, all kinds of questions,” said waitress Laura Langan, who is always ready with the answers.

The University of Scranton earned a few mentions on the show, too, and the school’s admission staff continues to use “The Office” to woo prospective students.

While the Scranton references were fun, they also served a purpose for the show’s writers and actors.

“‘The Office’ was all about being real, small and real, in the beginning, especially. So it really helped to have a place to be thinking about that was very specific,” said executive producer Greg Daniels.

Daniels and “Office” stars John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson and other members of the cast and crew paid a visit to Scranton last weekend to show their appreciation of the city, and thousands of adoring fans loved them back. NBC will air a segment on the “Wrap Party” as part of its May 16 primetime tribute to “The Office” — another valuable bit of free publicity.

It was Krasinski who filmed the show’s opening montage in Scranton, and he said the city became a character in its own right.

“It’s kind of the backbone of what we’re doing,” he said. “The whole thing of playing ordinary people comes from the idea that we’re all living in Scranton.”

Yet even as Scranton made “The Office” seem more authentic, the show remained a work of fiction, and Scranton very much a real place with its share of triumphs and tragedies. If anyone needed a reminder, it came only a few hours after the end of the Wrap Party, when a Lackawanna College student was killed by gunfire — the city’s first homicide in nearly two years.

And it wasn’t so long ago that Scranton was simply a punch line.

The city, about 120 miles northwest of New York, fell on hard times after the coal industry tanked, and jobs were slow to return.

Northeastern Pennsylvania still has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

But “The Office” helped turned Scranton into something of a tourist attraction — some 3,500 visitors have taken the official “Office” tour of landmarks mentioned on the show — and downtown has been revitalized into a vibrant urban center with lots of new restaurants, businesses and apartments.

Out-of-town journalists took note, writing dozens of favorable travel pieces after Scranton hosted a wildly successful convention for “Office” fans in 2007, at the height of the show’s popularity.

Mayor Chris Doherty said the Emmy-winning series is a point of pride.

“It never denigrated us; it was never mean,” he said. “It did make people feel good about their city. The writers were good to us, and the people of Scranton were true fans, and true supporters of the show.”

Brian Baumgartner, who plays dimwitted Kevin, said “The Office” and Scranton are forever linked.

“Our show has been influenced tremendously by Scranton, and it’s reciprocal. We love the town,” he said. “The town has been so supportive of the show that I think it’s great for the town to get other people to come in to experience it.”