TOP STORY >> Hank’s ‘Last Ride’
Story by Nancy Dockter
Photos by David Scolli
The quaint and crumbling former filling station that sits in the middle of the intersection of Round Top and Trammel roads in Sherwood was reclaimed to a former glory when it was used Sunday and Monday as a set for a movie about the last days in the life of singer-songwriter Hank Williams Sr.
Williams is famous for a raft of country-music classics, including, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Am So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Honky-Tonk Blues.” He died at age 29.
The 1930s-vintage gas station with the red-turret roof, though badly in need of repair, seemed the perfect location for a few night scenes in the movie, which is tentatively titled “The Last Ride” and is being directed by Arkansas native Harry Thomason.
It stars Henry Thomas (who as a boy starred in “E.T.”) as Williams.
The restoration was so realistic, with an antique gas pump placed there for the shooting, that several motorists stopped to get gasoline. They were told they had wandered into a movie set.
A rumor circulated on the set Sunday night that the station is in danger of being demolished. Thomason’s comment on that prospect was, “Let’s save this building!”
The rumor had been triggered by a bright-red citation that Sherwood code enforcement officer Scott Kelley had posted last week on a door-frame of the station. It called the building “dilapidated” and threatened a lien in county circuit court if repairs weren’t made.
The little white-stucco building with the red “witch hat” roof was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. It is one of the few remaining examples in the state of the whimsical architectural style often chosen in the early 1900s by smaller oil companies to attract customers.
The station on Round Top was built by North Little Rock developer Justin Matthews for Pierce Oil and opened in 1936. For several decades it was a popular way station for travelers between Little Rock and St. Louis.
All that changed with the advent of interstate highways and the station closed in 1972. Sometime after that, the building was given to the city of Sherwood.
There has been some debate about what to do about the historic structure, which needs an overhaul. The roof is a patchwork of shingles, the windows are broken out and what appears to be remains of a weather vane tilts at a crazy angle.
Despite all that, set artists swooped in Friday to clean up the station – the floor was littered with trash and glass – and work their magic, so that by nightfall Sunday, the east façade looked convincingly like a working gas station of a bygone era.
Filming began after dark on Sunday and wrapped up at 2 a.m. Monday.
The movie, based in fact, is about Williams as he travels from Knoxville, Tenn., to perform in Canton, Ohio. Winter weather has forced him to cancel a flight and hire a chauffeur, a 17-year-old named Silas.
Williams, who was in the grip of addiction to alcohol and painkillers, spent most of the trip collapsed in the back seat of his new, robin’s-egg blue Cadillac. He died quietly along the way, apparently of a heart attack. He was pronounced dead on Jan. 1, 1953, in Oak Hill, West Va.
“This is a character-driven drama and the intimate story about a 17-year-old driving a man who died so young and had accomplished so much,” explained Tim Jackson, co-producer with Thomason.
The script creators of “The Last Ride” are Howie Klausner and Dub Cornett. Klausner wrote “Space Cowboys” for Clint Eastwood.
The story was an immediate hit with Thomason, according to Jackson.
“Harry read it and said, ‘I want to direct this,’” Jackson said. “Everybody who reads it loves it and wants to be involved.”
The scenes filmed at Round Top include several of the Williams character and his young chauffeur, Silas, and some of Silas and his love interest, Wanda.
Silas is played by Jesse James, who starred in “Fly Boys.” Wanda is played by Kaley Cuoco, who as a teenager starred with John Ritter in the television series, “Eight Simple Rules.”
Robert Perry of Sherwood, a drama major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was stand-in for James. Perry, who aspires to a Hollywood career, said he was “very grateful” to have a part in the production.
Mozark Productions is owned by Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The couple is best known for two popular sitcoms, “Evening Shade” and “Designing Women,” but they have also made feature and documentary films, including
“The Day It Came to Earth” and “The Hunting of the President.”
Over the years, Thomason has been a mentor to Jackson and his business partner, Josh Miller, who own Category One Entertainment Group, a Little Rock-based production company for film and television.
Jackson says work on “The Last Ride” should wrap up in September.
“Expect to see it in theaters in early 2011,” Jackson said.
Filming in central Arkansas started last week. “Ninety percent of the movie definitely will be shot in Arkansas,” said Jackson.
Locations include Benton, Little Rock, and several spots in Scott including the Plantation Agriculture Museum and the elementary school (made to look like an airport). Later this week, scenes set in Chattanooga, Tn., will be shot in downtown North Little Rock.
“We want to say that the city of Sherwood has been very helpful, and that all the powers that be in all the cities have been really great,” Jackson said.
Sherwood Alderman Becki Vassar, who recently announced her interest in seeking a grant and community support for renovating the building, was delighted when she got the news about the station being used as a movie set.
“I am tickled to death about the movie and the publicity,” Vassar said, “This might be the little ‘umph’ we need to get it started. It would be tragic to have it fall down.”
Kelley said he put the citation on the station door to draw attention to the structure and also to let passers-by know that the city is aware of the problems needing to be addressed.
Kelley said finding “vulgar graffiti” spray-painted on the building last week is what prompted his action.
“It hurt my feelings that someone would do that,” Kelley said. “The Round Top gas station has a lot of historic value. I take a lot of pride in it. I have pictures of kinfolk standing there since as early as 1946.
“I wanted to make the city aware that if they want to keep this history alive that they need to do something.
“The structure is dilapidated. Termites have eaten up several studs on the north side. We have to deal with it now or lose it forever.”
At the council meeting Monday, Alderman Sheila Sulcer announced that the moviemaking had already inspired several offers of cash and in-kind contributions to the effort.
Photographer David Scolli also contributed to this story.