Realscreen On Location: ABC’s ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ revamps Buffalo neighborhood

Carl Mrozek talks to EM:HE EP Brady Connell about a recent shoot in Buffalo that resulted in 'makeover mania,' and the reconstruction of a neighborhood.
November 25, 2009

When LA’s Lock & Key Productions rolled into Buffalo, New York a couple of weeks back to produce an episode for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (EM:HE), they fully expected cold temperatures and snowflakes to intensify the race against the clock to demolish, remove and replace a home within a week. Instead they enjoyed California weather in a city renowned for lake effect snows at this time of year.

What did worry EP Brady Connell (pictured) was the record number of home and neighborhood makeovers on the team’s docket for the week. Typically, EM:HE covers one family and one home, but in this case ‘makeover mania’ permeated the community, spawning a plethora of extra projects ranging from siding, roofing and insulating neighborhood houses, to a new corner park with benches, stage, landscaping and lighting. Local partners David Homes and Western NY AmeriCorps compiled a list of over 100 rehab projects to tackle simultaneously – far more than the Ty Pennington-hosted show had ever done before, but then they had never had a pool of over 5,000 volunteers to work with either. ‘We’d never tackled so many side projects so I was concerned about spreading ourselves too thin,’ says Connell. ‘I was also worried about having so many volunteers on the set at once.’

However, a neighborhood makeover was a perfect fit for the episode’s main Buffalo character, Delores Powell, a community activist who put years of sweat and tears into improving her low income neighborhood. Connell says EM:HE wanted to help her realize her dream for the community. ‘Delores grew up barefoot in the slums of Jamaica and came to Buffalo with dreams of owning a home,’ says Connell. ‘But, like millions of Americans, she was sold a bill of goods and discovered that her dream home was on the city’s demolition list. Rather than give up, she and her son worked non-stop to bring it up to code and spare it from the wrecking ball. She also organized her neighbors to do the same, and to fight gangs and blight.’ Her story inspired the team to expand the Buffalo episode into a neighborhood makeover, ‘one of only a few we’ve done in 168 shows,’ says Connell.

As EP, Connell’s primary job is to manage an EM:HE team of 65, mostly production crew, plus designers and hosts. ‘We do the design work and keep the project on track,’ he explains. ‘Most builders have never built a whole house this quickly, but we do it all of the time, so our expertise is critical. We also make a lot of phone calls and open doors.’ Some of their calls are to celebrities asking them to pitch in. This time, they received calls from two sports teams – football’s Buffalo Bills and hockey’s Buffalo Sabres – asking how they could help. ‘We used their muscle to move the new furniture in,’ Connell says.

He also selected several community projects to highlight in the show from the larger list identified by the builder and AmeriCorps. ‘The side projects were a challenge as with only four camera crews we were already stretched pretty thin,’ he admits. ‘Also, the construction phase only gets 12-14 (of 42) minutes of show time. The documentarian in me would like to include profiles of the other families and their dreams but the reality is there is only so much time in a one-hour show.’

Connell could get his wish if the Buffalo episode turns out to be one of several selected annually, when the story and footage warrants, for treatment as a two hour special. With over 150 XDCAM (SD) disks at over 40 minutes and 50 hour-long DV tapes of material, he believes that this could happen with the Buffalo story. ‘This neighborhood is very multi-ethnic, with families from Asia, Europe, South America and the Caribbean… some of which we covered, along with groups like Buffalo ReUse, which deconstructed Delores’ old house board by board so the materials could be used to rebuild other historic Buffalo homes,’ says Connell.

While EM:HE has established a secure prime time niche on ABC over seven seasons, it also airs in over 70 nations. ‘Home ownership isn’t just an American dream, it’s universal,’ Connell says. He emphasizes that EM:HE is all about rekindling community spirit and empowering people to help themselves. ‘Many viewers think that we do all of the work, but local volunteers and the local builder do most of it, with all materials donated by the local community,’ he offers. ‘When we leave we want them to realize what they’ve done themselves, in just one week, and we hope that they’ll keep paying it forward.’ Connell also hopes to return to Buffalo in a few years to see the full fruits of their ‘neighborhood edition’ makeover which airs in early January.

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