PATERSON — Martha Arencibia two years ago checked out the set as Steven Spielberg filmed scenes for his “West Side Story” remake in her city.
On Tuesday, Arencibia was among more than 100 invited guests who got a chance to watch the launch of the film at the Fabian Theater in Paterson’s Center City Mall.
“It was so amazing to see our city utilized for such a great movie and beautiful story,” Arencibia said. “I’ve lived here for 51 years, and to see the transition of Paterson to the West Side of New York City was incredible.”
Paterson — along with Los Angeles and Puerto Rico — was picked for the debut showing of the iconic film, slated for general release later this week, city officials said.
Paterson residents who watched the movie commented after the viewing about recognizing familiar landmarks and buildings. An entire city block of the city’s downtown was shut down in the summer of 2019 for the filming. Side streets morphed into 1950s-style storefronts, many with reinvented, vintage facades. Other spots were left as they were because they still looked as if they were from decades ago.
One of the people at the premier, Sandra Macolino, recalled seeing the original “West Side Story.”
“I remember that after attending a basketball game in 1962, myself and a group of friends went to see the original ‘West Side Story’ at the Garden Theater, a half a block from City Hall,” she said. “I went downtown during the recent filming and liked seeing the street signs that had been changed to those from New York City.”
Nancy Grier, a city employee, was among those at the theater on Tuesday.
“I recognized a lot of the buildings while watching the film, especially those on Main and Ellison streets,” Grier said. “I saw the old Community Bank. I hope that more film crews can come into Paterson. It makes me feel good that a major motion picture like ‘West Side Story’ was filmed in our city.”
Erin Hughes attended the premiere with her son, 10-year-old Wayne Tommy Blanco, and her niece, 16-year-old Xianny Blanco, who said she was brought to tears during the finale, when Tony died in Maria’s arms.
“I was really moved emotionally,” Xianny said. “Also, at the beginning of the movie I was sad because of the slurs made because of race. I am Hispanic. I think the movie did a good job of portraying some of the difficulties growing up in America as a Hispanic.”
Another family member who accompanied the trio was even more connected to the movie. Paterson Firefighter Kyle Hughes, Erin’s brother, was an extra in the film.
Hughes said he thinks he saw himself in the movie, but isn’t 100% sure.
“I was in the crowd at the start of the film,” said Hughes, who said he was on location in Paterson for three days of filming. “I got to follow the actors and actresses in one of the scenes when they were dancing down one of the side streets. They are incredibly talented and athletic.”
Hughes said he also experienced another special moment during the filming.
“I got to meet Steven Spielberg and talk to him for a while,” Hughes recounted. “He was such a nice person and really down to earth. He is such a great director. I have acted in films before, and the way he leads and directs is amazing. Everything went so smoothly.”
Steven Gorelick, executive director of the New Jersey Film Commission, said 80% of the movie was filmed in Paterson.
Mayor Andre Sayegh, who hosted Tuesday’s event, referred to Paterson as “Hollywood East,” noting that several television shows and movies have been filmed in the city in recent years, including “The Many Saints of Newark” “The Equalizer” and “The Plot Against America.”