NEW YORK (AP) — They could have called it a stage or a studio, but the term they prefer is “the hangar.”
Why not? Handily adjacent to Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios lot is a cavernous storage shed now used for housing a key component of ABC’s new series, “Pan Am”: the jet plane.
That is, the life-size mock-up of a jet plane’s passenger compartment. Mounted on a platform 5 feet off the concrete floor is the “fuselage” (no wings or tail) of the show’s proud Boeing 707 whose interior, in contrast to the raw shell of this plane-length tube, is designed in period-perfect detail that harkens back to the early 1960s — the dawning era of commercial jet flight when the luxury airline Pan American World Airways flourished and when “Pan Am” takes place.
Two dozen “passengers” (the male extras crisp in their business suits, which is how men clad themselves for air travel in those days) are queued to enter the fuselage’s lopped-off aft to populate the next shot.
Also ready to board: the stewardesses. Played by Christina Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse and Margot Robbie, they, of course, are the real stars of “Pan Am.”
Debuting Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT, “Pan Am” is a globe-spanning melodrama set in the Kennedy presidency, with all its romance, glamour and excitement for a new, ascendant age (plus a bit of the cloak-and-dagger: one of the stewardesses is drafted by the government to be a spy).
“I had an image for the first episode of the show,” says Thomas Schlamme, an executive producer who also directed the premiere. “The stewardesses’ high heels clicking on the tarmac, with a little girl watching from the gate with admiration.”
Look for something like that in the premiere.
Schlamme says he knew the series would be received with misgivings that it was somehow sexist. As expected, early voices have been raised that “Pan Am” perpetuates pre-feminist stereotypes.
“I want to turn the stereotype on its head,” he says. “These stewardesses were really a fascinating group of people.”
And, befitting a producer of past series such as “Jack & Bobby” and “The West Wing,” Schlamme adds that he wants to infuse “Pan Am” with an element of patriotism, as if to say: “This is what we were able to do in America — and we still can.”
If only! Just one tiny clue to the distant can-do spirit “Pan Am” chronicles: Here in the hangar is Nancy Hult Ganis, an executive producer and former Pan Am stewardess, who is instructing a prop assistant on how to prepare a Tom Collins (with the requisite orange slice and maraschino cherry) according to the rigorous standards of a vintage Pan Am stewardess manual. And a treat for “passengers” in a scene the next day: escargots with melon and prosciutto.
The show is dazzling to watch, with a huge assist from computer-graphics imagery: Much of the multilevel Worldgate terminal, and even the 707’s sleek exterior, are virtual, as is the sprawling tarmac, all of which are shot with green screen in Steiner’s Studio 3.
Even so, the stewardesses are flesh-and-blood and lovely. (And, yes, lily-white, since the series begins in 1963. But its color barrier will be broken as “Pan Am” tracks the civil rights struggle along with other unfolding world events.)
“I feel like these are extremely modern women of their time,” says Kelli Garner, who stars as Kate, the adventurous spy-initiate. “Although they might have had to be beautiful and serve men coffee, what they got from this opportunity was also beautiful and empowering.”
Waiting in the hangar for her next scene, Garner looks classy and curvy in her blue twill Pan Am uniform.
“I think the uniforms cover so much, and are still so beautiful and sexy,” she declares.
And they’re evocative, as much for her as an actress as for the admiring audience.
“I tuck behind the galley, tugging on my girdle and pulling down my skirt,” she says. “I’m sure stewardesses did the same thing and felt just as uncomfortable back then. But I actually really like it. It makes me feel like I’m one of them.
“We have the choice as actors to just wear regular pantyhose,” she explains, “but we all want the girdle,” and, as she says it, she offers a demure peek beneath the hem of her skirt, revealing the girdle’s suspender clips for her stockings.
“The uniform brings some gracefulness — a different kind of femininity,” agrees Karine Vanasse, who plays Colette, a French-born romantic. “With a costume, details matter. Wearing a thong underneath would be weird.”
The ensemble of “Pan Am” also includes Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley, who, as the airliner’s dashing pilot and co-pilot, hold forth in the cockpit — a genuine 707 cockpit rescued from an airplane graveyard and grafted to the front end of the fuselage set.
But — stereotypes be damned! — “Pan Am” is not a men’s world.
“The voice of the show is very much that of the women,” says Christina Ricci, who plays the independent-minded Maggie. “You can’t do a show about this period without involving the actual sexism that existed at that time. But the show doesn’t glorify the sexism or revel in it. It’s more like, ‘This is something we have to deal with.’ And then we do an eye roll.”
That being the case, she says she’s savoring her role — or, more accurately, her role-within-a-role.
“I get to play a character who goes to work and plays a different character when she gets there: ‘Can I get you another drink, sir?’ That’s really fun for me.”
It fell to costume designer Ane Crabtree to reproduce the stewardesses’ uniforms (among the wide range of period clothing), with the challenge of reviving the signature “Pan Am blue” two decades after the airline stopped flying.
What inspired that blue?
“The ocean and the sky, which was mirrored in the Pan Am globe logo and in the world Pan Am served,” she said. “I think it’s the blue of the great beyond! What else WOULD it be?”
“The uniform is a great acting tool,” says Margot Robbie, who plays Kate’s winsome younger sister Laura.
On the “Pam Am” premiere, the eye-appealing Kate pops up on the cover of Life magazine for a story headlined “Welcome to the Jet Age.” The photo of her, supposedly snapped by chance outside the Pan Am building, grabs huge attention — and a measure of annoyance from her colleagues, since Kate, singled out by Life to represent the Pan Am stewardess, is brand-new on the job.
Recalling the photo session for the dummy cover in midtown Manhattan, Robbie says she felt that not only had she stepped a half-century into the past, but transported a bit of the city along with her.
“While I was posing, I saw this elderly gentleman who looked like he was from the ‘60s, too, in his overcoat and brown hat. He did a double-take and said, ‘My God, it IS Pan Am!’
“Yes, sir, it is,” I told him, and he smiled and said, ‘Ahhh, that takes me back.’”
Starting Sunday, “Pan Am” begins its scheduled flights to take the audience back every week.