Movie Tourism in the USA Midwest
The Roseman Bridge Gift Shop in rural Madison County, Iowa, may well be the busiest retail store in America located four miles from a paved road. When Wyman Wilson moved on to the property in the 1970s, it was a pleasant enough spot, largely because it abutted a nicely weathered covered bridge where the local kids hung out.
Nobody would have predicted that 25 years later, the world would literally
be beating a path to Mr Wilson's door. But
Robert James Waller and Warner Brothers changed everything. Mr
Waller, an Iowan, wrote a romantic novel called "The
Bridges of Madison County" (1995) based in Winterset,
a small town encircled by century-old covered bridges. Soon
after, Warner turned it into a movie with Clint Eastwood as Robert,
a wandering photographer, and Meryl Streep as
Francesca, the farm woman he falls in love with. For locations,
the producers settled quickly on the Northside Cafe on
Courthouse Square and, from a helicopter, they spotted the perfect
farmhouse for Francesca. Bouncing uncomfortably
down the county's gravel roads they knew their search was over
when they found the Roseman Bridge.
As cameras rolled on his land, Mr Wilson saw his opportunity and took it: he opened a small gift shop. His boss told him he might make enough to quit in two years. Mr Wilson said his goodbyes within two weeks. He has since expanded the business several times, serving thousands of lovestruck visitors from America, Europe and Japan, many of them arriving by bus on package tours amid clouds of authentic dust.
The idea of a holiday in Iowa -- or in Kansas or Nebraska for that matter -- is for many people the prelude to a joke. But Winterset is not alone. Movie tourism in the Great Plains has tapped into a fond and tangled romance: for landscape and camera, for history and legend. Put together, they make a heady draw. "We have a challenge of not having beautiful oceans or mountains, but we do have great history, and we market the heck out of that heritage," Claudia Larkin, director of Kansas's Travel and Tourism Development Division says. She knows what she is talking about. Her division spends $1.2m annually on tourism and film promotion, and overall the state's $2.5 billion tourism industry creates 46,000 jobs.
One of the many charms of film tourism is that it releases you from
literal-mindedness about where things are. Few folk
visited Fort Hays in Kansas until Kevin Costner's Indian
saga, "Dances With Wolves" (1990), which is set there. After its
release, people flocked to Fort Hays, even though the film had
been shot in South Dakota.
Something of the same sort happened with "Gunsmoke", a long-running TV series with a western theme set in Dodge City, Kansas, and filmed in California -- though it also underlines how film charm is less durable than old stones and can fade alarmingly with memory. Famed for its cattle, its railroads, its Boot Hill Cemetery, and a drunken, gun-toting past -- Dodge City had a surge of tourist traffic in the 1960s, reaching at the peak around 400,000 a year. Most of the town's original buildings are long gone, but city boosters supervised the building of 20th-century replicas.
Bob Wetmore, a longtime Dodge City tourist board member, says he finds people all over the world who recognise at once his home town's name -- no small accomplishment for a place of barely 20,000 people. "We did some marketing, but what Hollywood did overshadowed anything Dodge could have done," Mr Wetmore says. To be sure, that reality has cut both ways. Half the people believe it's a fictitious place, he says, and the other half think it is "Gunsmoke" with no electricity or running water. But the real point is that both those halves have shrunk. "Gunsmoke" means much less to young people than it once did, and visits have levelled off at 100,000 a year.
In the best traditions of pilgrim promotion everywhere, several mid-western small towns have neatly handled the problem of characters without birthplaces or films set in a familiar nowhere. Though the exact origins of Captain Kirk in "Star Trek" were not specified, the city council of Riverside, Iowa, in 1985 declared its town the future birthplace of Captain Kirk and erected a monument behind a former barbershop. With the blessing of the television show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, then still alive, the town initiated a Trek Fest, now held every June for a crush of "Star Trek" fans.
To go even more boldly, Liberal, Kansas -- located far from interstate highways in the state's isolated, south-western corner -- appropriated Mervyn LeRoy's classic, "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), to breathe life into its financially struggling town museum. Nobody could challenge them, since the film, sensibly enough, was not set in a real township. In 1981, they opened Dorothy's House, an ageing Kansas farmhouse that looked like the one where Judy Garland lived in the famed movie. A dozen young Dorothies were outfitted in period dress to lead visitors through the house, which was stocked with vintage supplies and appliances. As hoped for, attendance at the town museum rose from 4,000 to 21,000. Similar thinking, on a larger scale, has inspired plans for a high-tech, $771m "Wizard of Oz" theme park and resort in suburban Kansas City, which organisers hope to build on a polluted former Army ammunition dump, once they have cleaned it up first. If the plan can get approval, it could be a tourist magnet by the time of its scheduled 2002 opening: organisers expect 3m-4m visitors a year. Using an appropriate image, a project spokesman, Steve Hale, says: "In terms of international recognition, `The Wizard of Oz' blows everything else away."
More than corn
The Midwest, of course, does not just mean tornadoes, munchkins and brainless scarecrows. It is full, for example, of missile silos as well as grain silos. During the cold war, Lawrence, Kansas, was the site of the anti-nuclear film, "The Day After", while its anti-communist counterpoint, "Amerika", was filmed in Tecumseh, Nebraska.
In fiction and film, the windswept vastness of the Plains, not to mention the amber waves of corn, have often stood in for ordinary, wholesome Americaness. But the region has many other faces. "In Cold Blood", a true-crime classic by Truman Capote, made into a film in 1967, was inspired by events near Garden City, Kansas.
Robert Altman's "Kansas City" (1996), a film-noir homage to 1930s jazz, was set in the city's legendary clubs. Ken Burns's public-television documentary on the history of baseball reminded viewers of the segregated Negro Leagues of the 1930s and 1940s, which featured Kansas City's famed Monarchs. The two films did much to prepare the public for the 1997 openings of two ultra-modern museums at 18th and Vine in Kansas City : the American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Other historical museums are much older. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island, Nebraska -- located on a site crossed by both the Oregon and Mormon trails -- is one of the nation's leading living-history museums. It works closely with state and film industry officials to provide shooting locations for Hollywood.
Since its creation more than 40 years ago, the Stuhr Museum has worked even harder than Dorothy's windstorm in "The Wizard of Oz" to transport 100 original frontier buildings to Grand Island, where they have been arranged into authentic towns for filming. Appropriately, the museum's holdings include the Grand Island cottage where Henry Fonda was born. These towns have become a boon to television producers who lack the budgets to construct original sets. Such Emmy Award-winning shows as "Home at Last", "Sarah Plain and Tall" and "My Antonia", adapted from Willa Cather's novel, have all been shot at Stuhr.
Despite an abiding interest in America's civil war, the western theatre has been relatively neglected in film. That is being corrected in Lawrence, Kansas, a prosperous, university town of 72,000 souls. Ang Lee set a new film, "Ride with the Devil", there. It tells the story of Quantrill's raid, a vicious incursion by pro-slavery Bushwhackers into anti-slavery Lawrence in 1863 that left approximately 200 dead. The $35m film is being talked up as a potential Oscar contender. Mr Lee shot the harrowing 11-minute raid sequence in Lawrence, and the movie's impending release has prompted local tourism officials to churn out maps, booklets, videos and an advertising campaign targeted at historically aware day-trippers.
As a place to pine for, however, the homespun image may be the Great Plains' most reliable draw. In Wayside, Kansas, the young Laura Ingalls Wilder spent 1869-70 with her parents and sisters on an isolated plot of land -- the real-life genesis of her novel "Little House on the Prairie". A replica log cabin and an original schoolhouse and post office now await tourists making the Laura Ingalls Wilder circuit. Hearteningly for anyone who thinks that books are here to stay, visitors are drawn less by the long-running (and now perhaps little-remembered) television series starring the late Michael Landon than by the book itself, at least according to Marlyn Hills, a tourism coordinator in nearby Independence.
And now for the self-reference The subject of creating sites for tourists would not be complete without a film on the subject itself. A careful search found the farm near Dyersville, Iowa, where "Field of Dreams" (1989) was filmed. In it, an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) receives a heavenly message that tells him to turn part of his cornfield into a baseball field; he is roundly mocked, but in time, ghostly ballplayers begin to congregate on his field for games. In real life, the field, which was constructed in four days seems to confirm the movie's most famous line, "Build it and they will come."
While Dyersville is not on the way to anywhere, the "Field of Dreams" site has become one of the state's top tourist attractions in the 10 years since the film opened, luring about 55,000 people annually. "It was totally word of mouth," recalls Becky Lansing, whose husband Don's family has owned the bulk of the site for almost a century. The tourism began when a now-anonymous New Yorker tracked down the field and showed up on the Lansings' doorstep during a coast-to-coast road trip. So quickly did the phenomenon grow that James Earl Jones, who also starred, narrated a mini-documentary on the tourist craze at the movie site.
Less happily, recent litigation has turned the place into a field of nightmares. It straddles property belonging to two different owners, and the Lansings -- who charge no admission and who plough most concession profits into maintenance and insurance costs -- think their neighbours are too commercial. The parties have gone to court.
Source: The Economist, 30 October 1999.