"A Painted House" recreates Lepanto's memories

Sunday, November 17, 2002
Dr. Kevin Harrah took a photo of his wife, Crystal, in Watson's General Store after filming on Tuesday. The couple from Jonesboro visited Lepanto and Clarkdale on their afternoon off earlier this week. They watched as scenes were filmed in the general store and on Main Street in Lepanto. (Tribune photo/Laura Jane Glover)

The air was fragrant with tearful goodbyes and fond farewells as the set closed on the production of "A Painted House" in Lepanto. It culminated a new experience for the small rural town with a population of 2000.

Those who witnessed the events in Lepanto over the past week will view movies in an entirely different light, now that they have been a part of an authentic production. For many in Lepanto, their "roles" included actually participating as an extra in the background scenes, allowing their businesses to be transported back in time to the fifties or as spectators recording the unfolding drama with their cameras. But for all involved, the McGee Street Production of the movie will forever define their memories of Lepanto during the 1950s.

Paul Boydston, Location Manager for McGee Street Production Company, said, "We've had nothing but a great time filming in Lepanto and Marked Tree. Everyone has been more than cooperative and terribly friendly. We've truly enjoyed ourselves. I think all of us are going to be sad to go."

Boydston's vision of rural America came to life as painters and carpenters transformed store facades into facsimiles of the past. Mr. E.A. Murphy's store came back with a complete revamping of the interior, right down to the racks of clothing, shelves of toys, and straw hats offered on the shelves. Even though some long-time residents noticed that the straw hats were placed on the opposite side of the store. Fred Stuckey noted how realistic the set was and remembered how Mr. E.A. would guide you through the store, turning on the light when you approached a new section and turning off the light when you finished shopping in another area. The screen doors did not have to be aged to look old; they are original to the building along with the sign in the door announcing that the store would be closed at noon on Wednesday (printed by S.C. Toof Co. in Memphis).

The old Portis Cotton Gin at the south end of town came back to life, complete with wooden wagons filled to overflowing with freshly picked cotton. Recreated bales were loaded on a flat bed trailer in the gin lot ready to be pulled to the warehouse for storage before making the trip to Memphis and then down the Mississippi River. It has been several years since the streets were littered with cotton lint. Though some may view it as ugly and mess, to others it brought back memories of a busy time when rural towns like Lepanto were full of activity. The only thing missing was the high-pitched squeal of the belts turning the gears, which powered the gin's machinery 24 hours a day.

Billie Dewailly enjoyed watching the set production crew dress the former Kay's Jewelry Store window to include jewelry and decorative home items of the decade. It had been metamorphosed into "Majestic Jewelers." The Pepper Pot Caf across the street, which recently housed the Lepanto Public Library, became a law office with the simple addition of curtains and lettering on the window. New signs were aged and added to almost all the store buildings in town by skilled artisans, both painters and carpenters. Mrs. Addie Bindursky's dress shop, now a vacant building, was recreated with a window dressing depicting clothing merchandise of the era. The Lepanto Museum became Delta Lands Bank and trust, with false windows with shutters and blinds. Portis Mercantile took on the name of Barbara Jo's Beauty Shop for filming.

The production crew incorporated several of the town's businesses into the TV movie, including Tyler's Insurance, Etta's Fashions, Dewailly's Department Store, the Cozy Nook, D&J Crop Insurance, and the Victorian Rose Second Hand Shop. The Goldsby Library became Ella Dee's Soda Shop and Murphy's Hardware became the General Co-op.

Their greatest feat was the creation of the Dixieland movie theatre from the shell left after the demolition of the former Strand Theatre. Former moviegoers to the Strand could almost see Mrs. Ruby Long offering you a bag of popcorn and a paper cup filled with ice cold Coke.

Sam Holcomb had already preserved the old Jones Drug Store by keeping the fountain counter and stools, where in days gone by a nickel Coke was enjoyed during a morning break from work at Little River Bank. The production crew did add a few touches, including a jukebox and menus. Holcomb had to resort to dispensing prescriptions out the back door during filming inside the store on Tuesday, but did so with ease.

Other storekeepers, like Gail Cockrell and Earlene Couey at the Cozy Nook, continued working, enduring a steady stream of traffic. Friends and newcomers to town tracked through their back door and peered through their front window into a world completely new to folks around here -- the creation of a movie. They handled it with genuine Southern hospitality and patience.

Vintage cars and trucks lined the streets and paraded before the cameras in a slow, but realistic procession during the filming. But the background would not have been complete without the action of all the extras. Many local townspeople auditioned and were subjected to changes in attire and hairstyles. Some were dressed by the wardrobe and makeup artists as folks from all walks of life and social standing in the 50s. The men sported hats, suspenders and high waisted pants. The women had tightly rolled hairdos, dresses of calico and gingham with large white collars, ugly brown socks or thick hose and heavy leather shoes. The make-up was minimal with no mascara. All of these were an essential part of the story the director was telling through the actors who portrayed the characters in John Grisham's book, "A Painted House." Those in Lepanto will view the final product next spring along with the rest of the nation, looking for familiar faces and settings.

Those who remember the 1950s cherish the memories rekindled with this visit back in time. Those too young to remember were given an opportunity to see the past in motion, and some were able to experience it firsthand. It was amazing how so many separate ingredients were blended through the careful planning and organization of the director and his crew at McGee Street Productions to produce for a brief amount of time on film, an image Lepanto will keep forever in their hearts and memories.

What began as John Grisham's memories as a child growing up in rural Arkansas has become an unexpected experience of a lifetime.

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