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North Carolina waterfront town has history — and star power

For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/28/04

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Just beyond the eastern dead-end of I-40 lies a charming town steeped in history yet transformed in recent years by a major filmmaking business into "Hollywood East."

Wilmington also benefits from the dual blessings of a riverfront and, within a few miles, the Intracoastal Waterway and Atlantic Ocean.

The region got a taste of movies when "The Big Chill," released in 1983, was filmed in large part in nearby Southport. But things got serious when producer Dino DeLaurentiis sought a place away from California to film "Firestarter," starring a young Drew Barrymore. He settled on the Wilmington vicinity and chose nearby Orton Plantation as the building model for the Farm, home of the evil agency trying to compromise Barrymore's character's unique abilities.

Ultimately, the producers had to build a Hollywood-style reproduction of the plantation home to simulate burning it down — the historic building's protectors did not want real flames around the original.

Jean Nance tells us this story as we wait in the Studio Perk coffee shop to tour that which "Firestarter" has wrought: The largest full-service film studio in the United States outside California, today known as EUE/Screen Gems. Nance, author of a detailed book called "Cinematic Wilmington," does a warm-up for those awaiting a walking tour of the studios, offered on weekends.

The film business, and related television and commercial trades, has become big business in Wilmington. The movies "28 Days," "Domestic Disturbance" and "Black Knight" were filmed here, along with two popular teen-angst WB television series, "Dawson's Creek" and, now, "One Tree Hill."

As we wait for local college students who conduct the tours to return from the earlier walk, Nance shares some details of the trade. Film work, so intriguing to outsiders, can be truly boring to those working on it, she says. "Anything fewer than nine takes of a particular scene," she says, "is a pretty good director. Some of them will take as many as 20 for each shot."

Repetition and waiting are the realities of moviemaking.

The studio does a pretty good job of protecting and employing its own. The film program at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has grown along with the business. "The studio hires from the area first, which includes us," tour guide Michelle Boley says. "A lot of the film students find project work over here." And tasks such as guiding the tours.

As we walk around the 34-acre property, we stroll nonchalantly through living rooms and bedrooms of the lead characters of "One Tree Hill." What looks authentic on TV can't pass a closer look: Utilities aren't connected; ceilings are replaced by steel grids and big lights; the bedroom is around the corner from the high school gym shower room.

The town itself, though, does deserve a closer look. Founded in 1739, Wilmington takes its history seriously. Nowhere is that more evident than along north-to-south Third Street, lined with businesses downtown and interesting older homes to the south. In just a little over a mile, the street features 25 historical markers. Subjects range from Revolutionary War and Civil War figureheads, to Whistler's mother's home, to Woodrow Wilson, who lived here from 1874 to 1882.

Also facing Third Street is another historical "marker," the Italianate Latimer House (1852), one of three historic house museums open for tours in the downtown area. The larger, 22-room Bellamy Mansion, built in 1859, is the youngest. The oldest by far is the 1770 Burgwin-Wright House, which Lord Cornwallis reviewed as "the most considerable house in town" in 1781, not long before trotting off to defeat in Yorktown.

Though interspersed with the occasional modern structure, the pleasant downtown area generally carries off that historic theme by reworking old buildings as coffeehouses, shops, an ice cream store and upscale restaurants.

Chances are good, almost any time of the year, that you may see something that looks familiar or come upon a film project in Wilmington. On a recent weekend, three large trucks are parked on Market Street, with technicians taking equipment in and out of a location set. Down along the river boardwalk, cables run here and there to lighting gear apparently left over from an earlier shoot. Farther down Water Street toward the Hilton hotel, a crew is stringing lights in trees for a shot probably scheduled for after dark.

In addition to popular ghost and "haunted pub" evening tours, a walking tour of downtown is available for locating movie and TV landmarks. With more than 300 productions in the area since 1984, there's plenty to show.

Not all landmarks require a tour guide. Just across from the riverfront, the Water Street Restaurant has a great history: First known as the Quince Building and dating to 1835, it was used as a peanut warehouse.

Today, though, fans of "Dawson's Creek" will walk in and, despite a few differences, immediately recognize Dawson's parents' restaurant from the TV show.

Water Street waitress Ashley Hanes remembers watching one episode in which an unhappy Jen (played by Michelle Williams) is seen crying in the back storage room.

"In real life, that room isn't air-conditioned. So I know why she was crying. She was really, really hot," she says with a laugh.

That's Wilmington for you. Sometimes what you've seen on the screen gets mixed up with an equally enjoyable reality.


• EUE/Screen Gems Studios, 1223 N. 23rd St., Wilmington, NC 28405 (near the Wilmington airport), 910-343-3433, www.euescreengems.com. Walking tours at noon and 2 p.m. Saturdays, Labor Day to Memorial Day; same times on Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Adults, $12; ages 11 and under, $5. No reservations required, but a message can be left during the busy season. Tours may be canceled because of rain; call 910-343-3565 to confirm on day you plan to tour.

• Battleship North Carolina, moored on Eagles Island opposite downtown, P.O. Box 480, Wilmington, NC 28402-0480, 910-251-5797, www.battleshipnc.com. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Sept. 16-May 15; until 8 p.m. during the summer. Ages 12-64, $9; senior citizens and military, $8; ages 6-11, $4.50; ages 5 and under, free. Self-guided tours can last two to four hours depending on level of interest.

• Downtown historic houses: Burgwin-Wright Museum House & Gardens, 224 Market St., Wilmington, NC 28401, 910-762-0570, www.geocities.com/picketfence/garden/4354; Bellamy Mansion Museum, 503 Market St., Wilmington, NC 28401, 910-251-3700, www.bellamymansion.org; and Latimer House, 126 S. Third St., Wilmington, NC 28401, 910-762-0492, www.latimerhouse.org. A ticket for admission to all three houses costs $18 and can be purchased at any of the three locations. Burgwin-Wright Museum: open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, with tours beginning on the hour, except Saturdays, when tours begin on the half-hour (last tour, 3:30 p.m.). Adults, $7; ages 5-12, $3; ages 4 and under, free. Bellamy Mansion: open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Guided tours on the hour; self-guided tours available. Adults, $7; ages 5-12, $3; ages 4 and under, free. Latimer House: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays. Adults, $7; students, $3; ages 4 and under, free.

• Cape Fear Museum, 814 Market St., Wilmington, NC 28401, 910-341-4350, www.capefearmuseum.com. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays (also open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Memorial Day to Labor Day). Adults, $5; senior citizens and college students with ID, $4; ages 3-17, $1; ages 2 and under, free.

• Cameron Art Museum, 3201 S. 17th St. (at Independence Boulevard), Wilmington, NC 28412, 910-395-5999, www.cameronartmuseum.com. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Adults, $7; ages 5-18, $2; ages 4 and under, free.

• Riverboat cruises: Cape Fear Riverboats, P.O. Box 1881, Wilmington, NC 28402, 1-800-676-0162 or 910-343-1611, www.cfrboats.com. Large Henrietta III offers a variety of cruises, including a lunch cruise (adults, $19; ages 2-12, $10) and two sightseeing cruises (adults, $11; children, $5), April through October. The smaller Capt. J.N. Maffitt offers 45-minute sightseeing cruises 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends from Labor Day through mid-December and May 1 to Memorial Day; cruises daily during summer (adults, $8; ages 2-12, $4).

• Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington, NC 28403, 910-798-7700, www.airliegardens.org. The gardens, 67 acres near Wrightsville Beach, are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

• Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington and Haunted Pub Crawl, 910-602-6055, www.hauntedwilmington.com. Evening schedules vary seasonally. Cash or traveler's checks only for fees. Ghost Walk: adults, $12; students, senior citizens and military, $10; ages 6 and under, free. Pub Crawl: $15 adults.

• Carriage or horse-drawn trolley tours, Water at Market streets downtown, 910-251-8889, www.horsedrawntours.com. Days and hours vary seasonally. Call ahead in January and February. Adults, $9; ages 11 and under, $4.


• Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-222-4757, www.cape-fear.nc.us. A very complete visitors center is along the river on Water Street near the end of Market Street downtown.

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