When a small item appeared in the Nelson Daily News of April 21, 1986, announcing Steve Martin was considering filming a movie in Nelson, residents might well have concluded it was a belated April Fool’s prank. I certainly didn’t believe it.
Yet it soon emerged that it wasn’t such a wild and crazy idea. And before long there were plans to shoot a second movie in Nelson, and then a third.
That Nelson was suddenly being considered for major motion pictures was a surprising but welcome result of the city’s heritage kick that began a few years earlier, which revealed and restored many Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings.
Nelson appealed to the location scout because they were looking for a place with Victorian architecture that could stand in for a Washington ski town. In particular they wanted “a lush Victorian house” and “various bars, including a club that is in a cellar.” The nightclub in the basement of the Heritage Inn, then known as the Boiler Room and now called the Spirit Bar, was perfect.
That August, Martin, along with co-star Daryl Hannah and the rest of the production team, descended on Nelson to shoot Roxanne, a loose retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac. It was about the most exciting thing my nine-year-old self could conceive of.
Looking back, I’m surprised the shoot was only three weeks, for it felt much longer.
Lots of locals, particularly the local fire departments, worked on that film — and partied with the cast and crew. It put an estimated $700,000 into the local economy ($1.6 million in 2022 currency).
Filming took place 12 hours a day, six days a week, and it wasn’t hard to find where the cameras were rolling. You were welcome to watch, although forbidden from taking pictures of the cast.
I remember watching three scenes: Martin taking charge after his inept colleagues fail to rescue a cat from a tree; Martin chasing a fire truck, crying “Boys! Boys! The … ladder … is … UP!”; and an evening scene where Martin leads the truck down Baker Street after his magnificent proboscis detects smoke.
I also remember various businesses being fitted with alternate signage. Nature’s Health Products became the Watcomb County Granary while Wait’s News became The Blue Barrell. However, neither appeared in the finished movie.
A year later, our family was among those who packed into the Civic Theatre for the premiere. It was Martin’s biggest hit to that point and we basked in its reflected glory, as many reviewers gushed about the setting.
Coming only a few years after the closure of Nelson’s university and sawmill, Roxanne’s success was a validation for Nelson — a collective ego boost when it was needed most.
Then-fire chief Harry Sommerville, who served as a consultant on the film, said at the time: “I’ve lived here for 51 years and I’ve never seen Nelson so positive about itself.”
Watching the film nearly 35 years later, some parts have not aged well. The soundtrack, in particular, screams 1980s schmaltz. The sexist humour is cringeworthy. But Nelson has probably never looked better. As in a certain Paul Simon song, the movie gives us nice bright colours, the greens of summer, and the impression of a city perpetually bathed in golden light.
Ironically, however, there’s a lot less Nelson in the film than it might seem. Deft editing blends together shots from distant locations.
While the exterior of the city’s historic fire hall is featured prominently, the interiors were actually shot in Vancouver. The same goes for the scene where Martin puts a drunk in his place by rattling off a long string of insults for his own giant nose. The exterior is what’s now the Nelson Museum, but the interior was actually Richard’s on Richards in Vancouver.
The Boiler Room didn’t end up in the movie at all, although it was the venue for a fundraiser Martin and fellow comedians put on for Muscular Dystrophy Canada, a longtime firefighters’ cause.
Roxanne’s Victorian house was actually in Anmore while Martin’s house, which appears at the beginning and end of the film, is also believed to be somewhere in the Lower Mainland.
While you can still pick up a Roxanne walking tour, nothing similar exists for Housekeeping, another movie filmed in and around Nelson that year.
Adapted from Marilynn Robinson’s novel of the same name, Housekeeping was a dour 1950s drama about two girls being raised by their eccentric aunt, highlighted by outstanding performances by Christine Lahti, Sara Walker, and Andrea Burchill.
Walker and Burchill were both teens from Vancouver who only appeared in a few other roles afterward. Lahti stepped in to replace Diane Keaton, who dropped out six weeks before shooting was supposed to begin.
In this film, Nelson appeared as Fingerbone, Idaho, based on Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint (which, coincidentally, later became a sister city to Nelson).
One of the major set pieces was a railway trestle initially built halfway across Sunshine Bay and then disassembled and barged down the lake to the former Kootenay Forest Products site where it was used to simulate the aftermath of a train disaster.
Housekeeping was critically acclaimed but received minimal promotion and soon sank from sight. It still holds up well, even if it is a bit overlong. Watch for cameos by several locals including Fritz Farenholtz, Adrian Naqvi, and Jeanette Grittani.
Nelson was also in the running for a third film that year, The Experts, starring John Travolta, which ended up being shot in Vancouver and Niagara-on-the-Lake instead. Perhaps just as well: it was a critical and box office failure.
Other movies have since been filmed in Nelson, but for sheer novelty and excitement, nothing quite matched that magical summer of 1986 when Hollywood first came knocking.