Fifty years ago, the search for the meaning of life wound through Louisiana with stops in the Pointe Coupee parish town of Morganza and in St. Mary Parish on the way to New Orleans. The motorcycle riders never found the meaning that they were looking for but at least the ride got them away from Hollywood for a while.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “Easy Rider,” the film that rallied the hippie generation as Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper mounted their choppers and headed east to try to make sense out of a world made tumultuous by the Vietnam war. Along the way they befriended Jack Nicholson who in those days before sitting courtside at Los Angeles Lakers games was also a troubled spirit. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes the trio stops for lunch at a rural café. A cop and some local rednecks look at them with contempt and mutter statements suggesting that the future would not be bright for the visitors. Without giving away too much, I will say that Nicholson should have gone to see the Lakers; Fonda and Hopper made it to New Orleans and spent part of Mardi Gras romping with allegedly loose women in a cemetery. (Partially captured in the background is the pile driving for the construction of the I-10 extension which was in progress at the time.)
What is best remembered in the Louisiana segment was the Morganza lunch scene at Blackie Melancon’s café. The film achieved cult status and through the years the café became a stop for youth relishing the bikers’ lifestyle, if only for a day. The folks at Melancon’s could have exploited the café with an Easy Rider theme but they kept it pretty much the way it always was, reflecting perhaps that the locals were divided by the film which made Morganza look like the ugly side of America. On the other hand, the filming was an historic moment in the town’s history.
For Morganza this year has been an eventful one, at least by its standards, as the high waters in the Mississippi river prompted debate about opening the nearby flood gates and as the celebration of the film’s anniversary will open the gates for rediscovery of the town.
This edition of Louisiana Life contains a feature about chefs and their version of Louisiana classics. We’re not sure if Melancon’s served any native specialties. The signage above the front door boasted of: “Homemade Pies,” “Lunches” “Short Orders.” I would guess that catfish was served on Fridays and gumbo most any day. For all the state’s memorable restaurants, Melancon’s is still the most historic café, although it was torn down in 2002. There was some talk that at least a monument should be placed at the site of the fallen restaurant. In 2010 a plaque was made which announced the site as a location for “the movie Easy Rider. Featuring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.” Twelve area folks are listed as being the film’s “Local Stars.” It speaks of the internal concern about the town’s image that the monument is placed in the sidewalk. Perhaps it was unintended, but anyone reading it has to look down.
Celebrations to honor the film’s 50th will be held this summer in the St. Mary Parish town of Franklin and in Morganza. Meanwhile, the meaning of life remains elusive , but certainly it continues to run through Louisiana.