In Morganza, 'Easy Rider' festival celebrates classic film made a half-century ago
The Advocate | BY JOHN WIRT | CONTRIBUTING WRITER
SEP 28, 2019 - 7:18 PM
The tiny village of Morganza played a big role in “Easy Rider.” On Saturday, at the former Morganza High School, the unincorporated Pointe Coupee Parish community embraced its part in the counterculture movie hit, staging a 50th anniversary “Easy Rider” festival.
Locals who appeared in the film that was shot a half century ago were on hand to sign autographs, there was a guided motorcycle tour of areas where Easy Rider scenes were filmed and there was plenty of memorabilia to view and souvenirs for sale.
Several of the area residents who appear with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in scenes shot at Morganza’s long-since demolished Melancon’s Café attended the event.
Arnold Hess Jr., 82, a Pointe Coupee Parish deputy then and now, and all six of the locals who played the café characters named Girls No. 1 through No. 6 participated in an early afternoon autograph session and meet and greet.
The Morganza Cultural District recently erected a façade of Melancon’s Café at the café’s original site. Proceeds from the “Easy Rider” festival will benefit revitalization efforts in Morganza.
The “Easy Rider” festival’s attractions also included a two-hour guided scenic motorcycle ride to movie locations from Morganza to Krotz Springs to Simmesport and a display of memorabilia items from Jim Leonard’s vast “Easy Rider” collection.
Exhibited in the Morganza High School gym, Leonard brought theater lobby cards, publicity stills, cameras, helmets and, his piece de resistance, two uncannily accurate, costumed silicon figures of Fonda and Hopper with replicas of their motorcycles, Captain America and the Billy Bike.
In “Easy Rider,” Fonda and Hopper play a pair of chopper-riding bikers who go searching or America. Freewheeling cross-country from Los Angeles to New Orleans, they pick up Nicholson’s alcoholic ACLU lawyer, George Hanson, and stop at Melancon’s Café on their way to Mardi Gras.
Released July 14, 1969, “Easy Rider” grossed $60 million worldwide. The film’s many honors include a best-supporting-actor Oscar nomination for Nicholson and a best first-time director award from the Cannes Film Festival for Hopper. In 1998, “Easy Rider” rolled into the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
Fonda, the film’s star, co-producer and co-writer, died Aug. 16 at 79. He was scheduled to introduce a screening of “Easy Rider” on Sept. 20 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Leonard, a friend of the actor who worked as a special effects makeup artist for decades, said Fonda very likely would have also attended Morganza’s anniversary event. “Peter never forgot his fans,” Leonard said. “We’re all in Morganza because of Peter’s vision and what he gave to the world.”
Mary K. Hebert Bergeron of New Roads, played Girl No. 4 in the Morganza café scene. She got word about the film shoot from Blackie Hebert, her brother-in-law’s mother. “She just said, ‘Y’all come. This is exciting,’ ” Bergeron said Saturday. “We were all standing outside and they said, ‘Who’s 18 and wants to be in the movie?’ They just told us to sit in the booths and comment on the hippies walking in the door. That’s kind of what we did.”
In early June 1968, when the filmmakers came to Morganza, Cynthia Grezaffi Dupree, Girl No. 5, lived in nearby Innis. “Blackie Hebert called me and said they needed some extras, some teenage girls who would flirt with them,” Dupree recalled. “And then she said, ‘I thought of you.’ I picked out the brightest, flashiest dress I could find, green with white polka dots. It was an eventful day for everybody. I never thought in my wildest dreams that 50 years later there would be a following for that movie.”
Hess and one of the other actresses-for-a-day, Rose LeBlanc O’Rear (Girl No. 3), both objected to the film’s depiction of the Morganza community. After he participated in café scene, Hess refused to participate in additional filming. “When I realized what type of movie it was, I dropped out,” he said.
O’Rear was appalled when she saw “Easy Rider’ the following year. “When the movie came out, we were expecting our community to look good,” she said. “But it ended up that we look a bunch of rednecks, prejudiced people.” Nonetheless, O’Rear and Hess found reasons to attend the “Easy Rider” 50th anniversary festival. They both support the revitalization of the once-thriving village.
“They put a lot of work into getting this thing going like it is,” Hess said of the festival. “For the number of people that came, you can’t help but appreciate it.”
“They do need help restoring Morganza High School and parts of the town,” O’Rear said. “The movie was filmed here and it’s good that we can make some money off of that. And it’s a good thing because now people do know that we’re nice people. Behind the scenes, that’s the way it always was.”
“The people in Morganza always thought that they were put in a bad light,” Leonard said. “But that was not Peter’s and Dennis’ intention. They were telling a story. They had the greatest respect for the people of Morganza. Hayward Robillard (Cat Man in the café scene) and Arnold Hess Jr., the girls and everybody, they weren’t actors, but, hey, they pulled off an unbelievable performance. You would have thought they were seasoned actors, instead of just people from Morganza.”