The homestead at 124 Bluestone Road is still "spiteful." Still full of a baby's venom. It looks as if it will soon slump into the ground, not with a soft, final sigh, but with an acrid, reverberating thud.
Once the place was bright and hopeful, as the set designer for the movie "Beloved" intended. Then, haunted by the cinematic ghost of a murdered baby girl, the home slid into chaotic disrepair. Whitewash gave way to gray, weather-worn boards, and the place came to resemble a sorry rural wreck that spoke only of loss.
That is how visitors to Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County find it today: a haunted homestead, complete with dilapidated frame house, corn crib, barn and other weary outbuildings. Mountain bikers and horseback riders pass it by as they travel Bluestone Road, curious movie fans drive in to have their picture taken on the empty porch, and Fair Hill officials ponder its future.
Although it looks genuine from all angles, the home is a shell, an empty set built last year for the filming of "Beloved" on a rambling, bony field.
"Beloved," based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-winning novel about slavery's cruel toll, will star Oprah Winfrey as Sethe and Danny Glover as Paul D; it was directed by Jonathan Demme. Filming ended last spring, and the movie is scheduled for release in October. So far, the buzz is that it will be a hit. If so, the set could draw many more visitors to Fair Hill and inject welcome tourist dollars into Cecil County's rural economy.
Now that Utterly Beloved Productions has picked up stakes, the set, built on a field where hay is usually grown and sold as mulch to Pennsylvania mushroom growers, has already become an eerie tourist attraction, drawing scores of visitors from in state, Delaware and Pennsylvania. They come to sit on the home's porch, inspect its crumbling corn crib and barn and make the grizzly discovery of baby Beloved and her brothers' "bloodstains" in the smokehouse.
If they look closely, visitors can detect the staples holding the vines to the homestead's fake stone chimney, a knarled tree stump planted on the grounds (early in the film, the tree is a vigorous sapling), wasp nests glued onto the porch. They will also find the faux pump where in the book Sethe washed chamomile sap from her legs as Paul D walked up Bluestone Road and back into her life long after she and her children escaped slavery, at the cost of little Beloved, murdered by her mother to keep her from servitude.
Fair Hill rangers take visitors on hay rides past the site, and recently a 5-K race was routed through the site, where yarrow, Queen Anne's lace and other wildflowers sprout. Brent Trautman, ranger and naturalist, plans to incorporate the set, meticulously designed to resemble a 19th century Ohio homestead, into living-history presentations.
How long the site will remain is up in the air. Although Utterly Beloved paid Fair Hill to stabilize the set, it cannot tolerate strong wind and weather, and vandalism has been a minor problem. Tentative plans are to demolish the set within a year. But if "Beloved" strikes gold, Fair Hill manager Edward L. Walls and the Maryland Film Office would like to explore the set's potential as a well-publicized tourist attraction.
"Once it comes out -- they're almost positive it will be a big hit it's sort of going to be like a 'Field of Dreams,' with people coming from all over," says Catherine Batavick, project manager for the Maryland Film Office.
There is ample precedent for this possibility. From Savannah, Ga., location of Forrest Gump's park bench, to the spectacular scenery in "A River Runs Through It," film location spots have become tourism magnets, even years after a film was released. Aware that cinematic locations can attract income even after production ends, cities, states and countries are working harder than ever to lure production companies.
Since "Field of Dreams" was released in 1989, some 20,000 tourists annually have made the pilgrimage to the Dyersville, Iowa, cornfield that was transformed into a magic baseball field. A booming souvenir business has sprung up on its fringes, and every year former big-leaguers gather there to play a celebrity game. The settings for "Field of Dreams" and "The Bridges of Madison County" are the state's two biggest tourist destinations.
Touchstone Pictures and Utterly Beloved Productions will "probably spend $25 to $30 million to market ['Beloved']; in a sense, they'll be marketing that front porch," says Jed Dietz, a founder of the Maryland Producers Club, who is eager to jump on the burgeoning "movie-induced tourism" trade. "No tourist office in the state could ever come up with something like that it could be a 'Field of Dreams' kind of thing, a real icon movie."
Dietz foresees cottage industries springing up around the "Beloved" location, citing the private tour companies that have sprung up to escort "Homicide" fans around the television show's Baltimore taping locations.
Whatever the set's fate may be, Fair Hill manager Walls and other park personnel sing the praises of Utterly Beloved Productions. What began as a wary relationship quickly warmed into a generous exchange of friendship and services. Originally, the production company agreed to compensate Fair Hill for use of the field where the 19th century compound was built. But by the time filming ended, film production had expanded to acreage way beyond the original site.
In return, Fair Hill had gained nearly $100,000 worth of goods and materials, including a new sport utility vehicle, heating and air conditioning units, road improvements, a 500-foot well and cash contributions to the trail fund.
By all accounts, Walls, whose first concern was protecting the natural resource area's environment, had driven a hard bargain when Utterly Beloved asked to film in the parkland. The word was out, says park ranger Mel Adam, that "Eddie Walls was always watching."
When Danny Glover first met Walls, he laughed and exclaimed, "'The infamous Eddie Walls!'" before giving him a big hug.
Walls, a gregarious man who plays the banjo, even earned a cameo appearance in "Beloved" as a grizzled carnival ticket-taker. He says Fair Hill and the movie cast and crew became "family."
Whenever the "Beloved" production entourage touched down in Fair Hill, members kept a deliberately low profile, so the whole world didn't trek in to the set to ogle Winfrey and Glover. Lucky mountain bikers, horseback riders happened by on occasion and a tabloid paparazzi or two were shooed out of the bushes by park rangers.
The filming was such a well-kept secret that one visitor was heard to say, "If I didn't know better, I could have sworn I saw Oprah Winfrey jogging here on the property." She did just that, with her bodyguard.
At times, Fair Hill, found by helicopter by the production company and the Maryland Film Office, teemed with as many as 450 extras, who were bused from Philadelphia to film a vintage carnival scene, complete with fire swallowers, a freak show and ferocious beasts.
Demme would arrive by car from Philadelphia, where the film was also shot on a sound stage, and command his crew like a Marine colonel, says Adam, himself a former Marine. The director would extend his arm to a field, say more trees were needed, and instantly, an aide would be on a cell phone to a local nursery.
The movie's clout was such that Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter ordered commercial air traffic rerouted to and from the Philadelphia airport so that only the wind and the birds could be heard on the set.
For the folks at Fair Hill and the Maryland Film Commission, it would be wonderful to render Utterly Beloved's efforts into a full-fledged tourist destination. But for now, plans are as unstable as the set itself. Ron Bozman, producer of "Beloved," doesn't think it's physically possible to sustain the movie's haunting grounds. "Beloved" is no "Field of Dreams," he says. The set is a mere facade, "not built to last."
Pub Date: 8/10/98