“Susan Sarandon and Gary Cole had sex right where we were!” I exclaimed to my husband. The two of us, holed up in our hotel, were watching the scene from “Tammy” in which Melissa McCarthy freaks out as Sarandon, who plays her hard-drinking grandmother, and Cole disappear into the back seat of her Cadillac. Just a few hours earlier, we had been standing in that exact parking lot in Wilmington, N.C., learning that “Tammy” was one of many television shows and movies shot in and around the coastal city that used to call itself Filmington.
We had ended up here pretty much by chance: Our kids were in marine biology camp at UNC at Wilmington, and once we got sunburned, we had to devise an escape from the beach and the heat and the sharks. We were surprised at what a fun and historic place sleepy Wilmington turned out to be.
There are various ways to tour the city — by boat, by horse-drawn carriage, on foot. We hopped onto one of the free trolleys that loop around the downtown area and figured we’d stop first at the Cotton Exchange, a series of eight antebellum buildings once home to a flour mill as well as a cotton production center. Nowadays you can dine here and buy all sorts of art, crafts, souvenirs, clothing, health products and ice cream. We were grateful for the air conditioning; the rising temperatures outside had me feeling all sorts of cranky, which probably inspired my purchase there — a Cape Fear T-shirt featuring an alligator spouting the words “Bite me.”
Hoping for a breeze, we ambled down the Riverwalk, a scenic mile-long trek along the shoreline. From there, you could not possibly miss the USS North Carolina, which ←commands your attention from the opposite bank of the Cape Fear River. The first of the newly constructed fast battleships to join the American fleet during World War II, the North Carolina fought in every major Pacific battle, earning awards and renown along the way. Quick-acting sailors helped it escape destruction when a Japanese torpedo hit its hull in 1942. After being decommissioned a few years later and destined to become scrap metal, it was rescued again, this time by North Carolinians who, in 1961, brought it to its present site, where it stands as a memorial to those citizens from the state who risked their lives during wartime.
There are the obvious points of interest: the weapons, the command center, the sheer size of everything (like the tremendous boilers, the tending of which must have been hellishly hot), the whole military end of things. But I was fascinated by the realities of day-to-day living: the quarters and mess halls of the men based on rank, the barbershop, the medical and dental facilities, and the store where soldiers could spend their hard-earned cash on things like Snickers bars and Prince Albert in a can. I bumped my head several times moving about the ship; I wondered how there hadn’t been more head injuries among seamen in rough seas. Well, that was probably the least of their challenges.
A new water taxi service took us back to the other side of the river, just beside a tourist information center. Then we bought tickets for the afternoon Hollywood Location Walk at the Black Cat Shoppe, a sort of cool gift shop for the adult prankster hipster. Then, famished and wilting slightly from the heat, we ducked into the tiny Stuffedwich across the street. Both the carnivore (my husband) and the occasional vegetarian (me) downed sandwiches that lived up to the spot’s name before proceeding back down to the river, where our tour was about to start.
Our guide, “Spiel Stevenberg” (who looked strikingly like a certain film director), met us for the 90-minute trot around the downtown area (which is not physically taxing unless it is 100 degrees outside, which it was). Wilmington is a mecca for “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” fans (Keith Scott Body Shop shirts are everywhere), but the city has played host to so many more production companies that Stevenberg does his best to tailor the experience for his audience. My husband and I inhabit a slightly older and nerdier demographic, so we were more interested in learning more about locations where “Blue Velvet,” “Iron Man 3,” “Sleepy Hollow” and, of course, “Weekend at Bernie’s” were filmed. (Don’t judge.) But whether you’re a Nicholas Sparks or Coen Brothers fan (or, if you’re one of Marge Simpson’s sisters, you’re sweet on “Matlock ”), the walk can connect you with pieces of your memory.
Stevenberg (real name: Mike Hartle) shares notebooks crammed with photos along with stories of tours witnessing filming over the years. But he also relays some serious history: Beginning in the 1980s, North Carolina was the setting for numerous films and television programs, and about 10 years ago, with other locales in competition, the state started offering incentives to attract production companies. Wilmington was the center of it all until the state let the program lapse last summer. Now most companies have moved their productions elsewhere. Locals such as John Hirchak, who, with his wife Kim, founded the Hollywood Tour and owns the Black Cat Shoppe, are hoping that things revert back to how they used to be.
“When people like Andy Griffith talk about Wilmington, they have nothing but great things to say about the people, the level of the studio and the talent here,” Hirchak said. “All the extras, the entire crew, catering — hundreds of people from here who are involved in this every day. People fall in love with our community and they want to come back here and do more work.”
After the tour, we struggled mightily, but the Carolina heat won. Microbrews at the nearby Front Street Brewery beckoned, along with the free brewery tour. While waiting for our tour, we sat at the bar. I drank an interesting experimental concoction that was their Scottish ale mixed with their raspberry wheat and aged in bourbon barrels. It had a higher alcohol content than typical beers. My husband drank the Coastal Kolsch. We hadn’t yet finished when we were called into the glassed-off brewery, where the brewing process was explained to us, complete with several generous samples.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Several hours later, cooled off in our air-conditioned hotel room, we were thrilled to see that “Tammy” clip and realize that a place where we had stood only hours earlier had once been occupied by feet more famous than ours. I don’t envision my husband watching any Nicholas Sparks films with me, but I predict we will revisit “Blue Velvet” and assorted episodes of “Sleepy Hollow,” carefully scouring the backgrounds for familiar Wilmington sights.
Stein is a freelance writer in Arlington who blogs at www.wrekehavoc.com.
More from Travel:
11 Market St.
Hand-packed burgers and hot and cold sandwiches are featured in this casual, tiny eatery near the waterfront. Most items are under $10.
Front Street Brewery
9 N. Front St.
Brewery tours take place at 3 p.m., 3:45 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. daily. Sign up at the host stand in the front of the brewery.
USS Battleship North Carolina
1 Battleship Rd. NE
A national memorial, the USS North Carolina is open every day, including holidays. Summer hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Winter hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (modified hours for Christmas Day.) $14, $10 seniors and military, $6 ages 6 to 11, younger free.
The Cotton Exchange
321 N. Front St.
Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sundays noon-4 p.m. Free admission; free parking for shoppers.
Hollywood Location Walk
8 Market St.
A roughly two-hour walk around film and TV locations downtown. Tours: Every day except for Mondays and Fridays at 2 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. until August 31. $13, $11 seniors, students and military, age 6 and younger free.
The Black Cat Shoppe
8 Market St.
Unusual souvenirs, T-shirts, soaps, humor items (i.e., Monty Python notepaper), practical joke supplies and costume pieces.
— S. S.