Eatonton, Ga. — A famous novelist may be a celebrity in some circles but rarely a star -- at least not in the sense of popping flash bulbs or a small riot in the streets. But there are exceptions. Here is what happened one rainy day in rural Georgia -- the day ``The Color Purple,'' with 11 Oscar nominations to its credit, opened in the home town of Alice Walker, writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it is based.
I was driving along past fields that were an unearthly hot cinnamon red, and hills with a slight roll to them, and scraggly pine trees. Though desolate in one respect, this part of the country is rich in another: It produces writers. Joel Chandler Harris as well as Alice Walker came from Eatonton, a town of minuscule proportions, while Flannery O'Connor lived in Milledgeville, one town over.
The main street of Eatonton looked like any other main street, with rows of storefronts and one stop light that didn't seem too necessary anyway. But a movie marquee caught my eye; it announced that ``The Color Purple,'' Steven Spielberg's film version of Alice Walker's story, was opening that very day.
This story was actually set -- though, to considerable local annoyance, not actually filmed -- in Eatonton. So the opening here was an occasion for considerable local excitement.
At the Uncle Remus Museum, made of three gentrified slave houses stuck together, a woman told me that a big party was planned in the armory starting in a few minutes, that the author herself would be present, and if I hustled I could make it over there.
Every town has a place like the armory, a huge room with a basketball hoop at each end. The center of the room was occupied by a long table with big purple bows looped along it, and a bouquet of softball-sized purple chrysanthemums on top. The general gymnasium atmosphere was lightened by the presence of hundreds of people, all semiformal and elegant in suits and bright silky dresses. There were more women wearing purple than I had ever seen in one place before.
Alice Walker's family and friends were there, wearing purple corsages. There were a number of alert-looking newspeople toting multiple cameras, or minicams, or clutching notebooks and moaning about deadlines.
A lot of people from Atlanta hadn't seen the movie yet, as the lines were wrapped around the block, they said. I talked to one woman who had been in Alice Walker's class in school: ``She was smart and nice,'' the woman recalled. ``She deserves everything she gets.''
``She's a shy person, so she won't stay too long,'' said someone else.
Then Alice Walker, surprisingly tiny, exquisite in a beautiful black floor-length dress, came in, and the crowd stampeded toward the door. In half a second the minicams had taken charge; they swept like some force of nature across the room and established the author on a small dais. All you could see was a row of backs with minicams; it looked like a Roman war formation.
``It's `Entertainment Tonight,' '' said someone in the crowd. Most of the people in the room were pressed up against the dais and each other, straining to hear something, anything.
Five minutes later Alice Walker was led out of the armory by a gigantic policeman, and everyone poured out to cars to head for the theater, a searchlight pointing the way. I acquired a rider, a cheerful reporter from Atlanta who had gotten a quote by stationing himself by the door. ``What did she say?'' I asked excitedly. ``She said, `It's good to be home.' ''
The mob had transferred itself to the front of the theater. A curious feature of this theater is that there is a separate entrance for the balcony. But you can get into the main lobby from there, if you slide behind the counter, where there will be a woman making popcorn. I should warn you, though: She won't be pleased.
The theater owner, John Peck, a kindly, fatherly man with silver hair, was there at the door, wearing a tuxedo. All the ushers were wearing tuxes with purple carnations, and purple bows were posted here and there. There was such a melee in the hall, you'd think the place was on fire. Alice Walker and her party were in a little office off the lobby. As she let her daughter in, two people with flash cameras leaned forward and took pictures, as the door closed.
Then the author's mother came in, in a wheelchair, and everyone rushed into the auditorium. While cameramen milled about, Mr. Peck welcomed everyone to the theater and thanked all the ladies on the committee for the gala. Ruth Walker Hood, Alice's sister, said that this theater was where her sister had seen her first movie -- from upstairs in the balcony, where you used to have to sit if you were black. ``We didn't have the opportunity to sit where we're sitting tonight,'' she said.
The Colony Farm Gospel Choir from Hardwick, Ga., a group clad in white smocks with bows and skirts of lavender, sang sweetly and sadly and a little off-key. Margaret Avery (Shug in the film) said the movie was ``a labor of love by the 200 or 300 people involved.''
Then Alice Walker got up. She spoke slowly and rhythmically, like a poet.
``I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the ancestors,'' she said. ``I want to thank my father, who is now with the ancestors. I want to thank my grandmother, who is now resting with the ancestors.
``When you love people, you can trust them with the truth as you see it. You can tell the truth, and it shows that you love people, not that you hate them.
``There are a lot of elders here tonight. I want to thank you for all the Sundays in church -- the smiles you didn't have to smile. I want to thank you for the quarters you gave me. You didn't have to do it.
``I'm proud of the elders, and I'm proud of the ancestors. I think of this movie as a gift to you.''
She said she thought long and hard about giving her book to the movies, ``because they ruin so much. I actually think of Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg as the people who put it in the most magnificent wrapping paper you can imagine.
``Try to get down to the present itself. Don't be distracted by the ribbon, and the wrapping paper. It says we're still together, and hanging on, and there's a lot of love there.''
Alice Walker finished. The media people left. I trudged upstairs to watch ``The Color Purple'' from the balcony, where Alice Walker watched her first movie. It was sort of dusty up there; one corner seemed to be used for storing things.
I don't know what I would have thought of the movie if I'd seen it under other circumstances. As it was, for me, it bloomed on the screen like a flower. I could hear everybody laughing, and rustling, and agreeing. This movie was for them, after all. But I have it on very good authority that Alice Walker left her seat, and went over and held her mother's hand.