Home of ‘Steel Magnolias’ Celebrates 35th Birthday of Beloved Film

  “I would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”

                                                                       Shelby (Julia Roberts) in “Steel Magnolias”

If not for being a sleepy head, Nicole Connell could have been in the opening scenes of the popular movie “Steel Magnolias” being filmed in her hometown of Natchitoches (Nack-a-tish), Louisiana.

“My Dad loves to tell the story of crew members seeing my brother’s bike and my bike in the front yard and stopping at our house on the river side of Williams Avenue,” Nicole says. “They asked if we would come outside and ride our bikes down the street for one of their scenes.”

However, it was way too early in the morning for the two could-have-been movie stars. “We were a couple of bratty kids who didn’t want to get out of bed and missed out on being in the opening scene,” Nicole says.

Now celebrating its 35th anniversary, “Steel Magnolias” has left a loving legacy in Natchitoches where visitors come to see the beautiful homes, dine in the restaurants, shop for movie souvenirs and visit the special park, church, cemetery and other sites used in the 1989 film.

“A lot of people don’t know that the movie is based on a true story,” Nicole says. “The movie is a true story about author Robert Harling’s sister, Susan, their mother, Margaret, and her friends.”

A Natchitoches resident, Robert Harling was a fledgling actor at the time of his sister Susan’s death. Susan was just 12 years old when she learned that she had severe diabetes. But she didn’t let the disease slow her down.

Writing About His Sister’s Death 

Susan was a candy striper at Natchitoches Parish Hospital, now named Natchitoches Regional Medical Center. She sang in the First Presbyterian Church Choir and directed the Youth Choir. At Natchitoches Central High, Susan played flute in the high school band and was a majorette. Like Shelby, the character based on her and portrayed by Julia Roberts in “Steel Magnolias,” she twirled her batons to the music of “Hawaii Five-O.”

After graduating from high school, Susan entered Northwestern State University to become a nurse just like her mother. Upon graduating from the NSU School of Nursing, Susan became a pediatric nurse and fell in love with pediatrician Patrick Robinson. They married in 1979. Although Susan had been warned that, because of her dangerous diabetes, it would be best not to have children, Susan wanted her dream family.

She became pregnant and delivered a son, Robert, in February 1983. It was a difficult birth and complications caused Susan’s kidneys to fail. Susan’s mother donated one of her kidneys but the transplant didn’t work. Susan passed away in October of 1985. She was 33 years old.

“To make sure that his sister wasn’t forgotten, Robert Harling wrote the play ‘Steel Magnolias’ in just 10 weeks,” Nicole says. “The play was so successful that they wanted to make it into a movie.”

St. Augustine Catholic Church is where Shelby got married in the movie.

And where was the ideal location to film the story? “Robert Harling wanted it filmed here where he lived and where the story actually took place,” Nicole says. “Robert still owns a home here. This will always be home for him.”

Hollywood Comes to Town

So a camera crew and a slew of popular actors descended on the small town of Natchitoches, population 17,662, to film the movie in 1998. Sally Field appeared as Shelby’s mother M’Lynn. Dolly Parton was beauty shop owner Truvy Jones.

Olympia Dukakis portrayed family friend, the elegant widow Clairee Belcher. Daryl Hannah was the mysterious out-of-towner Annelle Dupuy DeSoto. And Shirley MacLaine became cantankerous neighbor Ouiser Boudreaux.

Prominent male stars in the movie were Dylan McDermott as Shelby’s husband Jackson and Tom Skerritt as Shelby’s father Drum Eatenton. Local townspeople also were prominently featured in the movie.

“Any of the scenes with more than the stars were full of locals – festival, church, wedding, funeral, receptions, Easter egg hunt,” Nicole says.

In fact, author Robert Harling played the minister who serves at Shelby’s wedding and funeral in the movie. And Nicole remembers seeing the actors around town but, generally, the special visitors were treated as regular folks and allowed to go their ways.

“I saw all of them at some point or the other,” Nicole says. “My grandmother ran a very successful catering business. She catered many events during the filming. Aside from those events, the stars of the movie could be seen regularly out and about. I think as a community we did a good job of letting them just be people here and enjoy their time.”

Steel Magnolias Trail

Today, when visitors come to town, they often make a stop to pick up a Steel Magnolias Trail brochure at the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau where Nicole is Communications and Marketing Manager.

“The Steel Magnolias Trail is very popular with visitors, even after 35 years,” Nicole says. “Natchitoches is a place to travel back in time, whether it’s back to 1714 with our historical significance or just back to the1989 ‘Steel Magnolias’ days, where much of the town, the homes and the businesses are still very familiar.”

Cane River Lake

Now a bed and breakfast, the Steel Magnolia House was the film site where Shelby grew up and where much of the movie action took place. Built in 1837, the Lemee House is where Ouiser lived. The backyard has a fountain and a bench reminiscent of the one in the movie where Ouiser scoots Clairee off the bench when the two are squabbling.

The Lemee House is where Ouiser lived in the movie.

When M’Lynn suggests that Quiser gets professional help to overcome her cranky personality, Quiser proclaims, “I’m not crazy. I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the past 40 years.”

Regardless, the women love and support each other. “You know I love you more than my luggage,” Clariee famously tells Ouiser.

Helping Each Other Through Immense Grief

The beautiful St. Augustine Catholic Church is where Shelby got married. The renamed Natchitoches Regional Medical Center is where her baby was born. And the American Cemetery is where she was buried, the place where one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie took place.

American Cemetery is where Shelby was buried in the movie.

When M’Lynn’s grief overcomes her at her daughter’s grave, Clairee steps forward to suggest that M’Lynn deal with her pain by punching Ouiser. The idea and Ouiser’s reaction defused the situation and reinforced the title of the movie – that southern women may look as delicate as magnolias but are as strong as steel and somehow seem to handle whatever life throws at them.

“The movie is a great, although sad, representation of the value of family, friends and community which is a perfect representation of Natchitoches,” Nicole says. “The movie is timeless and will forever bring people here.”

A plaque marks Shelby’s funeral site in the movie.

Memorial Park

In 2014, the Susan Harling Robinson Memorial Park was dedicated on the corner of Pine Street and Cypress Avenue. The small park contains a red brick walkway, benches, a fountain, plaques with movie actors’ names and a small biography of Susan written by her brother.

“Susan treasured the pride of heritage and the beauty one finds in her beloved Natchitoches. It would make her very happy to know you are experiencing it now. The rich history of this town is filled with amazing women noted for their strength, courage and purpose,” Robert Harling wrote on a plaque with family photos.

“The dedication of this park to Susan Harling Robinson adds another name to that illustrious list. She would be so pleased if those visiting this tranquil spot would think of those neighbors, friends and family who love and support and inspire you.”

The Susan Harling Robinson Park was dedicated in 2014.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

Cover photo – Now a bed and breakfast, the Steel Magnolia House was where much of the film action took place.

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