Local History: After Hit Show Put Scranton On Map, First-ever Convention Showed Off City

October 22, 2017 GMT

The crowd in front of the University of Scranton’s St. Thomas Hall built for hours. By the time “Today” show weatherman Al Roker stepped into the outdoor television studio to bring viewers the weather live from Scranton on Oct. 26, 2007, excitement had reached fever pitch. University cheerleaders and dance team members performed routines as the crowd began a call and response chant: One side shouted “Scranton, what?” and the other side responded “The Electric City!”Many in the crowd held banners, hoping to get some attention from the folks in front of the camera. Roker’s live appearance that morning kicked off a three-day festival dedicated to the NBC show that made Scranton a household name: “The Office.” A decade ago, 14 cast members and a dozen writers visited Scranton for three days to meet fans, sign autographs and soak up the atmosphere of the city where the mockumentary about fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin took place. The festival attracted fans from around the country. ‘Buy in’ “The Office” debuted as a midseason replacement for NBC in 2005. The remake of a British series of the same name featured Steve Carell as bumbling paper company boss Michael Scott. Though the show wasn’t actually filmed here, those behind the scenes made sure the show’s characters mentioned local businesses, schools and landmarks familiar to Northeast Pennsylvania residents. At first, many who call Scranton home were nervous about how the show would depict the region, so often stereotyped as reeling from the collapse of the coal industry. Soon, though, Scranton embraced its new-found fame. “The convention is the brainchild of Michele Dempsey, of DxDempsey Architecture, who came up with the initial concept after hearing about the popular ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ convention that was held in Preston, Idaho, where that cult movie was filmed,” The Times-Tribune reported on Oct. 27, 2007, as the convention continued. The county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, the University of Scranton, WBRE-TV, Times-Tribune parent company Times-Shamrock Communications and other groups worked to get the event off the ground. “The most difficult part was all the buy in we had to get initially … not just from the actors and their agents and managers and from NBC brass and the show’s producers, but also locally from so many different partners, groups and organizations,” Dempsey wrote in an email last week. As plans came together, she and other organizers hoped the event would put the city in the spotlight. “The Office Convention was part of the puzzle that has assisted in Scranton’s revitalization,” said another original organizer, Sara Hailstone, in an email. The former director of the city’s Office of Economic and Community Development, who now lives and works in Allentown, said all the organizers especially appreciated the positive press from across the country generated by the convention. “People want to be part of a community that is unique and progressive and The Office Convention allowed Scranton to tell that story.” Full slate of activities Over three days, the convention offered a variety of activities for fans, starting with Roker’s live broadcast at the University of Scranton on Oct. 26, 2007. Nine “Office” cast members, including Brian Baumgartner and Angela Kinsey, joined him on camera. That night, a VIP Casino Night, based on an episode where “Office” staff held a casino night-style fundraiser in the business’ warehouse, at Mohegan Sun Pocono allowed fans to rub elbows with the show’s cast, writers and crew. Episodes of “The Office” screened on the side of the Casey Laundry Building until the wee hours of the morning. The second day of the festival featured a Q&A with cast and crew held at the university’s John Long Center and a character look-alike contest at the Lackawanna College Student Union, with cast members serving as judges. On the final day, fans could attend a blogger’s breakfast at Hilton Scranton and Conference Center and a talk by show writers at the Scranton Cultural Center. Other events included a street festival featuring “Office” and Scranton-themed merchandise, bands, food and “Office Olympics,” also based on episodes of the show, and an exhibit of “Office” costumes at the Electric Trolley Museum and Station. That first convention didn’t draw the show’s biggest stars — Carell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer and Rainn Wilson. However, all four did appear at 2014’s “The Office” Wrap Party held in Scranton to celebrate the show’s finale. ‘Warm welcome’ Organizers pegged the attendance for the convention at about 4,000 for Oct. 27 and between 3,500 and 5,000 on Oct. 26. Rainy weather didn’t put much of a damper on fans’ spirits, with “Office” cast members commenting over and over about the attendees’ enthusiasm. “It’s so great. It’s such a warm welcome,” cast member Phyllis Smith told The Times-Tribune. “I almost cried when I came out here.” Hosting the events showed fans from across the world that Scranton embraced its role on the TV show, said event organizer Tim Holmes, the former director of Times-Shamrock Community Newspapers. “If you travel basically anywhere in the world these days and mention that you are from Scranton, the reaction now tends to be warm regard for the fact that you are from the home of ‘The Office,’” he wrote in an email. “Gone are the days when folks immediately thought of Scranton as that hardscrabble, past-its-prime city.” ERIN L. NISSLEY is an assistant metro editor at The Times-Tribune. She’s lived in the area for nearly 12 years. Contact the writer: localhistory@timesshamrock.com