Modern Durham Retains Home-Field Advantage

Times Staff Writer

The hit movie “Bull Durham” has lovingly showcased this one-time tobacco town on screens across the nation in a way that most tourist bureaus would envy, despite ads calling it “a major-league love story in a minor-league town.”

Image-conscious natives are quick to point out that the Durham of the bawdy baseball film--a quaint, industrial town seemingly out of the 1930s--is discernible today rather than dominant, nearly overshadowed by the city’s emerging, gleaming commercial skyline and divided by a new downtown expressway.

Drive Around Town

Still, with “Bull Durham” etched in your memory, a random drive around town puts you at familiar, gritty sites from the movie, which stars Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner, at almost every turn. Old two-story homes like the one inhabited by the character played by Sarandon survive, but they are vastly outnumbered by scores of anonymous apartment and condominium complexes.


More than anything, the success of the movie has turned 50-year-old Durham Athletic Park, where much of the movie takes place, into an instant attraction with visitors to the north-central North Carolina city of 125,000. The classic 5,000-seat stadium features green grass, no dome and seats that make you feel as if you’re right on top of the field.

Over the past 10 years the real Durham Bulls, a winning Class A minor league club, has been a growing success with the city’s residents, who love to spend their relaxed summer evenings with their families at this ballpark. The identification between the team and the town is so great that by February, when President Reagan visited the area and well before the movie was released, Mayor Wib Gulley gave him a Bulls cap rather than the keys to the city.

Interestingly, “Bull Durham” is not the first time this city has been portrayed on theater screens around the country. In 1950 Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall starred in “Bright Leaf,” a name that survives here as an upscale shopping center in a restored, red-brick tobacco warehouse. That film recounted the fictionalized rise of James Buchanan (Buck) Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co. and Duke University, heretofore the city’s two main claims to fame.

The Duke family homestead, just outside of town, is a restored dwelling surrounded by several tobacco-curing barns and primitive factories where Buck’s father, Washington Duke, settled just before the Civil War. Owned for many years by the university, the homestead was turned over to the state in 1974.

In the late 19th Century the Dukes’ new product was overshadowed by John Ruffin Green and William T. Blackwell’s established brand of loose smoking tobacco sold in small pouches. Their firm was called Durham Tobacco Co. but popularly known as Bull Durham in honor of its black bovine trademark, which cautioned: “None Genuine Without the Bull on Each Package.”

Although the hard-driving Buck Duke eventually took over the Durham Tobacco Co. and its most famous product in the process of building his worldwide cigarette empire, Durham remains known as “The Bull City.”


Durham has many things to see and do besides visiting the old ballpark and the city’s last cigarette factory. But apart from a few restored antebellum plantations on the outskirts of town, most area attractions are still tied in some way to tobacco or the Duke family.

Civil War History

About four miles west of the Duke homestead is Bennett Place, a restored farmhouse. It was there, on April 26, 1865, that Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, surrendered to the larger Union Army of Gen. William T. Sherman, who had recently completed his devastating March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah. Like the homestead, there are guided tours and an exhibit hall at the state-administered Bennett Place, and admission is also free.

During the nine days of negotiations that preceded the Confederate surrender at Bennett Place, the largest of the Civil War, soldiers of both armies “liberated” some of the Bright Leaf smoking tobacco from Green and Ruffin’s Durham Tobacco Co. warehouses. After the war, requests began coming in from these veterans asking for more of the blend, affecting the city’s economic future and, indirectly, giving a boost to Washington Duke, a returned Confederate prisoner of war.

The Duke family’s product, an upstart rival to Bull Durham called Duke’s Mixture, was turned out at the homestead and sold under the slogan “Pro Bono Publico.” The slogan, translated from the Latin “for the public good,” might be considered ironic by many, in light of the later connection established between cigarette smoking and cancer, emphysema and heart disease.

To compound the irony, much ground-breaking research in those diseases is done at world-renowned Duke University Medical Center, which also provides tours to visitors.

In “Bull Durham,” Sarandon’s character refers to the ballpark as a “cathedral,” which in many ways it is. But those with more traditional tastes might prefer Duke University’s soaring, 210-foot Gothic Chapel, with its magnificent Flentrop organ. The chapel is a breathtaking sight at the end of a long, tree-lined drive.

An elevator ride and a short flight of stairs takes you to an observation platform, the location of a key scene in the 1983 film “Brainstorm,” starring Natalie Wood, and an equally dramatic view of the campus and the green countryside.

Most of Duke’s West Campus, where last year’s “Weeds” was shot, starring Nick Nolte, is Gothic or neo-Gothic. East Campus, site of the university’s respected art museum, is red-brick Georgian. Between the two are the formal Sarah P. Duke gardens, linked to both campuses by free and frequent buses.

During recent school years Broadway producers have been using Duke’s facilities to prepare shows for legitimate theater runs in New York. Among the successful productions were “A Walk in the Woods,” “Broadway Bound” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Tickets are sold to the public, at considerably less than Broadway prices, for the last two weeks of performances at the university’s Bryan Student Center.

Track Comes to Town

Until a decade ago there wasn’t much to do to relieve Durham’s oppressive summer heat, humidity and boredom, when most of the students at Duke and other nearby universities left town.

Then Duke and North Carolina Central University began courting international track meets. Author and baseball executive Miles Wolff revived the dormant Durham Bulls franchise and, with city help, began sprucing up the downtown stadium for a full evening schedule of home games.

Within 12 months of the Bulls’ return, Charles Reinhart moved the internationally acclaimed American Dance Festival from Connecticut College to Duke for its annual six-week residence of classes, seminars and performances. One of the earliest festival students after the move to Durham was an unknown named Madonna Cicone, who later dropped her last name.

Suddenly the sleepy town seemed full of fit young men and women, and there seemed to be something exciting to do almost every night and weekend. Even so, the city’s theatrics are by no means confined to the ballpark, the track and the campus. Several years ago the opera “Carmen” was produced in the outdoor courtyard of Bright Leaf Square, the carefully restored tobacco warehouse.

Durham is a city in transition and a study in contrasts. Over the years the old economy has shifted from blue collar (highly dependent on tobacco and textiles) to high-tech and higher education. The old mills, factories and warehouses are still here, but increasingly they exist as shells to be renovated, restored and gentrified like Bright Leaf Square was. This shift is reflected in almost everything about Durham, from its architecture to the cuisine and lodgings.

You can get some of the best and most authentic barbecued pork in the nation at Bullock’s, 3330 Wortham St., (919) 383-3211, a moderately priced pig palace where the lines are usually long and no credit cards or out-of-town checks are accepted.

Just off Duke’s East Campus is a cluster of healthy New Age restaurants in the $6-to-$12 price range for entrees, including Seventh Street restaurant, 1104 Broad St., (919) 286-1019; Anotherthyme, 109 N. Gregson St., (919) 682-5225; the 9th Street Bakery, 690 9th St., (919) 286-0303; and the most recent and striking (but somewhat more pricey) addition, The Magnolia Grill, 1002 9th St., (919) 493-3609, one of 14 restaurants in the United States invited to participate in the American Chef’s tribute to James Beard in New York.

Lodging ranges from the ultra-modern, highly rated Sheraton University Center, 2800 Middleton Ave., (919) 383-8575, rooms $64-$89, with an entire VIP floor, to the Arrow Head Inn, 106 Mason Road, (919) 477-8430, $50-$90, Durham’s first and thus far only bed-and-breakfast. The B&b; is set in a plantation built in 1774 and furnished in antiques. Four of the inn’s eight rooms have private baths.