History museum with a spin

Sunday, May 9, 2004

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The Delta farmhouse featured in the film version of author John Grisham's best seller "A Painted House" is on location in the Arkansas town where much of the movie was filmed and open for public tours.

Mayor Dale Dunlap said residents of Lepanto, where the movie's town scenes were shot, have high hopes that the house will be an attraction for Grisham fans as well as curious travelers passing by on nearby highways.

"Lepanto being a small town out here in the middle of nowhere, the only thing we've been known for until this year is the (annual) Terrapin Derby," he said.

"A Painted House" is Grisham's 2001 tale of life in Arkansas cotton country in the 1950s. Grisham was born in Jonesboro, about 25 miles northwest of Lepanto, in 1955 and lived on a cotton farm until age 7. The book became a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-TV movie.

Many of the furnishings in the house are from the movie set, retrieved from the movie's design team and from locals who purchased items at a set auction after filming wrapped. The interior is period-authentic, even down to the canned goods in the kitchen, Dunlap said.

Advised to advertise

Jay Harrod, spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Tourism, said the painted house stands a chance of becoming a success. He said backers would be well advised to advertise its presence on Interstate 55, which passes 20 miles to the east, as well as U.S. 63, 10 miles to the west.

As a tourist attraction, Harrod said, the house offers a unique combination that many small-town museums or attractions lack -- it's a former movie set, associated with a popular author and truthfully reflects its period.

"I think it will catch people's attention, especially if you're a Grisham fan or a fan of that era," he said. "It will also serve as a kind of nice 1940s-life-in-the-Delta museum, and that might help it stand the test of time. It's a different spin on a history museum."

The 30-by-60-foot structure, based on sketches Grisham gave producers of his childhood home, has traveled more extensively than the semifictional farm family whose lives it was created to help chronicle. It was built on an old homesite in Clarkedale, about 30 miles southeast of Lepanto.

Dunlap said the reason is simple: Lepanto is now surrounded by rice fields, but the Clarkedale location is in the midst of cotton fields.

After the crew finished shooting farm scenes, the house was torn down and moved to Kansas City, Mo., where it was reassembled at Hallmark's international headquarters and on display until the April 27, 2003, premier on CBS.

Residents take action

Town residents formed the "Lepanto Area Citizens for Progress" and arranged to bring the house back to the Delta. It was torn down a second time and brought to Lepanto in May 2003, and the citizen's group has since been attracting volunteers and funds to get it up and going.

Dunlap said the group has spent about $30,000 so far on reconstruction and replacing the tin roof, which was tattered after being torn apart twice. He said the group also had to install ceilings, which were left out of the original structure to accommodate camera angles.

Dunlap said volunteers staff the house every day and already, with no advertising, have a steady trickle of visitors.

Eventually, the group hopes to accentuate the house with replicas of the rest of the homestead from the movie.

"The plan is to have the barn, the outhouses and all on this particular location here with the house," Dunlap said. "This thing is really interesting."

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