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“Drink Your Juice, Shelby”

Natchitoches stars as a thinly veiled version of itself in Steel Magnolias

Published: February 27, 2022
Last Updated: June 1, 2023

“Drink Your Juice, Shelby”

Tristar Pictures / Alamy Media

Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis observe the other wedding guests in a still from the film.

Natchitoches has the distinction of being not only the state’s oldest city, but the oldest permanent European settlement in the vast Louisiana Purchase territory. It’s famous for its delectable meat pies and its long-running Christmas celebration that boasts hundreds of thousands of lights and a plethora of holiday events.

And then there’s the film Steel Magnolias.

The movie, featuring several strong-willed southern women, was adapted from the Broadway play by Natchitoches native Robert “Bobby” Harling, produced in New York in 1987. Harling’s characters were inspired by his mother, Margaret Harling, and his sister, Susan Harling Robinson, who died of complications from diabetes. The story follows several friends who regularly meet at a beauty shop; it centers on Shelby Eatenton, who’s about to marry. Shelby suffers from Type 1 diabetes but insists on having a baby, against her doctor’s recommendation and her mother’s wishes. The sad outcome—in an often comedic narrative—honors the strength of southern women surviving tragedy.

“Steel Magnolias refers to a person—a woman, or it could be a man—who happens upon a tragic event,” said Barbara Bailey, who leads tours of the movie sites through Natchitoches. “On the other side of that process, they find peace.”

The play is set in Harling’s hometown of Natchitoches—thinly disguised as “Chinquapin Parish”—so producers chose the Louisiana town for the film, which starred Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts.

The film version of Steel Magnolias was such a success when it hit theaters in 1989—and continues to be in such heavy rotation on television—that people have flocked to Natchitoches to visit the film sites.

“It never quits,” said Thomas Whitehead with a laugh. “And you can quote me on that.”

Whitehead is a retired journalism and public relations professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches; but he was enlisted as a production location consultant when Hollywood came to town in 1988. Location scouts for the film almost chose South Carolina, until Whitehead introduced them to several Natchitoches sites, including a physical education building on NSU’s campus that was converted into the film’s soundstage during production, and the Cook-Taylor House, used for the wedding scenes.

Those two properties, plus a plantation located on the edge of town, convinced the producers. “All of those elements came together and they decided to film here,” Whitehead said.

Producers used Natchitoches for almost all of the film locations, including the American Cemetery in the heart of town, St. Augustine Catholic Church in Melrose, other spots on campus, and several of the town’s historic buildings.

The Taylor-Cook House at 320 Jefferson Street, which dates to the early 1800s and is believed to have been used as a Civil War hospital, is now the Steel Magnolia House Bed and Breakfast, with rooms named after the movie characters: Shelby, Ouiser, Clairee. Ouiser’s home in the film was the Lemee House next door, while Clairee’s home was the Tauzin Plantation on Williams Avenue. The Easter egg hunt at the conclusion of the film took place along the river in what is now referred to as Beau Jardin.

Most of the film comprises pithy dialogue among the lead actresses, snappy expressions often repeated in social media memes. But the scene most people recall after watching Steel Magnolias takes place after Shelby’s funeral, in the American Cemetery on Second Street. Sally Field as M’Lynn, Shelby’s mother, breaks down when asked how she is holding up.

“Oh, God, I’m so mad,” M’Lynn cries out, in a scene that evokes tears in even the toughest audience members. “I don’t know what to do. I wanna know why!”

“There were lots of tears shed during the filming of that scene,” Whitehead said. “Lots of emotions.”

The American Cemetery Association offered free use of the site to TriStar Pictures, but TriStar was required to lease the land for legal reasons, so the association produced a lease agreement for $1. The TriStar check was never cashed.

Although Steel Magnolias was filmed more than thirty years ago, its popularity among tourists has never waned. In 2019, the city marked the film’s thirtieth anniversary with a “Blush & Bashful” weekend, named for Shelby’s wedding color scheme (pink and pink) in the film. The event included special film site tours, a recreation of Shelby’s wedding reception—complete with an Armadillo Cake Contest (the gory groom’s cake in the movie)—and a screening of the film at Natchitoches’s Parkway Cinema, where the movie premiered locally in 1989.

“People are still coming here to find Steel Magnolias, anything to do with Steel Magnolias,” Whitehead said. “They don’t make movies like this anymore.”

Freelance journalist Cheré Dastugue Coen is the author of Exploring Cajun Country and Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History. She also writes novels under the pen name of Cherie Claire.