A one-phone town capitalizes on its 15 minutes of fame

Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt are filming in a Mexican ghost town, extending Hollywood's economic-development arm to residents.

Back in 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton traipsed to Mexico for the filming of "The Night of the Iguana." They descended on the sleepy port of Puerto Vallarta like some royal Mayan couple. And the town was never the same again.

Now it's Brad Pitt's turn.

He is on location to film "The Mexican" here in Real de Catorce, a 19th-century mining-center-turned-ghost town in the stark desert mountains of San Luis Potos. As if his presence weren't enough, Julia Roberts will soon be on the set.

The fleeting presence of the '90s heart throb and the "pretty woman" has civic leaders hoping their town's brief time in the celebrity spotlight can be translated into something of a virtual gold mine.

Until Mr. Pitt came to town, the crumbling outpost of perhaps 2,000 Mexican hangers-on, plus a handful of European and American new-age settlers, had only one phone line. But on Tuesday, Real de Catorce unveiled its own Web page - complete with a video of the blond star on location (www.realdecatorce.com). The demands of a $100 million cinematographic production mean that additional phone lines have also been installed - along with a jacuzzi for Ms. Roberts).

"We want people around the world to know that personalities from the arts have been here," said Julio Ruiz, an executive with e-business consultants Catlogo Internet, at a press conference announcing the Web-page debut. "We are conscious of the advantage of having artists like Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts filming a movie here, but the most important thing is that more people take an interest in Real de Catorce for what it is."

Mexico, of course, has long been a favorite location for Hollywood. The northern desert vistas are perfect for westerns, the beaches just right for tropical dramas. The blockbuster "Titanic" was even filmed here in Ensenada.

But unless a place has all the fixings of a tourist destination as Puerto Vallarta did, the road from mere movie location to tourism mecca can be long.

Removed from the rest of the world by a stunning cobblestone road winding up through the high desert and then a two-mile-long, one-way tunnel Real de Catorce seems an unlikely candidate to dethrone Mexican beaches among tourists. But ghost towns hold a fascination for many travelers, and this place, where there are more buildings abandoned than inhabited and where the lights go off at night - has an attractively eerie quality.

After silver was discovered in 1773, Real de Catorce - the town's full name, translated, is "Royal Town of Our Lady of the Conception of Guadalupe of the Poplars of the Fourteen" - quickly spurted to a population of more than 40,000. Wealth brought narrow cobbled streets lined with stone mansions, a fine church, even an opera house and a silver-coin mint.

But a festival the first week of October and a small but steady stream of hip European and American tourists looking for the unusual and the bizarre have kept Real de Catorce alive.

Local cowboys and children meet tourists entering the town with horses and an offer to take them into the surrounding mountains on day rides. (The mountains that once offered up silver are now known as a source of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus used by Indians and some of the town's newer arrivals. Signs in hotel rooms warn visitors against trying any mind-altering "product" that strangers might try to sell.)

The town's new Web page is just the most obvious sign that Real de Catorce is determined to translate its moment in Hollywood's sun into a 21st-century renaissance. Plans are also being developed to take advantage of the flurry of interest anticipated for when "The Mexican" is released next year.

But for now most locals are happy with the short-term benefits. The recently unemployed are now drivers, cooks, security guards, even scene extras, earning more than they could by selling trinkets to the occasional tourist.

And then there is the Brad effect.

Just as Elizabeth Taylor's battery operated fan made cheap knockoffs an instant fad four decades ago in Puerto Vallarta, Real de Catorce's tourist shops are selling any orange shirts they can offer. Just like the ones Brad wears when poking around Real's ruins.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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