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Vying for Southie’s attention

Reality TV bids abound but not all welcome the glare

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / March 19, 2012
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On a warm afternoon last week, Maura Gavaghan stood at Castle Island, a tripod sticking out from a bag on her shoulder, her eyes scanning the faces lined up for hot dogs at Sullivan’s. She had come to South Boston to scout talent for a reality television show that she is hoping to develop for Viacom, which owns VH1 and MTV. She’s calling it “Dirty Water: The Real South Boston.’’

There has been a lot of talk about the “real’’ South Boston lately, and a lot of reality show producers combing the neighborhood claiming they are the ones that are going to reveal it.

That is because Southie, Hollywood’s favorite neighborhood, is the centerpiece of a full-scale reality show war.

At least five potential shows have been snooping around in recent months, and despite a reception from the neighborhood that has ranged from cold to “I’ll tell you where you can go,’’ a few of the shows have a real shot of getting on the air as early as this fall.

Powderhouse Productions of Somerville has already cast an old Southie family to be the focal point of its show and were filming at the family’s East Broadway home during Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The show will feature Leah Lentini Winters, a probation officer, her mother, Camille Niedzwiecki, who lives on the floor above with her husband, and other members of the extended family in and around the neighborhood.

Another production house is said to be working on a deal for a show centered around a boxing gym owned by famed local trainer, Peter Welch. And the producers of “Jersey Shore’’ reportedly have a deal with TLC for a show about Southie women.

Hollywood, it seems, is not done with its Southie fascination. Instead, it appears as though it is about to go to another level.

But the producers are running into problems, chief among them the fact that many in this famously insular neighborhood want nothing to do with reality TV. Gavaghan, who grew up in Quincy but has deep family ties in Southie, said many of her relatives think it is a horrible idea.

“Nobody wants their community to be portrayed in a negative way, and for the most part, that’s what reality television is known for,’’ said Nick Collins, a state representative from the neighborhood. “It’s driven by controversy. That’s what sells. And that’s what most people fear with this.’’

That feeling only intensified when 495 Productions, the makers of “Jersey Shore,’’ got in the game last month, bringing with it the fear that Southie was about to be New Jerseyed.

Collins, like many in the neighborhood, thinks that Hollywood does not have a clue about the “real’’ South Boston and is searching for a reality that does not exist anymore, or maybe never existed outside the fictional reality Hollywood created in movies like “Good Will Hunting’’ and “The Departed,’’ or the satirical “Real Housewives of South Boston’’ videos that have become a YouTube sensation.

Gavaghan’s concept, to explore the gentrification that has swept the neighborhood over the last 15 years by focusing on the often-contentious relationship between natives and newcomers began as part of a class at New York University, where she is a senior. When news of all the other shows broke, the pitch quickly gained traction within the television industry and Gavaghan, 21, was dispatched to town during her spring break to see if she could leverage her local connections to get people to agree to be on film. So far, she has had lots of interest from the newcomers but little from the locals.

Powderhouse Productions has been trying a similar approach, touting its local connection - “We’re at the other end of the Red Line,’’ Tug Yourgrau, the president of Powderhouse, likes to point out - and track record for serious work, to gain the trust of locals. But their concept, to follow an extended family living in a three-decker, was met with raised eyebrows.

“They sent me the press release, and I said, ‘You’re going to have a hard time casting that because it really doesn’t exist anymore,’ ’’ said Maureen Dahill, the editor of the local website Caught in Southie.

Yourgrau admits his casting team struggled to find a family that fit its criteria - the Winters-Niedzwiecki house has three stories, but is not a classic three-decker - and sat down with lots of compelling families that ultimately chose not to participate. But, he said, his casting team was able to find a family they were happy with.

But as news of the choice of the Winters-Niedzwiecki family spread through the neighborhood, there was considerable grumbling because Michael Lentini, a half-brother of Leah Lentini Winters, was a longtime drug addict who died in November. Winters said her brother contracted a MRSA staph infection in a halfway house and died shortly after.

Terrence Hayes, a Los Angeles filmmaker who grew up in South Boston, said all of the shows are “20 years late to the party,’’ but got involved with the Powderhouse project as a consultant when it was apparent a Southie reality show was inevitable.

“I would rather somebody who was born and raised there be involved to serve as the moral compass, if you will, to dismiss the myths and stereotypes,’’ Hayes said. “I know what I’m doing. I care about the community. And this family is literally eight houses away from the house where I grew up. I’m not out to exploit Southie or portray it in a bad light; I want this to be an honest look at a family from Southie dealing with the gentrification of the neighborhood.’’

495 Productions, the folks behind the controversial MTV series, “Jersey Shore,’’ did not respond to interview requests from the Globe. But their series, titled “Southie Pride,’’ has been met with the cold shoulder.

Dahill, whose website has become a clearinghouse for all the reality show news and rumors, said the 495 producers have had to expand their search outside the neighborhood. It is something, Dahill points out, they did shamelessly when casting their “New Jersey’’ show; only two of the eight cast members are actually from the state.

Another reality show concept that had the whiff of the popular “Real Housewives’’ franchise and was being scouted by Boston Casting appears to have faded. “They wanted good-looking women who were still a little rough and outspoken,’’ said Dahill, who interviewed for the show with friends and was glad it died when she got a sense of what they were looking for.

But with 495 and Powderhouse closing in on production, and a third show - centered around boxers at Peter Welch’s Gym - close to finalizing a deal, it appears that Southie is going to have its reality show moment, whether people like it or not.

“Some people say, ‘Good for you,’ ’’ Winters said of the reception she has been getting as news of her show spread in the neighborhood. “Other people say, ‘Why are you doing that?!’ ’’

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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