Popular Setting for Period Movies : Texas Town Is a Big Hit in Film-Making Business

Times Staff Writer

Welcome--as the people around here like to say--to the movie capital of Ellis County.

Actually, some people with more pretensions call Waxahachie the movie capital of Texas. Certainly N. B. (Buck) Jordan, the executive director of the local chamber of commerce, does, and no one has yet called his hand.

This town of 17,300, half an hour’s drive south from Dallas on Interstate 35, is getting used to the sight of production crews filming in the house next door or on the square around the imposing, Romanesque county courthouse. The Econo Lodge out on the interstate is doing a brisk business. Some of the restaurants stay open late, when the movie people are in town, so that the crews will have a place to eat after a busy day of shooting.


Films such as “Tender Mercies” and “Places in the Heart” have been shot here, along with 12 others. In short, Waxahachie, which in days gone by called itself the “Cotton Capital of the World”--and had little other claim to fame after cotton was no longer king--is now back on the map because of the movie industry.

The lure is the neighborhood. Stately gingerbread homes that line tree-shaded streets and a restored town square make Waxahachie a perfect setting for turn-of-the-century-period movies.

But Waxahachie is not the only place in Texas benefiting from the film industry. Cities and towns throughout the state are being used for cinematic locations--128 major projects in the last five years. Last year, Texas had 30 major productions in locations from Dallas to Venus, because the state can offer everything from desert to forest to beach settings.

That is hardly enough to send shock waves through Hollywood or New York, the two leaders in movie production. But Dana Shelton, assistant director of the Texas Film Institute, says that Texas is a contender for the No. 3 spot in the business, doing battle with Illinois and Florida.

Shelton credits good locations near major cities, skilled local crews and more relaxed union standards as reasons that movie makers turn to Texas when budgets do not stretch to seven figures.

‘An Alternative’

“Hollywood is the movie capital of the world,” he said. “You go to Hollywood to make movies. You go to Detroit to make cars. What we are seeing here is an alternative to the production centers.”

For the people of Waxahachie, as well as other small towns around the Dallas hub, the movie business means money--millions of dollars spent by production companies on everything from meals to lumber to paint to clothes to motel rooms. But it means other things as well.

Howard Raney’s furniture store has a new coat of paint because the producers of “Peyton Place, the Next Generation”--a made-for-television movie--wanted it a different color. They repainted it to Raney’s specifications when the shooting was completed.

The town square now has a gazebo, thanks to the same movie, because it was needed to give Waxahachie a New England flavor. The gazebo was built over the steps leading down to the public rest room, adding an aesthetic touch to what had been merely a utilitarian concrete slab.

Had Shack Renovated

Bill and Margaret Spalding had what amounted to a run-down two-story shack behind their house when Oscar-winning writer Horton Foote saw it and wanted it as a set for his movie “1918.” The shack was completely renovated--the floors sanded, the walls papered, the exterior repainted--and the Spaldings now have a rentable home, thanks to the movie industry.

The movies have also brought a bit of humor to Waxahachie. One often-told story is that of an elderly gentleman who came upon a crew from “Tender Mercies” about six miles outside town. They were putting up a set to resemble an old gasoline station and motel, and the old man was both amused and concerned.

“You boys are in the wrong part of the county,” he said. “You’re not going to get any business out here.”

On one recent summer afternoon, L. T. Felty, whose business card describes him as the “Chili Adviser to the Governor,” eased his worn and faded pickup truck onto the street. The card also describes him as a banking officer for the Waxahachie Bank & Trust Co., but he is in fact the town’s biggest booster and purveyor of good will. He was principal of Waxahachie High School, taking on the banking title after retirement.

‘Handshake Is Your Word’

His job is to sell Waxahachie and, in particular, to sell it to the movie people. He talked about how writer-director Robert Benton was one of the most famous products of the town, of how his job is to woo movie companies to town and of how the people of Waxahachie are the kind you can trust. “If you don’t lie to them, they’ll believe in you as long as you live,” he said. “Your handshake is your word.”

And he also said that there was some apprehension when the movie people started arriving in the mid-1960s.

“We had some people who couldn’t see the use of those strange people coming in,” he said. “Anyone with a beard or who wore their clothes different was looked at as someone strange. Some people still have that idea here.”

But he said that most have come around to the idea of Waxahachie as movie capital, except for the occasional grousing when the courthouse square is roped off during shooting sequences and motorists have to drive a block out of their way. Residents enjoy working as bit players, he said, but the major incentive to accept the film companies is the money.

By one city worker’s off-the-cuff estimate, the film companies have brought in more than $5 million in business.

‘Money Don’t Stink’

“Boy, that money don’t stink at all,” Felty said. “It smells good to me. When the movie people are in town, the money starts flowing.”

Felty, after a quick tour around town, pulled up to the set of the film “Valentine’s Day,” another Horton Foote movie, which was being shot at Bob and Wanda Bell’s. Bob is a Waxahachie postal clerk, and he was at work. But Wanda was in the backyard, eating lunch with the cast and crew. The Spaldings were there too and had brought their folding chairs over to the set. After the months of watching the movie unfold, and being in it, they felt like one of the family. They were all sitting with Foote and his wife, Lillian.

Crew Stayed in Town

Foote, a gracious man who sported a two-day growth of beard, recalled that the crew of “Tender Mercies,” for which he won his second Oscar, stayed in Waxahachie while most of the filming was done outside town.

“We lived here at the motel,” he said. “We began to look around, and we could see that it was a lovely town.”

Set for ‘Valentine’s Day’

And when they were looking for a slightly disheveled home for “Valentine’s Day,” they found the Bells’ place, which the couple had owned for 22 years and in which they had reared five daughters.

The crew had taken over the house for weeks, leaving the Bells only the back room and kitchen. A tent out back sheltered an ice machine, trash bags and folding tables. A caterer drove in each day from Dallas with meals for the cast and crew. The house was a wreck, with cameras and equipment everywhere and furniture stored in other rooms. Someone asked Mrs. Bell if it had all been worth it, and she said she would have to reserve judgment.

“I’ll probably have to wait and tell you when it is all over,” she said. “It’s not something I’d want to do every month.”

Later in the day, Calvin Skaggs, the movie’s producer, sitting at a picnic table, told story after story about how cooperative the town had been. He said that the neighbors in the house next door to the Bells had been preparing to have a large party that evening but had been willing to have their gardener stop mowing during the filming. He said that early in the production, Felty had been glad to authorize the cashing of a $5,000 check, drawn on a New York account, at his bank.

But Skaggs also said that he had been thankful for the one day a week when he could get to Dallas, with its bars and fine restaurants. He said that Waxahachie was a fine place, with good people who put up with a lot. But it was still a small town, and he was from the big city.

“If Dallas was not there, this place would have been pretty unbearable,” he said.