Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 14, 2012

A glorious era of movie magic has come to an end for Cape Coalwood

By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— When I get the opportunity to peruse through DVDs at the local department store, or at the video store at the mall, I always hope to stumble across a special DVD edition of “Primal Fear” containing the lost footage shot in McDowell County so many years ago.

Apparently, such a DVD doesn’t exist — or if it does, I simply can’t find it. I did find a new Blu-ray release of “A Beautiful Mind” last week, and for a second, I got excited. That was before I realized there wasn’t any lost footage — or at least none that I’m aware of — associated with the movie detailing Bluefield’s Nobel laureate, Dr. John Forbes Nash Jr.

But there is still lost footage — perhaps still sitting on some editing bay — of the “Primal Fear” scenes shot in McDowell County so many years ago. For those who may not recall, the year was 1995, and Paramount Pictures came to town for about four days to shoot scenes of actor Richard Gere in the Northfork and Keystone communities. The movie was more or less a courtroom thriller about a lawyer — played by Gere — defending a young altar boy who was accused of murdering a Catholic priest.

If memory serves me correctly, the Northfork and Keystone area was supposed to double in the movi as the hometown of the defendant on trial for murder. The only problem is the footage they shot in McDowell County — three days worth of footage at that — never made it into the final movie. And to the best of my knowledge, a special edition DVD or Blu-ray containing the lost footage —  has never been released.

I remember all of this well because I was in McDowell County during one of the three days of filming. Mom, and my sister Lisa, both wanted to see Gere. So we camped out in downtown Northfork, and actually had a chance to see the actor in between takes. He was very friendly, and waved at the small crowd on hand watching the filming of the movie. It was a pretty big deal at the time.

It’s too bad the McDowell County footage didn’t make it into the final movie. Maybe it will still happen one day with a DVD or Blu-ray re-release. The movie was actually pretty good, and it made money at the box office. So I guess anything is still possible.

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Homer Hickam announced last week that after 13 years of fall festival fun in McDowell County, there will not be a 2012 edition of the October Sky Festival. The news in many ways marked the end of an era of glorious movie magic in McDowell County.

The first fall festival gathering was held back in October of 1999 — the same year that Universal Pictures released the motion picture “October Sky” on the big screen. The yearly fall festival has been held every year since drawing thousands to the “real” Cape Coalwood.

School kids from across the country have made the annual pilgrimage to McDowell County for the fall festival based upon the movie and popular memoir of the same name. Amateur rocket-makers from both near and far — inspired by the real Rocket Boys of McDowell County — also travel to Coalwood each fall to launch rockets. Just like Hickam, many of these amateur Rocket Boys and Rocket Girls are also dreaming of shooting for the stars.

But not this year.

Hickam posted the following remarks on Facebook: “I’m very sorry about this but the October Sky Festival held for the past 13 years in Coalwood, West Virginia, will not be held in 2012. Although the festival has been tremendously successful and attracted thousands from around the country and the world, the people of Coalwood who did most of the work are getting a little older and felt they could no longer produce the festival to the high standards they’d set for themselves. The other Rocket Boys and I have always said we’d come as long as the people of Coalwood wanted to hold the festival but we fully understand why it has come to an end. Our sincere thanks to the people of Coalwood for all the great festivals. We love them and our little town. As Roy Lee said, ‘The chapter ends, but the Coalwood book goes on forever.’ ”

Roy Lee couldn’t have said it better. It is truly sad to see the end of the “October Sky” festival era for McDowell County. But the popular memoirs written by Hickman, and the timeless 1999 motion picture, will most certainly live on.

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What’s next for the region? Just a thought here, but how about a parade or something for local two-time Super Bowl champ Ahmad Bradshaw. Shouldn’t we be doing something locally to honor this NFL superstar? He is from Bluefield after all — as the big graphic flashed on the screen to 110 million viewers about 15 minutes or so into the Super Bowl reminded us. And he has already received the key to New York City. Oh ... and Bradshaw did score the game winning Super Bowl touchdown for the New York Giants. So that should count for something, too.

 Maybe — if nothing else — we could give him keys to both Bluefields. It’s just a thought.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegaph’s city editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.