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Beautiful People of Natchitoches Turn Out for ‘Magnolias’

TIMES ARTS EDITOR

Television may have become the mass medium of entertainment, but when a theatrical motion picture company invades a town to make a film, the events are generally remembered longer than floods, tornadoes, quintuplets or Sherman’s march to the sea, which a location can sometimes resemble.

Until a year ago, Natchitoches (pronounced Nack-i-tish) was still talking about the time John Wayne and William Holden came to town to make “The Horse Soldiers.” That was nearly 40 years ago, and by now the memories had become legends.

Now the townspeople have already begun to tell visitors about the summer of ’88, when “Steel Magnolias” was shot on their streets and in their houses and on an improvised sound stage in a building at the local Northwestern State University. And there were stars in the midst--Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts--shopping in their stores, dancing at a local nightclub called Bodacious Country. For once, the stars got along uncommonly well with each other and with the community.

As of Friday night, the locals, hundreds of them, can show as well as tell--and prove they are in the film. After a year of impatient waiting and after premieres in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, Natchitoches got its own razzle-dazzle, Hollywood-type opening, complete with a searchlight raking the night sky. Parton, Hannah and Robert Harling, the local man who wrote “Steel Magnolias,” flew in from Hollywood on two Rastar company jets. The beautiful people of Natchitoches turned out in black-tie and shimmering gowns for two screenings and a flowery party in the university’s basketball pavilion.

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But the premiere, which netted $40,000 for scholarships at the university, was like none of the others. It played like--what the heck, it was--a home movie and there were constant cries of recognition. “There I am!” and “Look at DeDe in her big hat!” and “I can’t believe it.”

One woman, who endured five days in a wool suit in 100-degree-plus weather for a funeral scene said: “I’ll have to see the movie several times before I know what I think of it. I’m still just looking for my friends.”

Julian Foy, a local General Motors dealer, said: “Wait until the cassette comes out. Everybody in town’ll have one and they’ll go through it frame by frame. It’ll take hours, and they’ll want you to watch.”

The premiere was largely a love feast because the production company hardly put a foot wrong even beyond pumping an estimated $4 million into a depressed local economy. Several leading citizens moved out of their homes and rented them to the stars. Some rented furniture and other props to the company. Dry cleaners, florists, restaurants all did nicely.

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Tom Whitehead, a journalism professor at the university, acted as liaison between the community and producer Ray Stark and director Herbert Ross, diffusing problems and facilitating everything from plantation tours to waterskiing for Ross’ soon-to-be-bride, Princess Lee Radziwill.

In the play and film, Natchitoches is called Chinquapin, on the sensible grounds that almost no one outside the state would know how to pronounce Natchitoches. But Chinquapin is a nom de convenience, and beyond the cries and nudgings of recognition at the screenings Friday night, there was another response. The local audience almost without exception knew the family and the tragedy on which Harling had based his play and then his script for the film.

Harling had written the play in 10 impassioned days after his sister, Susan, died from the complications of diabetes. She had lived a year after the birth of a son, conceived apparently in defiance of doctors’ warnings. (The son, now 6, lives elsewhere in Louisiana with his father, himself a pediatrician, who has remarried.)

In the audience at one of the Friday screenings were Harling’s parents, Robert, a retired paper company executive, and Margaret, who, like the mother in the play and film, donated one of her kidneys in an unavailing attempt to save her daughter.

“We’ve learned to concentrate on the good things,” Margaret Harling says. “The film is special to us, of course, and we think it’s so beautiful. To me, Susan’s whole life was an inspiration and I believe the film is inspiring in its own way.”

Playwright Harling told a press conference: “There’s always a balance between birth and death, life and death. People always say, ‘Write about what you know.’ I wrote about love.”

Natchitoches, which is celebrating its 275th birthday, was the oldest settlement in the original Louisiana Territory, two years older than New Orleans. It is famous for its spicy meat pies, for Rex Reed who finished high school here and will be grand marshall of the annual Christmas parade, and for New Orleans Saint quarterback Bobby Ebert and seven other current NFL players. Now it will be known as well for those deceptively fluttery but extraordinarily resilient and enduring women whom Harling was not the first to name but has immortalized as steel magnolias.

Harling has also given a blink-of-the-eye immortality, the kind only movies provide, to some of the real-life magnolias and their spouses and their children.

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