What's next - a Natchitoches film festival? For small Louisiana city, a movie production means big stars and big bucks

Off-Broadway success for playwright Robert Harling's comedy-drama ``Steel Magnolias'' has blossomed into a major movie production - and a huge economic boost for Natchitoches, Mr. Harling's hometown. The mostly female cast - which features Sally Field, Shirley Maclaine, Daryl Hannah, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts, as well as Sam Shepard and Tom Skerritt - this summer began shooting scenes for the movie in this historic city of some 20,000 people. The drama is about the death of Harling's sister.

On-location filming is common across the United States today - in small towns as well as big cities. Natchitoches itself was the locale of the 1958 John Wayne-William Holden Civil War movie, ``The Horse Soldiers.'' What makes ``Steel Magnolias'' special - besides being the product of a hometown writer - is that the costly production is infusing some $7 million into the economy of Natchitoches (pronounced NAK-a-tish) at a time when the city, along with most of Louisiana, is in an economic slump.

Even though it was the setting for Harling's play, Natchitoches had to vie with Atlanta and Wilmington, N.C., to be the site of location filming. What made the difference, say people involved in the negotiations, was the availability on the campus of Northwestern State University here of a building - used for recreation and physical-education classes - with a full-sized basketball arena. It now has become the site of sound stages for the moviemakers.

Tom Whitehead, journalism coordinator at the university and a member of the Louisiana Film Board, explains that the town made up for having few public accommodations for the film company of over 100 people by asking local residents to rent their homes to the visitors for one-, two-, or three-month periods.

Owners of large, lakefront homes have leased their dwellings to director Herbert Ross, Shirley Maclaine, Dolly Parton, and others - some 30 in all, says Danny Collins, a local real estate agent who handled most of the rent arrangements. Many of the owners leave town this time of the year for cooler climes. Others are doubling up with friends.

The fact is, Natchitoches needs the money and likely publicity the movie will spawn.

The city, founded in 1714 by the French, is the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. For years local leaders have tried to build a tourist business on a colorful history and a large number of antebellum plantation homes and city structures.

Natchitoches also has an annual Christmas festival, with elaborate lighting, fireworks, and pageants. This year, part of the festival will be staged in September as part of the movie - at the expense of the filmmakers, Tri-Star Productions.

Meanwhile, the tourist business has been booming since the likes of Dolly Parton showed up. People from as far away as Wisconsin have joined those from closer states such as Texas and Oklahoma to ogle the stars.

That's the glitter. As for the gold - Betty Jones, executive director of the Natchitoches Chamber of Commerce, says she can't confirm the $7 million spending by the moviemakers, but she thinks it will be in that area. And, she notes, every dollar brought into the local economy is turned over ``at least three times.''

There's plenty of evidence that cash registers are ringing in Natchitoches. Mrs. Jones lists major beneficiaries: motels, restaurants, caterers, stores of all sorts, gift shops, florists (the stars send lots and lots of flowers), carpenters, building supply and hardware outlets, jewelry stores, and supermarkets.

And, says Jones, not only has the tourist business jumped, but membership in the Chamber of Commerce has increased.

Even if the movie - expected to be released in the summer or fall of 1989 - doesn't live up to box office or Oscar-winning expectations, the effects on Natchitoches will be lasting.

One already evident, Jones says, is a renewed optimism on the part of business people and others who live in the area. She says she feels this will be felt long after the movie people leave late this month.

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