Union Oyster House goes back in time to host Julia Child once more for TV show

Union Oyster House owner Joe Milano, right, with members of the production team for the Lionsgate/HBO Max TV series about Julia Child. Photo by Bill Brett
Union Oyster House owner Joe Milano with a taxi cab from “Cambridge” for the HBO Max TV show “Julia.” Photo by Bill Brett
The crew gets ready to film a scene at the Union Oyster House. Photo by Bill Brett

By Marion A. McBride

Early on October 26, as the morning light lifted over the iconic Union Oyster House sign, film crews scurried on Union and Marshall streets preparing to film scenes for the pilot of the Lionsgate/HBO Max TV production of “Julia,” about culinary icon Julia Child.

Child, who died in 2004, lived in Cambridge for many years and filmed her now classic TV show the “French Chef” for WGBH-TV, when the PBS station was located in Allston. Among her many “favorites” for noshing was the oyster bar in the front section of the Union Oyster House. The eatery, the oldest continually operating restaurant in the country, was often the site of power lunches among Boston’s businessmen.

Not that a few dozen men in suits would keep Julia Child from enjoying fresh oysters and a whole lobster at the Union Oyster House. And portraying the formidable Child falls to British actress Sarah Lancashire (“Last Tango in Halifax” and “Happy Valley”).

Fiona Glascott as Julia Child’s editor Judith Jones and Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child at the Union Oyster House’s renowned oyster bar.

“I am thrilled they were able to film here,” Union Oyster House owner Joe Milano said as the crews readied for Lancashire’s arrival on set.

Filming for “Julia” continued this week in Boston for the TV pilot, which is executive produced by “Party of Five” co-creator Chris Keyser, written and executive produced by Daniel Goldfarb, whose previous credits include the Emmy Award-winning Amazon TV series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and directed by Charles McDougall (“House of Cards” and “The Office”), according to trade publications. Todd Schulkin of the Julia Child Foundation is a consulting producer to the production, which is inspired by the life of the famed cookbook author who launched the food television genre.

“Julia” was slated to film in March but was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, as filming was set to begin on Monday, Lancashire arrived looking very much like Child, and stopped outside the Yankee Publishing Building where she chatted with fellow actor Fiona Glascott, who portrays Child’s editor Judith Jones. The two held clear shields up to their faces as part of the production’s COVID-19 protocols.

Film and TV production has resumed in Boston under strict COVID-19 protocols. Photo by Chris Haynes

In fact, the signs of the pandemic’s effect on the filming were everywhere. There was a check-in station across from the Boston Public Market, where temperatures of crew arriving on scene were checked, and handwashing stations set up next to deluxe port-o-potties for crew nearby. Even the Union Oyster House owner Joe Milano, and all of his employees who were on the set that day, had to get a COVID-19 test before he was allowed on the set (actually, inside his own restaurant.) “They were very thorough,” Milano said. “It made me feel safe.”

Shortly before filming began, an announcement was made to remind everyone to maintain the COVID-19 protocols and to inform the production crews that the filming was taking place adjacent to the city’s Holocaust Memorial and that nothing should happen on that special site.

As the actors and production crews worked outside to prepare for the filming, work around the area was being done to remove signs of life since the 1970s. Street cleaning signs were taken off of city poles and “best of” awards in the Union Oyster House windows were covered. Two members of the crew stayed overnight inside the restaurant and by daylight – such as it was on Monday – more than 100 members of the production crew worked to prepare for filming.

The restaurant was a hub of activity from 5 a.m. until after 8 that night. Scenes along Memorial Drive with vintage cars were also filmed for “Julia” on this week. But those classic cars, particularly a bright red sports car, attracted a lot of attention along Union Street and Marshall streets, which always looks like it is another time.

There were a lot of things in motion outside the Union Oyster House as the HBO Max series on the life of Julia Child filmed on Monday. Photo by Bill Brett.
The call was made for the “businessmen” to go to lunch at the Union Oyster House. Photo by Bill Brett
Production crews worked to turn back the clock a few decades outside the Union Oyster House. Photo by Bill Brett

For the scenes at the oyster bar, the restaurant’s kitchen prepared a couple of dozen lobsters, said Milano. That was the start. By the end of the day, the production had made its way through thousands of dollars worth of food. “Extras” and background actors were hired to portray businessmen, waiters and, even, an actual oyster shucker, who works in area restaurants when he is not acting. “I was hired through Boston Casting,” said one of the extras portraying a businessman, who joked that his costume “doesn’t look a whole lot different than what Boston men wear today…or at least did before the pandemic.”

It all felt very authentic to Milano, who noted that Child loved food and interacting with those who made it. After the filming was over for the day, Milano took Lancashire to a wall where a plaque marks that Child had been at the eatery and gave the actress her own spot at the eatery. Milano marveled at how Lancashire brought Child to life.

Sarah Lancashire joins Julia Child and others in being honored at the Union Oyster House.

“Julia” filmed around the Greater Boston area for this pilot episode over the last two weeks. Scenes were shot in Worcester’s Denholm Building on Main Street, which served as a stand-in for the former Boston department store Jordan Marsh.  Previously, the show filmed at the Maplewood Meat Market, a Malden butcher shop, and in downtown Framingham at the Arcade Building. (Like the Union Oyster House, filming at all of these locations had been slated for March.)

Because of the delay, Lancashire came in to replace Joan Cusack and David Hyde Pierce will portray Child’s dedicated husband, Paul, who died in 1994. Hyde Pierce stepped in when Tom Hollander pulled out because of COVID-related travel issues, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In addition to Glascott, who plays Judith Jones, the editor of Child’s cookbooks, “Julia” also features Brittany Bradford, who plays a producer at WGBH; Bebe Neuwirth as Avis DeVoto, Child’s closest friend; Fran Kranz, as Russ Morash, WGBH director and producer; Isabella Rossellini as Simone Simca Beck, Child’s co-author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and Jefferson Mays, as P. Albert Duhamel, who was the book editor of The Boston Herald and hosted the WGBH-TV show “I’ve Been Reading” that launched Child’s TV career.

“Julia” is just one of the productions that have returned to filming in Greater Boston since the pandemic struck.

Former casting director Kevin Fennessy who now works as an actor filmed a scene in the Screen Gems feature film “Shrine,” which is based on the horror novel of the same name by James Herbert and stars Jeffery Dean Morgan and Cary Elwes. Fennessy’s scene was originally slated to be filmed in March was production was delayed because of COVID. Fennessy was tested for the novel coronavirus twice before finally filming on October 7.

Also, the AMC TV show “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” starring Annie Murphy, who recently won an Emmy Award for her work on “Schitt’s Creek,” filmed on the South Shore, including Brockton and Hingham, which served as a stand-in for Worcester. (Another TV show for AMC, “NOS4A2,” starring Zachary Quinto and Ashleigh Cummings, finished filming, primarily in West Warwick, R.I., prior to the COVID lockdown.)

Also gearing up to start production in the Boston region is “Don’t Look Up,” a comedy from writer-director Adam McKay that is slated to star Jennifer Lawrence with Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Ariana Grande, and Meryl Streep. And, writer/director Mattson Tomlin’s sci-fi film “Mother/Android,” starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Algee Smith, is scheduled to start filming next week in Massachusetts.

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