30 years after 'Steel Magnolias,' locals still recall their encounters with the stars: 'The best thing that ever happened to Natchitoches'

Raechal Shewfelt
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Sally Field, Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts attend the Steel Magnolias premiere in New York City on Nov. 5, 1989, in New York City. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Don Nichols, who owns an elegant restaurant overlooking a river in the small town of Natchitoches, La., will forever remember the summer night in 1988 when Dolly Parton, already a country music legend and an Oscar nominee, stood in the back of the bar area and gave an impromptu performance for his customers.

“There’s numerous times that Dolly went back into the bar and everybody back there was just tickled to death,” Nichols, the owner of Mariner’s Restaurant, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “One night in there, she stood up by her table there and was singing into her beer bottle.”

Actually, it was more like lip syncing along to the track a DJ was playing. Nichols doesn’t remember exactly what the tune was, but he says Parton’s own songs were often played while she was in town, so it could have easily been “Jolene” or “9 to 5.”

Parton was one of several stars who spent the months of July and August of that year filming the heartfelt 1989 movie Steel Magnolias in the town, population 18,000, where the story actually happened. Robert Harling — they still call him Bobby in Natchitoches — first wrote the story of his family, including his mother’s community of female friends, as a play. The movie version, packed with an all-star cast that included Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Tom Skerritt, and Dylan McDermott, was released 30 years ago this week.

Like many locals, Nichols considers Steel Magnolias to be “the best thing that ever happened to Natchitoches.” The filmmakers’ decision to shoot on the historic city’s cobbled streets and homes and on sound stages built at the local Northwestern State University, as well as depict its annual riverfront Christmas festival, prompted so much attention that visitors continue to stream into the town, according to the Natchitoches Parish Convention and Tourism Bureau.

“The impact has been tremendous, especially from a tourism standpoint,” says Executive Director Arlene Gould. “It really has helped us bring more visitors to our area.”

Kelli M. West, the bureau’s marketing and communications director, encountered fans of the movie visiting from St. Louis in recent weeks. 

“We get that all the time,” West says. “We get groups of women and ladies who want to just do a getaway or moms who want to bring their daughters, because it’s a favorite of theirs to watch together. They just want to come to Natchitoches because that’s where Steel Magnolias was filmed.”

Although the movie’s references to nearby municipalities, such as Shreveport and Zwolle, are real, Natchitoches plays a town called Chinquapin. Many of the locations depicted still stand, including the Eatenton home, which is now a bed and breakfast.

The Steel Magnolias house captured in an undated photograph. (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The movie has been such an asset to the town that, in the tourism bureau, they run the movie all day, over and over. They also hosted a Blush and Bashful Weekend, complete with an Armadillo cake competition, an Easter egg hunt, a Parton lookalike contest and tours of locations from the film, last weekend.

‘Some were nice’

Lori Tate, a local resident who played the part of Jackson’s bespectacled mother in the movie, walked the red carpet at a screening of the movie during the celebration. She arrived in Natchitoches in 1970, and when the production came to town, she owned a restaurant that did catering. Tate also ended up being in the movie, and she even learned how to dance with her on-screen husband, the real-life sheriff, for that reception scene.

At the time, a local jeweler tasked her with gifting necklaces with magnolia pendants to each of the stars. 

“Some were nice,” Tate says. “Shirley MacLaine, she wasn’t that nice. Sally Field didn’t want you to take her picture. Of course I had people taking pictures all over the place for me, and I’ve got a wonderful scrapbook.”

One of her fondest memories is Parton trying on 26 dresses in her restaurant in preparation for a country music awards show. She still considers the movie “one of the greatest things” to happen to her. 

As for the town, Tate says the movie made it “come alive.”

Nichols confirms that being a local at the time was exciting. He remembers that, on any given night, 10 or so actors would show up at his eatery. Plenty of Natchitoches residents would follow.

“They’d never experienced anything like that,” Nichols explains. “Lord, those ladies, they were in here constantly and so the place, our business just boomed because of it, and not only did we do well off of them, but we did extremely well off of the general public, them coming and dining with us in anticipation of seeing some of the stars.”

Top Gun’s Skerritt was a regular at Mariner’s, too. Nichols still remembers the first time he encountered him at his storefront.

Tom Skerritt attends the Steel Magnolias premiere on Nov. 9, 1989, in Century City, Calif. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

“It’s a weird feeling when you see somebody that you see on TV all the time and all the sudden he’s standing there looking at you. He just said, ‘Table for one,’” Nichols says. “I was kinda flabbergasted at that, and didn’t know what to say, but I said, ‘Come on in,’ and gave him a seat. And apologized to him for acting like a fool.”

Thankfully, Nichols says, Skerritt “got a kick out of it.”

The actor became a regular at Mariner’s, to the point where, one stormy night, he was one of the customers who had to stop their meal and take shelter away from the windows.

It was moments like that one that made the filming of Steel Magnolias so memorable.

“It was just that they were here so long,” explains Tom Whitehead, who taught journalism at the local university and was a member of the Louisiana Film Commission at the time. “If they had been here just one day or two…[but] they’d become a part of the community.”

‘Everywhere Dolly would go there would be a commotion’

As a member of the film commission, Whitehead helped accommodate the cast and crew during their stay. He took off time from work to concentrate on the movie.

For example, his closet served as a backup wardrobe department. The denim jacket that Truvy’s son sports was his brand-new garment with the sleeves cut off. (The production replaced it.)

One of Whitehead’s more surprising duties: escorting MacLaine to a nearby plantation, where she ended up in the attic after hearing about a ghost believed to live there.

“So I go up in the attic where Shirley MacLaine is feeling for spirits, and she could feel something,” Whitehead recalls. “She wasn’t sure what it was.”

Whitehead says MacLaine, who regularly visited the video rental place, and Dukakis were the stars spotted out and about most frequently. He notes that Roberts kept to herself, as did Field, who’d just had a baby. Hannah was staying at a farm with horses, because she enjoyed riding. Parton was the one people noticed, partly because she travelled with security guards and other staffers.

“They assimilated fairly well into a small town, but everywhere Dolly would go there would be a commotion,” he says. “She was the only one that traffic would stop.”

So imagine the buzz at the restaurant that night as Parton was putting on a show.

Whitehead wasn’t there for that, but he has plenty of memories of his own.

“I had enough, I guess, understanding to know what was happening,” he says, “and I figured out quickly, I need to watch all this and enjoy it.”

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