On the set in Kansas City with ‘Ask This Old House’

08/22/2014 7:00 AM

08/23/2014 7:56 PM

The production crew of PBS’ “Ask This Old House” was in town taping recently, and I was invited to join them on set.

In the 1990s, before HGTV, I was a huge fan of PBS’ award-winning “This Old House” and its host, Norm Abrams. That show, which debuted in 1979, was so beloved and successful that “Ask This Old House” was spun off in 2002 to answer the loads of questions from viewers.

Abrams wasn’t with the crew here. But Richard Trethewey, the licensed master plumber who has been with “This Old House” since 1980, was. Seeing and hearing him talk with that wonderful Boston accent took me back 20 years, when I watched the show faithfully.

The crew was in town to install a long natural-gas line from a meter on the side of Justin and Stephanie Stancil’s Mission house to a new grill in their backyard. Justin is a barbecue nut.

The crew started at 8:30 a.m. July 31 at Arthur Bryant’s, where they captured the flavor of Kansas City through its barbecue.

Trethewey, a five-member video production crew and several restaurant workers, including manager Willis Simpson, were packed into the kitchen looking at the pit where the pitmaster smokes hundreds of pounds of meat every day.

Cameraman Jay Maurer got close-ups of the juicy, crackling meat as it cooked in the front of the smoker and of the pitmaster loading wood and stoking the fire through a huge, heavy, guillotine-like door on the side. The pitmaster threw an extra piece of hickory on the fire for the camera. A few minutes later he sliced a generous piece of meat off a brisket and handed it to Trethewey.

“Boy, that’s perfectly cooked. You guys are getting the hang of it,” Trethewey said, chewing and laughing.

Trethewey made the remark off-hand but had to repeat it several times with different inflections for later editing purposes. And that’s how the rest of the day would proceed: Trethewey asking questions or making a comment, then director/producer Heath Racela asking him to repeat what he had just said, with small word changes or a different inflection or standing in a different position.

A few minutes later, Trethewey was eating a sandwich piled high with brisket in the dining room — mostly for the camera, but he clearly enjoyed it, gobbling down a last few bites after the camera stopped rolling.

“We have the best job ever. We get to visit different places, and we are always treated so well,” Trethewey told me.

After 90 minutes of taping at Arthur Bryant’s, the crew headed to the Stancils’ home.

Justin Stancil saw on Twitter several weeks ago that the show was looking for Kansas City area homeowners with problems needing to be fixed. He emailed the producers a list of repairs he wanted done, including squeaky floorboards, a leaky faucet, a clogged air vent and an issue with his driveway.

“Heath called the next day, and all the stuff we talked about would have taken too long to do in a day. But then we started talking about barbecue, and they took on this project,” Stancil said.

Stancil already had a Komodo Kamado refractory grill/smoker/oven, a vertical smoker and an old red Weber Grill that his parents gave him, used, 10 years ago. He uses the Weber almost daily, which means a lot of propane gas. He was tired of having to change tanks, especially midway through cooking meat, he said.

When he found out he was getting not just a gas line installation but also a Weber Genesis 300 Series sear station grill courtesy of Weber, he was elated.

“He was so excited, he was like a 12-year-old on Christmas morning,” Stephanie Stancil said as she bounced 4-month-old son Quinton on her hip while daughter Evie, 3, stood nearby. “Grilling and smoking are a big hobby of his.”

The taping at the Stancil home began with Trethewey and Justin Stancil pretending to meet for the first time, Stancil showing off his barbecue equipment and Trethewey presenting the Genesis grill.

He patted it like a car salesman caressing a luxury sedan on a showroom floor and rattled off its features for the camera: “It’s all stainless steel, with three burners and temperature controls, a searing station to the side, a spark ignitor and …” he flipped the door beneath the grill open, “… no propane tank. Just a line to natural gas.”

Then it was time to tape the installation of the gas line. It would take the rest of the day. Trethewey did most of the work himself, stopping several times to repeat lines for the director and to let the cameraman shoot various angles of him doing each step of work.

Some of the gas line was made up of threaded pipes screwed together and sealed with pipe dope, a traditional installation method. Other parts were not threaded but rather crimped together tightly using a Ridgid Press Tool outfitted with MegaPress jaws. The technology has been on the market for only three years and was provided by Ridgid, also a sponsor of the show.

Producer Racela had hired Corey Adams, a plumber and co-owner of R-Mech of Kansas City, and his employee, Don Besette, to pull a local permit for the gas line and assist with equipment needs. They also inspected the gas meter and point of hookup a few days before to correct code violations.

Adams estimates that it would cost $1,400 to $1,700 to install a gas line like Stancil’s.

“Ask This Old House” airs 26 shows a season, and each show features two house calls. That’s 52 location shoots between March and December. The crew tries to hit all parts of the country and hadn’t been to the Kansas City area in nine years.

They had spent the previous day at April Fleming’s home in Kansas City demonstrating how to use Rustoleum’s Tub & Tile resurfacing kit on a terra-cotta red tile kitchen backsplash. They headed to Ed Guernsey’s home in Kansas City the next day, where co-host Kevin O’Connor replaced a bath faucet.

At the Stancils’ home, during a late-afternoon break so a crew member could run to a hardware store to get a part, Trethewey noticed that Stancil’s air conditioner was dirty. He suggested they shoot a tip about why it wasn’t running efficiently and asked Stancil to get him a vacuum cleaner.

First Stancil appeared with purple upright and was asked whether he had anything more manly. Then he brought out a tiny shop vacuum, which earned more friendly chiding from the crew. Then they spent the next 45 minutes shooting Trethewey vacuuming the air conditioner and explaining why. It will air as a 2-minute filler segment.

By the time they finished, the part they needed had arrived, and it was back to finishing the installation, followed by cooking chicken on the new grill. The segment is scheduled to air in December.

To reach Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian, call 816-234-4780 or send email to cgregorian@kcstar.com.

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