By Marilyn Jones
NATCHITOCHES, La. — At the corner of Pine and Cypress streets is a small memorial park dedicated to Susan Harling Robinson, whose name may not mean anything to you, but the film her story inspired almost certainly will.
The play and beloved movie “Steel Magnolias” was written by her brother, Robert Harling, about her life and death in 1985 of complications from Type 1 diabetes. Not only is the movie dear to residents in Natchitoches because the Harling family lives here but because 30 years ago the movie was filmed on location in the city of 20,000.
A great deal of the movie was filmed at Steel Magnolia House — wedding preparations, reception and family activities including the card game the night before Shelby’s (the character inspired by Robinson) kidney-transplant surgery. This is where I met Thomas Whitehead, a retired Northwestern State University journalism and public relations professor, who escorted the film’s production designer, art director and location manager to scout Natchitoches as a favor to Harling.
“They liked the idea of filming here, but essential to the production was a soundstage,” Whitehead said. “I strategically took him to three locations on the university campus, saving the best for last.”
Once a soundstage was agreed upon, the men visited local homes to find the right house to stand in for Shelby’s parents’ home.
“The film came about quickly. All of a sudden all six actresses were available,” he said. “After two months of prep, the support staff started to arrive. Two weeks later they started to film. That was June 1988. Filming wrapped in September.”
The star-studded cast included Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts and Shirley MacLaine.
“They were wonderful people. It was a magical moment,” Whitehead said. “Tom Skerritt rode his bike all over town and sent his wife flowers every Monday.”
He got to know MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis. He said Field had her baby and nanny with her, so she was with them most of the time.
During the filming, Whitehead served as production-location consultant. “I had more to do with keeping everyone happy than with the film,” he said. “(Director) Herbert Ross’ girlfriend at the time was Jackie Onassis’ sister, Lee Radziwill. I took care of Lee (while they were filming).”
He talked about the bird trainers getting the birds in the opening scene to fly from one tree to another and finding someone who could make the armadillo groom’s cake: “The gray frosting kept turning green in the sunlight.” He mentioned how college students in the locker-room scene were paid according to the amount of clothing they had on when Clairee, played by Dukakis, was interviewing the coach for her radio station.
“These are great roles,” he said. “This is a great story. It doesn’t get dated.”
Lori Tate, the manager of the Holiday Inn restaurant that summer of filming, said she got to know a lot of the cast and crew staying at the hotel.
“Bill Dance was in charge of extras,” Tate said. “He asked me who I thought might want to be in the movie, and one day I said I wanted to be in the movie.”
We sat at the dining-room table that was used to serve cake at the wedding reception in the movie. Spread before us were two thick scrapbooks filled with photos, news clippings, thank-you letters from crew members and memorabilia including the wedding program and a pink napkin with “Shelby and Jackson” printed on it.
“I was cast as the groom’s mother,” she said. Although she didn’t have a speaking part, her role put her in the wedding, reception and funeral scenes.
“Olympia and Julia stayed at the Holiday Inn,” she recalled. “They were very friendly. Dolly was also very friendly. Some of the stars stayed with local residents.”
Today Tate is a greeter at the Hampton Inn. “I tell jokes, and people want to take my picture because I was in the movie. This morning someone wanted my picture,” she laughed.
Finding filming locations
It’s all here — the streets, houses, historic business district, parks and cemetery. Little has changed over the past three decades. When watching the movie, it’s easy to pick out locations.
I started on Front Street, where New Orleans-style buildings face Cane River Lake. I stopped at the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to pick up a brochure showing the filming locations, especially the harder-to-find houses used in production.
The city is divided by the river. On the west side is Front Street, Steel Magnolia House, the American Cemetery, Ouiser’s house, Truvy’s church, Aunt Fern’s house and the riverfront park where the Easter egg hunt was held.
On the east side of the river is Annelle and Sammy’s home; Truvy’s house; Super One, where Clairee and Ouiser went shopping; Natchitoches Regional Medical Center, where the hospital scenes were filmed; Clairee’s home; and Shelby and Jackson’s home. There’s also St. Augustine Church, where Shelby and Jackson were married.
I walked along the waterfront where the final scenes of the movie were filmed. The city’s Roque House, dating to 1803, was prominent in the scene. Looking up onto Front Street, I found the only thing that has changed is that the Ford dealership is gone, replaced by shops and offices designed in the fashion of the rest of the business district.
Earlier in the day Whitehead told me “Steel Magnolias” has been produced in 15 languages all over the world.
“It’s a simple story, a human-interest story with interesting female characters,” he said. “It will always hold a special place in people’s hearts.”
If you go
WHERE TO STAY
Steel Magnolia House: 320 Jefferson, 318-238-2585 or 318-332-8780; steelmagnoliahouse.net. The house, which served as the centerpiece for the movie, is open for tours upon request. Rates start at $230 per night.
Hampton Inn Natchitoches: 5300 University Parkway; 318-354-0010; hamptoninn.com. Just off Interstate 49, the hotel is five minutes from the historic district. Room rates from $87.
WHERE TO EAT
Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen & Restaurant: 622 Second St.; 318-352-3353; lasyones.com. Family-owned restaurant serving creole cuisine, including traditional meat pies.
Merci Beaucoup Restaurant: 127 Church St. 318-352-6634; mercibeaucouprestaurant.com. The restaurant serves Cajun and American food, and provides excellent service.
WHAT TO DO
Tours of the Historic District and “Steel Magnolia” filming locations: Can be arranged through Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: 780 Front St.; 800-259-1714; natchitoches.com.
‘Steel Magnolias’ cast
Sally Field: M’Lynn Eatenton
Dolly Parton: Truvy Jones
Shirley MacLaine: Ouiser Boudreaux
Daryl Hannah: Annelle Dupuy Desoto
Olympia Dukakis: Clairee Belcher
Julia Roberts: Shelby Eatenton Latcherie
Tom Skerritt: Drum Eatenton
Dylan McDermott: Jackson Latcherie
Tags: Louisiana, Movie Locations, Natchitoches Louisiana, Steel Magnolia