Rear recalls filming of ‘The Straight Story’ 20 years ago

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollywood invades Clermont
Rear recalls filming of ‘The Straight Story’ 20 years ago

 

Chris DeBack
cdeback@fayettecountynewspapers.com

 

It has been 20 years since Hollywood invaded Clermont to film the Disney-backed movie “The Straight Story.”

It tells the story of the late Alvin Straight’s 240-mile, six week journey from Laurens to Blue Rivers, Wis., to visit his sick brother. During his summer trip in 1994, Straight pulled a trailer with his supplies behind his John Deere lawn mower that traveled at a top speed of 5 mph. 

Straight drove his lawn mower because he no longer had a driver’s license. After taking off on July 5, 1994, the trip was met with complications as his red Airens lawn mower broke down 25 miles into the journey. He was towed back to his home, where he purchased a 1966 John Deere 110 lawn mower and took off again. Taking a slightly different route, Straight’s John Deere broke down in West Bend. 

After spending approximately $250 on repairs, he continued on before heavy rain caused him to stop in Charles City and visit one of his seven daughters. After waiting for his Social Security check, he continued on eventually ending up on Hwy. 18 that took him through West Union and to the large hill on the outskirts of Clermont. It was here that Straight ran into trouble again, as his John Deere tractor broke a belt after running over a fire hose draped across the highway. The Clermont Fire Department had been burning a home for training nearby where the Baker Construction sign is now. 

Sitting on their front porch at the bottom of the hill, Dennis and the late Karla Rear watched as Straight’s lawn mower, pulling a two-wheel trailer, came to a stop after hitting the fire hose. Sensing something was probably wrong with the lawn mower, Dennis went over to Straight and helped him push the lawn mower into his carport. 

“With how big of a hill that is and how much weight that trailer added, he must have been going pretty darn fast when he hit the fire hose,” Rear recalled. “He was a real nice guy but kind of quiet.”

 

After asking the John Deere dealer in town to fix Straight’s lawn mower, the Rears left for Centerville to see the six-horse hitch that was riding across the country. The couple returned two days later to find Straight still in their carport, his lawn mower unfixed. 

“The dealer finally fixed the lawnmower, but it started raining toward the weekend, so I just told him to stay until Monday,” Rear remembered. “He was staying in his trailer in the carport. He wouldn’t come into the house; not even to eat or use the phone. He told us he couldn’t eat hot food, so when Karla took him food outside, he would leave it until it cooled down. After the weekend, he thanked us for our hospitality and continued on his way.” 

As Straight disappeared up the Clermont hill headed toward Postville, so too did the Rears’ and Clermont's memory of the encounter. It wasn’t until the Rears received a call from a Hollywood producer years later that he recalled Straight’s visit to the area. It was a conversation such as this that helped Clermont become one of several film locations in Iowa.  

“Yeah, I was surprised they were going to film in Clermont,” Dennis explained. “This Mrs. [Mary] Sweeney from California was the one that called me and asked a bunch of questions and wanted to know if they could make a movie.” 

“The Straight Story” was directed by David Lynch and produced by Joan Roach and Mary Sweeney. It starred Richard Farnsworth, who would be nominated for an Oscar for his role, as Alvin Straight, and Sissy Spacek as Rose, which was based on one of Straight’s daughters. 

Filming of “The Straight Story” began in September 1998 and continued into November. On Oct. 6, 1998, the town of Clermont turned into Hollywood for two weeks as filming of the movie commenced. While Dennis and Karla Rear don’t personally make an appearance in the movie, their likeness was used. Their names were changed to Danny and Darla Riordan, and they were portrayed by James Cada and Sally Wingert, respectively. 

Cada was an experienced extra in the film industry by the time he received his role in “The Straight Story” having appeared as the “husband shopper” in “Grumpier Old Men.” According to his his IMDB.com profile, he has appeared in 22 films and TV shows, 11 coming after his portrayal of Dennis Rear. Sally Wingert has appeared in 19 films or TV shows, most recently the 2017 film “The Missing Sun.” 

“He was a skinny guy, and I was pretty big back then,” Rear recalled. “Other than that, I thought he did a good job capturing me.”

For two weeks in the fall of 1998, Rear’s former home — he had moved to another house along the Turkey River in the same neighborhood — became a Hollywood set. The film crew bustled around Clermont for those two weeks with several area residents casted as extras. In fact, the film crew brought in an old barn to burn for the scene where Straight's lawn mower broke down in Clermont. The Clermont Fire Department helped with the scene. 

“Everything was on this side of Hwy. 18,” Rear recalled. “The town grew in size for those two weeks, it was really neat to watch how a film is made and all the different equipment and people it took to make a movie. Helicopters were flying over, and Karla and I turned our basement into a hangout location for crew members when they were busy. It was a fun time interacting with them and getting to know them. They would come down and eat dinner and just share stories of their time in the industry.”

After film crews rolled out, Clermont went back to its quiet, quaint northeast Iowa self. The Rear’s, along with others, received checks in the mail for the use of their likeness. In fact, John Yauslin and his wife were each paid $1 for the right to use their likeness in the movie. John also received another check for $62 but couldn’t remember why he was being paid that. He and his wife never cashed the checks.

“I have a check for approximately $62 that says I worked two hours of overtime, but I can’t remember why I was ever even sent it,” said Yauslin, who interacted and brought Straight food when he was in Clermont.

Both Yauslin and Rear have scrapbooks from their involvement in the movie that includes article clippings from newspapers covering the filmings and photos they took during the filming. The two men’s most prized possession is a third draft of the movie’s script. 

The Straight story received critical acclaim, but it didn’t fare too well in the box office falling short of its $10 million budget by making approximately $6.2 million. 

While Farnsworth didn’t win an Oscar for his role, Rear will never forget the two weeks that his little town in northeast Iowa turned into Hollywood. 

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