Hollywood came to Natchitoches 25 years ago. Some of the industry’s most famous folks made it their home and walked its streets.
And they made a movie you’ve probably heard of: “Steel Magnolias.”
They moved in just after July 4, 1988, and all were gone by the second week of September.
They shopped for groceries at Brookshires, ate at Mariner’s on the lake and the now closed Just Friends on Front Street. They roamed the streets. Ordered flowers for their wives.
They turned the town into a movie set.
Many residents became “stars” — at a glimpse — even if their scenes were not.
Those stars: Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Sam Shepard, Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott. More: director Herbert Ross, whose wife, Lee B. Radziwell, is Jackie Kennedy’s sister, and producer Ray Stark.
They hunkered down, worked, played and made the town their home.
The film’s roots are in Natchitoches, called Chinquipin in the movie. Author Bobby Harling grew up here and wrote the story in 10 days time about his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, the mother of a 2-year-old son. It was about her fight with diabetes and her death of kidney failure after the pregnancy.
The saga of love and loss also is the story of the friendship between his mother, Margaret Harling — who died last year — and a group of women who met at Truvy’s beauty shop. Harling grew up in Natchitoches with his brother and sister. Their father, Bob Harling, divides his time between his son’s home in the country and their family home.
Robinson was played by Julia Roberts and her mother by Sally Field. Tom Skerritt represented the father, Bob Harling.
The search for a place to film “Chinquipin,” ended here after author Harling asked film officials to at least take a look. Associate producer Andy Stone did, after visiting Atlanta and Wilmington, North Carolina, and and en route to New Orleans and Dallas.
“If you really what to know why ‘Steel Magnolias’ was filmed in Natchitoches, the reason is (Natchitoches resident) Tom Whitehead,” said Stone in “Steel Magnolias Scrapbook.”
Stone explained that at the request of the Louisiana Film Commission, unpaid and unofficial Whitehead picked him up in Baton Rouge. He immediately asked Stone what it would take to film in this town.
Stone was so impressed with Whitehead he ended up on the movie’s payroll and on call 24 hours a day, doing everything from helping with a search for sets to driving Olympia Dukakis to Cherokee Plantation on a sightseeing tour.
And the stars were sightseers when not working. (When Whitehead took MacLaine up to Cherokee Plantation to meet the owner, the late Theodosia Nolan, the star insisted on going to the attic. “We felt for ghosts,” White recalled.)
Yes, before Louisiana tax credits, cameras in the streets of Shreveport, cordoning off a major interstate, there was Natchitoches.
One of the worldwide premieres was here, Nov. 11, 1989, with Dolly Parton and Daryl Hannah making personal appearances.
It was a heady time for citizens of a small town.
Hollywood spent a lot of money while here. When they departed, the production left a legacy to the town.
The gift: a tourism industry.
“I believe the movie was impetus for the tourist industry in Natchitoches,” said L.J. Melder, whose son owns the Jefferson Street Townhouse Bed & Breakfast.
Jerry Pierce, Northwestern State University vice president of external affairs, agrees.
“Harling put his hometown of Natchitoches on the map with national and worldwide attention,” said Pierce, in a story in the Natchitoches Times.
“That provided impetus for the economic resurgence of the community that still benefits from being the backdrop of the stage play and film and of the real-life circumstance that inspired ‘Steel Magnolias.’”
Pierce pointed out the town was hard hit by the recession, businesses had declined, buildings were vacant, unemployment was up and tourism industry had tapered off.
Then “Steel Magnolias” pumped money into the economy during filming. And, when it hit the screens of the world, tourists started visiting.
And the tourism industry burgeoned once again.
Arlene Gould, Natchitoches Convention and Tourism Bureau executive director, does not have an official count of visitors, but 11,000 have signed in at the bureau.
“A large percentage are interested in ‘Steel Magnolias.’ And some come specifically for ‘Steel Magnolias,’” she said.
“It put us on the map,” said Gould. “For everyone who has seen the movie outside of Natchitoches it is synonymous with the movie. It had a tremendous impact on the tourism trade and on our community.”
Although Gould couldn’t put a dollar figure on the impact, she points out it certainly affected the hotel/bed and breakfast business.
Hud and Pam Robertson, of Marianna, Florida, didn’t come to town because of the movie, but were interested in the fact that it was filmed here once they arrived.
Emma Deshotels, who works at Georgia’s, said the shop on Front Street does a thriving business with “Steel Magnolia”-inspired souvenirs, such as photos, postcards, magnolia magnets and ornaments and mugs.
“Here is a magnolia out of fish scales!’ she said.
She also finds it amazing that the film is so loved by so many.
“For different reasons and all ages. One high school in Texas puts on the play,” said Deshotels.
And she said they specifically want to see the house where much of the filming is done and the tree where Tom Skerritt shot the birds.
“An opening scene of Daryl walking down front street,” said Gould.
And, Natchitoches is star struck. Channeling Hollywood, the town started the “Natchitoches Walk of Honor.”
To celebrate the 25th year, the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches will show three houses featured in the film on its Fall Pilgrimage Tour of Homes.
The event is Oct. 10-12. There are three tours: Candlelight, Town and Cane River Country Tour.
The buildings include the Steel Magnolia House at 320 Rue Jefferson, where the major part of the filming took place. Recently purchased by attorneys Dan and Desiree Dyess, it is the featured house.
Two more houses used in the film are on the tour:
• Sweet Cane Inn, 926 Washington St., built in the late 1800s for a U.S. congressman, and where President William Howard Taft was once an overnight guest.
• Fair Woods French Creole Cottage, 840 Rue Second, built in 1835 and restored in 2008, and noted for its purity of design.
“We are pleased that we have three ‘Steel Magnolias,’ including the house which is where the family lived in the film,” said tour chairwoman Julia Hildebrand, who wore a lavender dress when she was an extra in some of the scenes.
She also is pleased that for the 60th tour, the group is showing several houses which have not been on tour for several years.
A look at the Steel Magnolia House:
• Rare round brick columns on the front gallery.
• Twin parlors divided by pocket doors and mirror fireplaces at each end of the space are stopped with gold-framed mirrors.
• Exquisite twin chandeliers came from a Dallas bank which was in foreclosure when Dan Dyess purchased them and then kept them in storage for about five years.
• Dining room. The chandelier purchased at a shop in New York. The Louisiana Empire mahogany table was in the basement of a warehouse in Lafayette for 10 years. Since it was in several pieces, it took Richard Stempley, of Stempley’s Restoration and Refinishing Shop, more than three months to restore it. It included extensive work on some of the table leaves.
• Furniture in the house came from New Orleans, Lafayette, Natchez, Mississippi, Nashville, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. It is mostly period with the exception of the beds on the second floor which are authentic copies.
• Breakfast room stainglass window shown in the movie was designed by artist Jokie Taylor and made by Rivers Murphy in the 1960s.
If you go
What: Natchitoches Fall Pilgrimage Tour of Homes.
When: Oct. 10-12. Hours: 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Oct. 10, Tour I Candlelight Tour; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 11, Tour II, Town Tour; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 11, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 12, Tour III, Country Tour.
Presented by: Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches.
Admission: $25, individual, one tour; $40, individual, two tour package; $50, three tour package; $10, any one house, Saturday or Sunday; $5, per tour, children, ages 6 to 12; and free, children under 6. Children must be accompanied by an adult. Tickets may be purchased at any house during the tour. Tour Headquarters, Lemee House, 310 Rue Jefferson. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Oct. 10, and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Oct. 11. Complimentary admission with tour ticket to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum, 800 Front St.
Information: Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission- (800) 259-1714, or (318) 581-8042. Web site: Melroseplantation.org.
Houses on the tour
• The Blessed House, 318 Rue Nelken. Built in 1836.
• Scott Corner House, 104 Rue Poete. Classic Creole style with a West Indies influence.
• Pierson Townhouse and Garden, 570 Rue Front. Once the Opera House.
• Prudhomme-Rouquier House, 446 Rue Jefferson. Built in 1782 on land acquired through a Spanish Land Grant.
• Lambre-Gwinn House, 1972 Williams Ave. A 150-year-old house.
• Steel Magnolia House, 320 Rue Jefferson. Built prior to 1841.
• Fair Woods French Creole Cottage, 840 Rue Second. Built in 1835.
• Sweet Cane Inn., 926 Washington St. Built for U.S. Rep. Phanor Breazeale in the late 1800s and President Taft was once an overnight guest.
• Melrose Plantation, 3533 State Highway 119. Built around 1796, it is a National Historic Landmark.
• Atahoe Plantation, 1843 Bermuda Road.
• Cherokee Plantation, 3110 State Highway 494. Built before 1839.
• Oakland Plantation, 4386 State Highway 494. (Admission is free.) Part of the Cane River Creole National Historic Park and a National Historic Landmark.
• Sally Field shopped at Brookshire’s. During a long outdoor shoot at the Gahagan’s, MacLaine decided enough was enough until she got some yogurt, so off went someone to wake up a Brookshire’s manager to open the store for yogurt.
• Tauzin, the home of Coley and Sharon Gahagan was used for several takes, including the Christmas scene. And, Coley took Lee Radziwell, Ross’ wife/Jackie Kennedy’s sister water skiing on Cane River. (“And, at one point, she took her clothes off!” said Coley during a free wheeling discussion with Whitehead recently.)
• Tom Skerritt ordered flowers for his wife at Jeanne’s Country Garden.
• Dolly Parton, Dukakis, MacLaine and Sam Shepard were regulars at Mariner’s.
• Everyone stopped by Just Friends for a bite to eat because they liked the food and adored the owner.
• The armadillo cake in the wedding scene was made by a Natchitoches resident.
(Courtesy of shreveporttimes,com)