At Last, a Monument for Easy Rider

Morganza comes to terms with the movie that made it a countercultural landmark.
Melancon’s Café in Morganza was the setting of a pivotal scene in Easy Rider. |!!!|

"It’s gone!" That’s what town hall employee Jan Marshall told the 50 or so motorcyclists gathered around the abandoned building on the east side of Louisiana 1 in Morganza that warm August morning in 2005. We had ridden to Morganza to see Melancon’s Café, the site of a pivotal scene in the iconic motorcycle classic Easy Rider.

Anyone who has seen the movie knows that is where Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper) and George (Jack Nicholson) flirted with a group of cute teenage girls under the scornful eye of a local deputy and a couple of townspeople. It was perhaps one of the most important scenes in the movie because it set the stage for the brutal deaths of all three characters later in the movie and helped to create a sympathetic view of two peace-loving hippie bikers who were riding across America for no particular reason.

I was 21 when I saw Easy Rider, and though I wasn’t a hippie and I held a respectable job, I identified with the characters. I too rode a motorcycle –– though it was a Honda, not a Harley –– and I too harbored a secret dream to one day take off across the country and leave all my troubles behind. I never acted on that dream, but today I ride a Harley and carry a video camera in the saddlebags, which I use to produce a motorcycle travel television show. On that August morning in 2005, I had joined the group of bikers standing in the hot sun in Morganza partially to do a story on the café and partially to relive a part of my old motorcycle adventure dream.

Instead we learned that the building that housed the café had been torn down a few years before. It had been purchased by a local church, and the land had been cleared for future church expansion or perhaps to once and for all rid the town of what some locals thought to be a stain on its reputation.

But even though the café is gone, the impact of that scene on the town and the people who participated in it still lives on today.

Cynthia Grezaffi Dupree remembers the day Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson rolled into town. A young teenager from nearby Innis, she had been asked by Marion Hebert if she wanted to be in the movie. Miss Blackie, as everyone called Hebert, was the owner of Melancon’s Café and the mother of Cynthia’s best friend, Elida Ann Hebert. Cynthia and Elida were among the six local girls who appeared in the café scene and flirted with Wyatt, Billy and George.

A few years after our failed attempt to visit the café, we tracked them down, along with Arnold Hess, the Point Coupee Parish deputy sheriff who appeared in the scene in his deputy uniform, something that almost cost him his job.

“Watch right here; here it comes,” Dupree tells us as we all watch a DVD copy of the café scene together. “I’m the one in the green dress with the yellow flowers,” she says as we watch the camera truck past the restaurant booths where the girls are sitting. “God, I hated that dress,” she adds parenthetically. “When I put it on that morning, I thought I was going for an audition. I didn’t know I was actually going to be in the film that day.”

“Y’all check what just walked in,” a teenage Cynthia utters from the screen while today’s Cynthia mouths the words while watching. “There was no script; they just told us to flirt,” she recalls. “I have to tell you the truth: I didn’t really know how.”

Her best friend, now Elida Hebert Aronstein, agrees but admits that Fonda perhaps did a little flirting of his own, taking her for rides on his motorcycle out on the levee a couple of times after the cameras stopped rolling. One of those rides almost ended in disaster when she was burned on the leg by the Harley’s exhaust. “For some time after the movie, he would call occasionally to check on me,” Aronstein says. “I am not sure if he was really concerned about me or just worried that I might sue him,” she adds with a laugh.

Today both Dupree and Aronstein have very fond memories of those days back in 1968 and their brief encounter with Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson.

Hess, however, has mixed feelings about it. “They asked me to do the scene in my uniform to make it more realistic,” he recalls, adding, “They promised they wouldn’t identify where I worked.” But when the movie came out a year later, Hess was shocked to see his Point Coupee Parish sheriff’s patch prominently displayed on the big screen. “The sheriff called me in and basically wanted to know why I shouldn’t be fired,” he recalls. Hess says he wasn’t fired after he explained that once he realized he and other townspeople were being portrayed as intolerant rednecks, he took no further part in the movie.

A cattle rancher today, Hess says he is amazed at the attention and prominence his minute or two of screen time still brings to him. He also says he has mellowed somewhat over the years concerning the way he and other townspeople were portrayed in the movie. “A lot of people were pretty upset about it back then,” he says, including the local schoolteacher who complained about Hess’ involvement to the sheriff.

But old feelings are fading, and the town may be finally accepting its role in cultural history. Last year, the Point Coupee Parish Historical Society, along with local motorcyclists; LA Rider TV; and the Motorcycle Awareness Campaign, a national motorcycle safety organization headquartered in Baton Rouge, staged an Easy Rider 40th anniversary celebration. Hundreds of bikers participated in a ride to the site of Melancon’s Café and contributed money to construct a monument recognizing the filming of the scene and the historical significance of the
movie’s Louisiana connections.

On Nov. 13, 2010, there will be another ride, and the marker will be permanently placed at the site so that future motorcyclists and tourists won’t make the same mistake we made on that sunny August morning back in 2005.