BERLIN - More than two years after Paramount Pictures turned historic Berlin into the fictional village of Hale for the movie "Runaway Bride," the town continues to reap tourism benefits.
"A day doesn't go by without someone coming in and asking about the movie," said Fran Murray, owner of Sassafras Station, an antiques, garden and gift shop. "If they didn't know it was filmed here, they do as soon as they get to town."
And those people who come to Berlin, population 3,300, to see where the Julia Roberts-Richard Gere movie was filmed, typically spend money.
"Usually they'll buy something, even if it's a Coke or a package of crackers," said Larry Hall, owner of Berlin Hardware Store, known as Hale Hardware in the movie - the place where Roberts' character, Maggie, worked.
In the movie, Maggie is the subject of a story by a New York newspaper columnist, played by Gere, who has found out about her reputation for running away from marriage at the last minute. The romantic comedy twists and turns as Maggie seeks revenge against the writer, named Ike, while he ingratiates himself to her family and friends.
Three weeks of filming in autumn 1998 were estimated to have pumped as much as $1 million into the local economy, and a total of 13 weeks of filming in the state brought Maryland an estimated $27.5 million in economic impact. But the publicity since then has been especially valuable for Berlin.
With postcards, two billboards and walking-tour brochures, the Chamber of Commerce and business people have tried to capitalize on the Roberts and Gere chemistry.
"We had the busiest summer we've ever had," said Berlin Mayor Rex W. Hailey. "As you walk up and down Main Street, you see Julia Roberts and Richard Gere everywhere."
But "Runaway Bride" didn't happen in isolation. For about 15 years, townsfolk have worked to make Berlin more appealing to tourists. Victorian street lamps were installed, power, cable and telephone lines were moved below ground, $1 million was spent to restore the Atlantic Hotel, tin awnings replaced canvas ones not true to the era and stained glass windows were restored.
Berlin business people know there's a fine line between adequate "Runaway Bride" marketing and too much.
"We've tried to take advantage of it without being obnoxious about it," said Kate Hastings, chamber president and owner of the Globe Theatre.
Although there are no overall economic impact numbers available, Hall and other shopkeepers say business is better.
Hall estimated that his hardware business is up by thousands of dollars a year because of the movie.
"That's business we never expected to get," he said. "It's been a great experience for us."
Debbie Parker, who owns a gift shop called Victorian Charm, said her business is up about 30 percent over last year.
Her shop was closed for more than a month while the film crew transformed it into a bridal shop for key scenes.
"I would say tourism has doubled," she said.
"All summer, people came in saying that they had been coming to Ocean City for 30 years and had never stopped in Berlin until they saw the movie."
Ocean City is about eight miles northeast, and Assateague State Park is about 5 miles southeast.
Since April, Parker said, merchants have sold 30,000 post cards depicting various real-life locations in Berlin that are scenes in "Runaway Bride." The merchants purchase the cards from the Chamber of Commerce and sell them for 35 cents each or three for $1.
Colleen Anne Bunting, owner of Bunting Realty Inc., the only real estate agency in town, measures her increase in revenue in the millions of dollars.
"What I've found is that people have come here because they've heard about 'Runaway Bride,' and they like it," she said. "Next thing you know, they're buying a house in Berlin, Md."
Her real estate sales were $3.5 million in 1998 and $6.6 million in 1999, she said. She says 2000 sales will total $7 million to $7.5 million - much of the increase attributed to publicity surrounding "Runaway Bride."
Ellen H. Lang, owner of Something Different, an old-fashioned country store, said she doubled her business in each of the two months after the movie's release, over the corresponding period the previous year.
Lang was chamber president when Paramount representatives came to town scouting for a location.
"They said, 'If we pick your town and if the movie's a hit, you will draw visitors for up to 10 years,'" Lang said. "I really thought it was propaganda."
But Lang is a believer now.
"I have been totally amazed," she said. "The movie was the Midas touch that introduced our town to a lot of people. It put us on the map."