The Advocate | BY YOUSSEF RDDAD | STAFF WRITER SEP 27, 2019 - 10:34 AM
When a group of “dirty” actors rolled into rural Pointe Coupee Parish on motorcycles to film “Easy Rider” more than 50 years ago, few people, if any, imagined the movie they made would achieve the success it did.
Shot in various parts of Morganza and areas of the parish, the countercultural classic starred Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and a young Jack Nicholson as a band of freewheeling bikers en route to New Orleans after completing a drug deal in Southern California. A stop at the Melancon’s Café in Morganza foreshadowed their grim fate.
Many of the townspeople who played roles in the movie said that despite the movie's bitter response among Morganzans, the experience was unforgettable.
"It gave us something for 50 years to talk about," said Elida Hebert Aronstein, who was 20 years old when the movie crew set up at her mother's cafe to shoot a scene featuring several townspeople.
The city of Morganza and the parish's tourism office on Saturday will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the movie's release during an event that’s expected to draw thousands of bikers and visitors from across the world, with proceeds going toward an effort to revitalize the town.
From 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., Saturday's event will offer a packed schedule, including motorcycle rides, a collector's display of original props and other items from the movie, food, music and appearances from some of the residents who appeared in the movie.
Morganza Mayor Clarence Wells said he remembers the Hollywood production crew raising eyebrows when they rolled into town in the summer of 1968, saying it was a sight the town had never seen. “They were almost considered like Martians," said Cynthia Dupree, who was living near Morganza at the time when she was asked to be in the film as "Girl No. 5." "I thought it was cool."
Event organizers recreated a two-story facade of the cafe ahead of Saturday's event in the same location where it operated for decades as a local eatery and will be displayed Saturday. The film crew had asked to use the restaurant to shoot the scene and recruited locals to fill the roles of customers gathered at the local eatery on a typical evening. Fonda didn't have any dialogue written for the scene and asked Aronstein and others to improvise, she said.
In the movie, a teenage Dupree tells other young women seated next to her in crowded booths: “Y’all check what just walked in" as Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson enter the restaurant. The unscripted, flirtatious banter from the women is countered by hostility from the local men, including the sheriff, seated in a booth. "Troublemakers," one of them says.
Aronstein recalled the actors not being as attractive as the dialogue would indicate. "They were ugly, dirty men," she said. "They smelled. They’d probably been on the road all week.” Dupree said he father offered to let the crew camp out on their property since they didn't have a place to stay the few days they were shooting in the area.
But the film's release the following year didn't sit well with a lot of residents who felt it portrayed Morganza in as intolerant and backwards, concerns that appear to have fizzled through time, Wells said. He attributed the rise in popularity of motorcycling is among the changes that helped steer away from the negative perception of bikers. "It's not that old roughneck thing," he said, adding that many motorcycle groups are very active in charity rides and other forms of philanthropy.
Wells said he hopes to use the money generated from Saturday's event to renovate a historic but now dilapidated high school building, a project estimated to cost around $50,000, as well as other projects around the city.
The push to improve the city spurred a few businesses to open in recent months. "We're just a small village," he said. "Any time something that comes in, we all get excited about it."
Others feel riding on the movie's cult following over the years is helping better the town, which is included on the Louisiana Film Trail highlighting where movies have been shot. "Morganza is going to hopefully be revitalized because of the very movie that they were against," Dupree said. "So if you think about, it kind of went in reverse."