Stranger things: Interview with a Centralia director

coal region personal

Before beginning, a few tidbits of information need revealing. I was born and raised in Centralia. At least for a time, until my family was forced out along with many others in the 1980s.
The time was strange.. as a child, it felt surreal. Upended.. odd…last minute rites to a town that was. And as time went on, wounds healed.. mine fires quelled.. And people were left with dusting off the old coal region relics of history to figure out just exactly what happened…

I recently interviewed Joe Sapienza, the director of a film making waves amongst smaller venues called CENTRALIA: PENNSYLVANIA’S LOST TOWN.   I had the chance to see it in Tamaqua, PA, last fall during a private screening. Since that time, it has been changed a bit, and a finished product, exceeds most people’s desires. The movie is amazing–take it from me, a former resident. It uses information from residents, historical facts and artifacts and news clips from the likes of WNEP and others in the Northeastern Pennsylvania marketplace. It memorializes what was.. what will never be again.

And for Sapienza, it wasn’t much of a problem for him to acquaint himself with the storyline of Centraila.  Joe Sapienza is a freelance producer and videographer who dropped out of high school and, after getting a GED and working in a job he hated at the post office, went back to school… He finished in 2010 with a thesis for Drexel University surrounding the events of Centralia..

Sapienza told me that he learned about Centralia in 2005, that he was intrigued, and then began to delve into David DeKok’s FIRE UNDERGROUND book.   “I pitched the Centralia premise in class and got approved in September 2013,” he told me. “We began filming for the short senior project titled America’s Lost Town in January 2014 to April 2014. We overshot everything because I figured I might extend it after graduation.”  The team that helped connect dots and create a documentary all developed into people successful in their career adventures.. For example, Allyson Kircher, the producer,  now works for Netflix as a production coordinator.

Sapienza continued, “I did just that and I hired another producer with whom I was friends with and graduated with, Allyson Kircher, and then extended more shooting dates from July 2014 to September 2016. During that period, we shot more b-roll and more interviews and acquired rights to news footage, more photos, and music rights. This is my third feature documentary and is one of my favorites so far,” he explained.  “We worked on this documentary extensively and a lot of labor went into it to perfect it, all with my own funding, crew, cameras and lighting with a total cost of $16,000.00; over three years including post production and marketing, which is extremely low budget. Had I not had my own gear and many good friends in the business to help, this would’ve never happened and the short would’ve been it.”

It was hard work that paid off. Most people who have seen this documentary have been amazed with its accuracy of events and zeal to promote what really happened in the little town that was.  The story of Centralia is fabled, with it’s past comes riddles of strangeness like plane crashes and stories of a peaceful hamlet in the 80s era of Reagan and MTV. The perfect storm of the 1980s struck, with it came a mine fire’s wrath and populace forced to relocate …

Sapienza was interested in Centralia for the same reason so many others are: The fact that an underground mine fire is raging.  To contemplate a danger that does not show a face is interesting.. Where there is smoke, there is fire. You just can’t see it. Sapienza said,  “I went on Dave DeKok’s site and found his photo collection and became obsessed with all of the photos, and I read the Renee Jacob’s book because the photos really put things in perspective for me. I saw the town when it was intact and saw the people who were affected by this mess, and in my head visually I saw a real sad desperate story that needed to be told through the lens of a camera. I’m a child of the 80’s so when I saw photos of the kids and some photos of the elderly people from the town during that era, in a weird way, it reminded me of my childhood and my grandparents growing up in Philadelphia during that decade of 1980. So, in some weird unexplainable way, I was relating and connecting to these people through the photos, so I became really obsessed with the story more and more…like a sickness really, but in a good way!”

A little caveat to the comment, and for full disclosure it’s worth telling: I  appeared on page 13 of the Renee Jacobs book.  And quite frankly, for some strange reason, still recall the exact day in my life when the picture was taken..

Sapienza did have some trouble as he first started his voyage into the the Centralia world. People did not talk to him. Doors closed. Phones hung up. Until he met Tom Dempsey, perhaps one of the greatest local historians and experts in not only Centralia but all that is the eastern and Central Pennsylvania region. Dempsey, Sapienza said, and DeKok, gave him the information he needed to begin his tale of mine fire. Sapienza was able to tie some people together within his own circle of connections and eventually met up with people from the Coddington family–a famed family in the town for numerous reasons.  “John Coddington’s granddaughter at Drexel University just a couple years below me?!” he said, “I still can’t believe it, it was like this was meant to be because we had nobody, I had no residents or former residents that would talk to me, all but one person until the Coddington’s came along.”

“I wanted to set the entire timeline out in the documentary and tell the audience exactly what happened and why it happened through the stories of the residents, former residents, news clips, photos, news articles, and the government officials and lawyers that were all involved in the Centralia story, told from the heart and not from the “Silent Hill” perspective, “Sapienza said. “At that point, only two firms turned us down for interviews, Blaschak Coal Company and the law firm of Rosenn Jenkins & Greenwald who represented the Commonwealth in the lawsuit that was initiated by the remaining residents. So, to answer the question, I think many residents past and present know the story of Centralia in their minds and like to embrace it in their own way, and I think it has a very enriched history and many little back stories. I think people will learn its history and see that the mine fire was not the only culprit in the story. We told exactly what happened and what the future holds for Centralia, right to the point, and hopefully everyone will embrace it.”

He also became immersed in the area where the filming was taking place. “My crew and I would frequently go to May’s because it was just convenient and right down the street from Centralia,” Sapienza told the me. “But we went to the Mineshaft Café and Fabrizio’s a few times for lunch and dinner that the cast and crew enjoyed. We also made it a point to stop at Dairy Queen on the way back to Philadelphia through Pottsville, it was a ritual. We took a photo of everyone under the first crew in the parking lot after we wrapped in April 2014 for the short version.”

I asked Sapienza about Graffiti Highway. I asked him about why, in his thoughts, people traveled for miles to states away to see such a place.. He is as perplexed as me, quite frankly. Sapienza commented, “I don’t get it but when we interviewed tourists on that highway we got the same answer again and again, that they wanted to see what all the buzz was about, look at the huge crack in the road, and look at drawings of penises.”

Centralia, and Graffiti Highway, has been in the news as of late. State Police are cracking down on people spray painting the road. Along with it, warnings that tickets and fines, arrests and all the like could occur.. A now infamous ‘Barbie Car race’ set for May was what seemingly set of cops to put more of a focus on the town that was.  Sapienza knew about the reason for the controversy, adding,  “I did read about the Barbie Car race but the trespassing issues have been going on for years and the state police began enforcing it a couple months prior. What bothers me is that the graffiti is now out of control and is now within the borough, on trees, signs, and other roadways that run through Centralia. I think the state police should crack down on the graffiti that’s now developing within the borough, and I’m sure they’re doing that now.”

x x x x

Not only did Joe Sapienza make a film about the town, but he was so moved to the situation that he also helped try cleaning it. Sapienza started cleanup efforts with EPCAMR director Robert Hughes in an attempt to rid the town of trash. Sapienza commented, “Robert Hughes really pulled through on that and he got us the dumpsters and volunteers that we needed and Tom Hynoski- volunteer fire chief let us use the Centralia borough hall to stage the event.”  For the future? The cleaning may depend on the state’s capitol. Sapienza said, “It will take some time, but it all depends on the people in Harrisburg for help in funding EPCAMR’s projects.” 

It was really depressing to see because I knew that at one time these areas were people’s back yards and homes and there’s paint buckets, swimming pools, couches, floor tiles, broken glass, diapers, needles, pill bottles, all kinds of shit all over the place. So, that sparked the idea of a clean-up event. .”

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For those who have read this site before, you probably know my history and affinity to Centralia.. for others, you may only know about the ‘SILENT HILL’ film, which supposedly is based VERY LOOSELY on the events of the town. More than a few tourists I encountered over the years believed they were going to not only see fire from the ground, but also paranormal entities and ghosts.  They come to find out… it’s just a vacant town. Nothing left to see. If there were ghosts, even they left.

There is even a story about a curse in Centralia. That an old priest condemned the town to die a horrible death because of a famed Irish workers rights group called the Molly Maguires. Sapienza said, “Our main goal was we wanted to debunk the Centralia curse, and we did. We proved that it was an urban legend that is totally inaccurate. Tom Dempsey explained it very clearly and debunks it on video. The curse segment is about 5 minutes long and was cut from the final cut that will be shown in theaters along with the 5 minute clean-up segment because we needed to cut things down. These deleted segments will be restored on DVD as extras.”

While paranormal entities are supposedly recorded in cemeteries around the said, Sapienza said he hears nothing but “ambience.”

x x x x

I cannot leave this entire story go without some equation to modern pop culture horror or sci-fi. For much of my life, I thought of Centralia as the town from THE GOONIES. Rabble rousing friends and authority-questioning people attempting to save their town.. But after seeing last year’s STRANGER THINGS on Netflix, I think of it more like that.. Like the government, not fully equipped to handling a situation… like the friends, going missing because of other-worldy events taking them… like the adults, blind too often to what ails them…

Yes, Centralia is a stranger thing. A tiny town that was wiped off the map because of a fire, but also incompetence among leaders.. And fate. And just pure old bad luck. Joe Sapienza and his team proved that in CENTRALIA: PENNSYLVANIA’S LOST TOWN.

Upcoming screenings for the film:

May 6, 2017 • Pottsville, PA

Saturday, May 6th, 7:00PM at the Majestic Theater
209 N Centre St, Pottsville, PA 17901
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


May 7, 2017 • Pottsville, PA

Sunday, May 7th, 2:00PM at the Majestic Theater
209 N Centre St, Pottsville, PA 17901
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


June 3, 2017 • Zelienople, PA

Saturday, June 3rd, 1:00PM at The Strand Theater
119 North Main St, Zelienople, PA. 16063
Tickets: $5 for students and $7 for adults.


June 4, 2017 • Zelienople, PA

Sunday, June 4th, 1:00PM at The Strand Theater
119 North Main St, Zelienople, PA. 16063
Tickets: $5 for students and $7 for adults.


June 10, 2017 • Lancaster, PA

Saturday, June 10th, 7:00PM at the Zoetropolis Theater
315 W James St, Lancaster, PA 17603
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


June 16, 2017 • Tamaqua, PA

Friday, June 16th, 7:00PM at the Tamaqua Arts Theater
125 Pine St, Tamaqua, PA 18252
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


June 17, 2017 • Tamaqua, PA

Saturday, June 17th, 2:00PM at the Tamaqua Arts Theater
125 Pine St, Tamaqua, PA 18252
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


June 24, 2017 • Allentown, PA

Saturday, June 24th, 8:00PM at Civic Theater
527 N 19th St, Allentown, PA 18104
Tickets: $10 adult, $8 student & senior, $6 for members. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


June 25, 2017 • Allentown, PA

Sunday, June 25th, 1:00PM at Civic Theater
527 N 19th St, Allentown, PA 18104
Tickets: $10 adult, $8 student & senior, $6 for members. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.


August 19, 2017 • Lewisburg, PA

Saturday, August 19th, 2:00PM at the Campus Theater
413 Market St, Lewisburg, PA 17837
Tickets: $10. A portion of the sales will go to the Centralia Legion POST 608 in Wilburton, PA.

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