For a short period in the spring and summer of 1988, Natchitoches served as the backdrop to the award-winning film “Steel Magnolias.”
The city hosted Hollywood A-list stars and a plethora of cast and crew.
However, filming almost didn’t take place in the City of Lights. A location crew scouted areas across the South in order to find the perfect setting for the fictional town of Chinquapin, the name of the town in Robert Harling’s play which the film is based on.
Andy Stone, associate producer of “Steel Magnolias,” went to Wilmington, South Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans before stopping by Natchitoches, the home of Harling and inspiration for the play, according to notes in the Steel Magnolia Scrapbook.
“We owed Bobby the courtesy of at least swinging through (Natchitoches) and taking a look,” Stone said in an interview for the Scrapbook.
The Louisiana Film Commission contacted Tommy Whitehead, the NSU student media coordinator at the time, and asked him to show Stone around the state.
Whitehead, Stone recalled, would drive past towns and go through non-picturesque areas of different cities on their way from Baton Rouge, where Stone was, to Natchitoches.
“If you really want to know why ‘Steel Magnolias’ was filmed in Natchitoches, the reason is Tom Whitehead,” Stone said in the Scrapbook.
According to the Scrapbook, one thing Stone said Natchitoches needed for him to consider filming here was a sound stage.
Whitehead first took Stone to an indoor arena on NSU’s campus, but it did not meet Stone’s standards.
With the arena no longer an option, Whitehead took Stone to the physical education indoor gymnasium, which would end up being used for the film.
“It was night, the rain was pouring outside, and when he flipped on the lights and I looked around, I turned to Tommy and smiled,” Stone recalled according to the Scrapbook. “I knew we had our location.”
After another tour of the city the following day, Stone called Herbert Ross, the film’s director, to tell him Natchitoches was his pick for filming. Ross later agreed with the decision.
NSU was used in several other ways during the production’s time in Natchitoches.
Olympia Dukakis, who played Clairee Belcher, took time to speak to students on behalf of her cousin, Michael Dukakis.
According to an article in the Potpourri, students worked as extras, set decorators, dressers and production assistants.
Tim Bates, then an NSU student and set decorator, said in an interview with the Potpourri that he “worked long hours, sometimes from 4 a.m. until 8 p.m., preparing a room or a house front for the next day’s shot.”
Although the days were long, Bates said he had the opportunity to attend some parties with “the big names.”
Some students were paid $50 to be extras and appear in different scenes, according to the Potpourri. For example, Ray Gill and Mark Oberle, then NSU students, can be seen during the shower scene.
Although 30 years have passed, and the crew has long since left, the impact of “Steel Magnolias” on Natchitoches is still present today.
Students and residents alike still have a connection to the film.
Carly Settle, freshman, said she used to watch the film with her family multiple times.
“I was like wow, little old Natchitoches made it big for once,” Settle said.
Kelli West, marketing and communications director for the Natchitoches Visitors Bureau, said visitors say they imagine meat pies and “Steel Magnolias” when they think of Natchitoches.
West said the film is a tourism boom for Natchitoches even three decades after it premiered in theaters.
“People still connect with the film,” West said.