by Larry Wells, HottyToddy.com contributor and musician
It is 1990. My wife, Dean, and I are relaxing at The Hoka Café.
Owner Ron Shapiro, who in a former life was a schatchen or matchmaker, introduces us to Kenny Vance, musical director for Orion’s movie, Heart of Dixie, and his assistant, Joe Mulherin, Memphis writer, rock ‘n’ roller, and former member of Larry Raspberry’s classic High Steppin and Fancy Dancin’ band. They are recruiting extras for the “dance” scene.
At that time the most recent movie made in Oxford was Home from the Hill (1959) starring Robert Mitchum and George Peppard, in which Dean was an extra. Stardust again is being sprinkled over town and campus. Hearing Vance say he needs an acoustic bass man for a scene in the film, Shapiro tells him that I play stand-up. Vance invites me to appear as a band member in a scene depicting a 1950s fraternity dance. The shoot will be done at night.
“What about Larry’s beard?” Mulherin says.
“I don’t suppose you would consider shaving?” Vance asks.
“Out of the question.”
Shapiro is pushing the match. “There were bearded beatniks in the South during the ‘Fifties, weren’t there?”
“One or two,” says Mulherin.
“Would I be free,” I say tongue in cheek, “to interpret my role?”
“What role!” Vance exclaims. “It’s a non-speaking part.”
“So was Dopey’s in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“Did Dopey play bass?”
“I think Doc was on bass,” Mulherin says.
“No, Grumpy played bass;” says Dean, giving me a knowing look.
“I want to be Dopey.”
“Okay,” Vance agrees. “You can be Dopey, but do what they tell you, all right?”
Do what they tell you. My radar fails to send out an early warning. As a writer, I’m used to grinding out words at my own pace. Do what they tell you is something I have avoided all my life, but like everyone else I’m curious about how a movie is made. I’d like to state for the record that I do not blame Kenny Vance.
Location shooting for the fraternity party scene is scheduled to begin in several days. In the meantime, I begin receiving various calls from the production company. “Hello, this is Ivy at Heartbreak. Your call is for seven p.m. this Thursday. Okay?”
“Hi, this is Rachel at Heartbreak Productions. Your call has been changed to five-thirty. Got it?”
“This is Rob. Hi. Your call is at five o’clock. Can you make it? Great.”
“Hi, this is Rachel again. Your call is at five o’clock. Did someone tell you already?”
As a seventh dwarf, I’m accustomed to redundancy but this is sublime. On Thursday, I put my bass fiddle in my car and drive to an antebellum mansion on Chulahoma Road in Holly Springs. Heartbreak Productions has redecorated “Walter’s Place,” which served as General Ulysses Grant’s headquarters during the campaign in Mississippi. It is supposed to represent a fraternity house. Over the facade are these huge Greek letters: KRF .
The two-story brick house is surrounded by caterers’ mobile kitchens, a dressing room trailer for the stars, equipment trucks, a “honey wagon” (combination restroom and dressing room), and several large tents. I tote my bass around to the side porch where the musicians have gathered, Most of us know each other. From Oxford are pianist Tom Freeland, violinists L.W. Thomas and Brent Swain, and Jeff Meaders, charter pilot and drummer. Joining us are a couple of Memphis violinists I do not know. One of them, grinning ironically, says that he has been asked to play a trumpet. It does not matter that he doesn’t know how to play a trumpet because studio recordings will be dubbed in later. We are to “sync” or simulate playing. We will have actual sheet music, however, that we can pretend to play along with the taped songs, a slow and fast version of “Dixie.” (Does anybody in Oxford know how to play “Dixie”?)
After about an hour of small talk, the band members are told to carry our instruments inside the house and set up. Carpenters, electricians, and painters work on the set. Although most of us seem to be standing around, these workers know exactly what they are about. And I later discover, they are the only ones who do. I watch two female carpenters calmly and impressively measure and cut and nail together a plywood form while discussing the Lakers’ chances in the NBA playoffs.
Next, the band members are sent to the wardrobe and makeup tents to pick up costumes. Our “society orchestra” will be dressed in tuxedos with plaid cummerbunds and bow ties. Through a tent flap I see Confederate soldiers chatting with Southern belles. These Ole Miss extras are to represent “Lamar University” fraternity and sorority members dressed for an Old South Ball costume party. I am unprepared for the surreal ease with which these sons and daughters of the New South have slipped into the roles of their ancestors. Hollywood has come to north Mississippi with a vengeance.
The musical chatter of these Ole Miss girls is a veil behind which they appraise the handsome youths in gray and gold. The Mississippi cavaliers pause on their way to Shiloh or Gettysburg to appreciate shining Saxon blondes. How could Orion Pictures know Ole Miss would regress on cue?
“Anybody got a black sock?” a Confederate sergeant yells to the band members queued in front of the wardrobe tent. After we are given our tuxedosfor which we previously have been fitted at LaNelle’s Formalwear in Oxfordwe are sent to makeup, a barber tent for all sexes. An amiable blonde barber seats me in a folding chair and without preamble begins cutting my hair. I am to look like a musician of the 1950s.
“What type am I?” I say, just making conversation.
“A greaser,” she replies, popping her gum. Whack, whack! go the scissors.
“It feels longer on one side than the other. Are you a hairdresser?”
“Naw. I live at home with my parents.”
“I mean, do you work or anything?” Whack, whack! “Did you attend cosmetology school?” Whack, whack!
“Naw, I ‘m a psych major at Ole Miss. Wanta see yourself in the mirror?”
She begins slapping Vaseline on my head. Passing coeds watch my transformation with morbid fascination. Using a comb like a scalpel the psych-major sculpts pomaded ridges and swirls. “How do I wash this stuff out?” I say.
A professional makeup man happens by and seeing me says, “That beard must go.”
“Kenny Vance said I could keep it!”
“The musical director.”
“Who’re you supposed to be?”
“A beatnik in a cumberbund.”
He smiles coolly at my barber. “Let’s trim his beard down to a goatee.” I notice that he has a goatee, then hear myself shouting, “I… don’t … WANT… to!’
“Well, don’t tell anyone I saw you,” he complains and slouches off. In my tuxedo, slick as a greased pig, I wander back to the “fraternity house” among the towering magnolias. The other band members are standing around in the yard. We self-consciously poke fun at each other’s appearance. An extra’s primary role is to hurry up and wait. We filch Cokes from the Kraft snack bar, ignoring a hand-printed sign: For cast and crew only! We use up two hours watching a portable television set hooked up, outdoors by enterprising video specialist Dave Newsome of Oxford. A pro basketball game is in progress, Dallas vs. Denver. California electricians and grips pause in passing to ask the score, then go about their business, still the only ones who know what they’re doing.
Inside the house Confederate soldiers practice waltzing with Southern belles. Seeing them whirl around the room, tall and straight and smiling, I recall WiIlie Morris’ telling me that Holly Springs produced 13 generals for the Army of the Confederacy. Willie was fond of pointing out that the most famous of them, General Van Dorn, was shot by a jealous husband while climbing out a bedroom window.
Joe Mulherin, who is to coach the band how to mime music, herds us inside to rehearse. I never thought I’d be glad to play Dixie.” We take up our positions on the bandstand. I am tuning my bass when a makeup girl appears out of nowhere, slicks down my sideburns with her finger, then moves on. I act natural, though I cannot remember the last time a stranger came up and groomed me.
Since our rendition of “Dixie” begins with a drum roll, Joe shows Jeff Meaders how to pick up his cue. If Meaders starts his roll on time, the rest of us can follow his lead. Mulherin counts out a full measure: “One, two, three, four, now!” Jeff alertly starts the roll, and the rest of us begin playing when we’re supposed to. The trick is to time the first beat with the tape which will be played so the actors can sing along. Joe listens through a headset to instructions from a sound man operating a tape recorder in another room. Now I know what it is like to play in a dummy band and will tell my grandchildren someday.
We are dismissed and told to wait until we are called. It is about seven-thirty in the evening. Outside, curious Holly Springs residents come and go with Styrofoam go-cups. As southerners they know that liquor and movies go together. They sip bourbon and eavesdrop on a conversation between director Marty Davidson and producer Paul Kurta.
Actress Ally Sheedy, who plays the sorority girl heroine of “Heart of Dixie,” is all business. She girds her concentration around her like a corsetno time to chat with a fan. Like Scarlett O’Hara in hot pursuit of Ashley Wilkes, she knows what she is here for. In contrast, actor Treat Williams, who plays the male lead, is willing to talk with anyone who looks interesting. He is a private pilot, accustomed to charting his horizons. He and flight instructor Jeff Meaders strike up a conversation about flying.
We wait. As if to reassure me that my time will come, a passing makeup girl slicks down my sideburns. Be ready, she seems to say. Be greasily aerodynamic, jet-quick.
Two hours later I stand beneath the white columns and listen to “Take Five, Scene 44,” in which the Ole Miss fraternity members waltz their belles around the parlor. After the dance is over, supporting actor Don Michael Paul says this supportive line to Ally Sheedy: “May I get you a drink?”
“Boots, I do declare,” she says musically, “you must have read my mind.”
Take Six, Scene 44…
On the jerry-rigged giant TV screen outside, crew members are watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. Somehow it does not feel strange to be watching ice hockey under a magnolia tree. “ROLLING!” the sound man yells. “QUIET!” his female assistant shrieks, with lungs like bellows. She can be heard as far as the Holly Springs courthouse.
Boots, I do declare, you must have read my mind.
The modern day Confederates waltz and smile as if they have a hundred years to fool around. An assistant producer tells me that she has never seen extras so willing to do retakes or be as fresh in the last take as the first. “You’ve never been to Ole Miss, have you?” I remark. The belles in their hoop skirts can’t stop smiling. It’s as though natural selection has prepared them for an eternal sorority rush.
In 1861, most of the male student population of Ole Miss volunteered for military service in the “University Grays” regiment, which was virtually wiped out at the battle of Gettysburg. What I am witnessing might have been their last dance…and their last…and their last. I filch a cup of coffee from the Kraft dispenser. Two cups of coffee later, it is midnight. Naturally, the crew breaks for “lunch.” I ask Joe Mulherin if the band’s scene is coming up soon.
“Wait and see,” he says.
In front of the mobile diner a line snakes out into the dark. I find a place at the end of the queue when a harrier, by which I mean someone who harries lesser beings, yells, “Band members and extras in a separate line!” It’s about time, I think. They know how long we have been waiting and want to spare us further delay. The extras’ queue shuffles forward. I am given a Styrofoam box. I sit under a tent and open it. The contents include a ham sandwich, cellophane bag of potato chips, and chocolate chip cookies. The cafeteria line is taking longer because they have real food cooked on a stove.
I meander by the caterers’ trailer and read at the hand printed menu: spareribs, potato salad, coleslaw, spaghetti and meatballs, breaded chicken, broiled fish, broccoli, buttered carrots, and a salad bar with fresh fruit and vegetables. Someone spelled broccoli, I note morosely, with one “c.”
Would Faulkner be an extra? Would Dickens or Dostoevski or Flaubert ? I may not be a world-class writer but am I not worth a couple of lousy spareribs? If John Currence were an extra, those California caterers would be honored to have him sample their cooking. He wouldn’t even have to stand in line.
Boots, I do declare, you must have read my mind.
Scene 44 is in its 13th or 14th take. I hear the town clock strike two. The band members sit on the front steps of Walter‘s Place like mourners at an all-night wake, faces saggy and jowly, tuxedos wrinkled and no longer shiny. The night air has congealed my petroleum jelly so that my head feels like a cool helmet. It is unusually chilly for May. When have I spent an entire night outdoorsa drunken coon hunt? 1grow old. I am shivering. My throat is sore. I am afflicted with terminal waiting.
At three o’clock, I find a parked car and crawl into it. In the distance, I hear “ROLLING!” and then the inevitable “QUIET!” After a while, I drift into a coffee-crazed semi-consciousness.
Boots, I do declare…
In my dream I play both Sleepy and Dopey. Someone with a walkie-talkie is sitting on the curb next to the car. A female carpenter sits glumly smoking, listening to her peers arguing over portable radios. Even carpenter girls get the blues. This makes me feel better. I nap lightly and at four a.m. I notice that the carpenter girl is gone. Other furtive visitors slip by, Holly Springs cats on nocturnal errands who sense of purpose I envy. At five L.W. Thomas comes and gets me. The band has been called.
It is a haggard group of musicians that gather under the blue-bright lights. The scene is being rehearsed. Actress Virginia Madsen squeals with delight as she is crowned Honeysuckle Queen. She speaks the line which is our cue, and Joe Mulherin, hovering in a doorway out of camera range, counts silently on his fingers for drummer Meaders: One, two, three, NOW! Meaders starts his roll a beat before the taped music comes on.
Afterwards Meaders complains to me and Tom Freeland, the piano player: “Joe missed a beat, didn’t he?” At six a.m. we are still in rehearsal. Director Marty Davidson tells us to go home and come back at six p.m in the evening. Like sleepwalkers we put away our instruments very, very carefully. I go in search of our handler, Mulherin. The morning sun is blinding. “Will we shoot the scene first thing tomorrow?”
“Wait and see,” he says.
# # #
“Heart of Dixie” was author Larry Wells’ first and last role as a movie extra. This article first appeared in “Southrun” magazine published in Jackson by Hal and Malcolm White.
Oxford Writer Was Extra in 1989 Film Heart of Dixie
by Larry Wells, HottyToddy.com contributor and musician