Fair Hill has hopes for set of 'Beloved' Tourism: The Cecil County community believes the curious will come if the movie set built for filming the Toni Morrison novel is allowed to remain.

August 10, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

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.

Impermanent site

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.

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