Photography by Jessi Jacobs
Celebrate 50 years of this classic Hollywood film by following the heroes’ route across Kansas or stopping by any of the numerous locations and events commemorating the movie
This year marks 50 years since the release of Paper Moon, a Paramount Pictures road comedy-drama set in Depression-era Kansas. The film is about a young girl, Addie, and her criminal guardian, Moze, who cross the state conning vulnerable widows into buying Bibles, carrying out one fast-buck scheme after another, and keeping one step ahead of the law.
You can plan your own road trip to filming locations in McCracken, LaCrosse, Liebenthal, Wilson, Gorham, Codell, Hays and White Cloud for insight into the movie. An extra bonus will be the views of endless skies, colorful sunsets, rolling hills, and vast fields of farmland where silver water towers and grain bins dot the skyline.
It might be best to begin your road trip where the movie does—in Nickel Cemetery southwest of Liebenthal, where a hand water pump visible in the opening scene still stands.
The next stop is McCracken, a major film location because the movie’s production designer needed only to cover the then-paved street with dirt, add false fronts to some buildings, and refurbish an old-time service station with antique gas pumps to reflect the Depression-era look needed for the film. Still standing is the 1919 two-story red brick grocery store that was transformed for the film into The Dream movie theater with a false front and movie posters.
The movie stars real-life father-daughter duo Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, who at age 10 won an Oscar as best supporting actress for her performance as Addie Loggins.
Carolyn Thompson, the board president of McCracken Historical Museum, says her organization has worked to preserve many of the film’s props, as well as the memorabilia related to the production and to the actors.
“We have the false fronts, and we incorporated those in the new section of our museum,” says Thompson. The McCracken Historical Museum, located in a restored 1901 limestone jail with two original cells, recently constructed an addition specifically for Paper Moon exhibits. Displayed are photographs, newspaper articles, scrapbooks and other memorabilia, including an unopened NeHi Root Beer bottle used in a café scene and the original license plate from the Model A Roadster that the film’s heroes drove.
“The hotel was one of the main places that they filmed in town, but it is gone,” Thompson says of the demolished 1909 Eagle Hotel where several scenes were shot, including one where Moze and Addie outsmart a bootlegger late one night.
“There was a scene in the movie where they used the telephone booth in the hotel and we have the telephone booth, we have a large mirror from the hotel, we have the front window, we have a door pull, and we have a room key—that was a real find.”
Newly added is a replica of the moon Addie sat on to have her photo taken while at a carnival. During the Great Depression, photo booths often used paper-crafted crescent moons and star-studded backdrops. These photo booths were immortalized by the 1933 Harold Arlen song It’s Only a Paper Moon featured in a Broadway play; the song influenced the movie’s director, Peter Bogdanovich, to change the title to Paper Moon instead of using the title of the novel on which the movie is based, Addie Pray, by Joe David Brown.
“We reconstructed the moon so people can get their picture taken there,” Thompson says, adding that the entire exhibit is a labor of love. “A local lady fired a moon in a kiln and then Tatum signed it, so we have that.”
The museum also holds still pictures from the movie and a poster signed by Bogdanovich and Ryan O’Neal.
From McCracken, you can continue the journey to LaCrosse, where the Rush County fairgrounds provided the setting for the movie’s carnival scenes. One of the widows’ homes and many of the rural landscapes viewed as the twosome traveled in their car were filmed near the towns of Liebenthal and La Crosse, according to Brad Penka, Rush County Economic Development administrator.
In Gorham, the building that was filmed as a post office is at the intersection of Chicago and Market streets.
Wilson was a major location for filming. Inside the Soukup Grain Office, which is part of the Sunflower Coal buildings today, Pray haggled to get money from the brother of the man who killed Addie’s mother. Later, he and Addie are seen strolling down the main street, Avenue E, where many of the limestone structures still stand.
Twenty framed photographs taken when the movie was filmed, an original movie poster, and album covers hang in the parlor of the historic Midland Railroad Hotel, where two rooms on the second floor appeared in the scenes where Addie attempts to break up Moze and an exotic dancer he met at a carnival, according to Melinda Merrill, Wilson Tourism Hub president.
In Dorrance, where some scenes were filmed, the Dorrance Bakery displays some props used in the film.
Some scenes were filmed in Hays, where the Midwest premiere of the movie was at the Fox Theatre, which has been converted into an event center.
The final scene of the movie, where the Model A rolls down a large hill as the duo scrambles to jump inside, was shot near Codell.
Although located in northeast Kansas, the historic river town of White Cloud also was a film location. The Doniphan County Sheriff’s Department jail—where Moze and Addie escape from toward the end of the movie—still stands, according to local historian Deborah Bryan. Other buildings along Main Street, which was covered in dirt for the film, also can be seen in the movie, including the Kelly General Store and Opera House, which appears behind the sheriff as he points his gun at the twosome as they flee to the river’s edge.
An offshoot of the film was a 1974–1975 television series, also called Paper Moon, in which Jodie Foster starred as Addie and Christopher Connelly as Moses Pray in 13 episodes before being canceled after its first season. The series also was filmed on location in Kansas.
HOTEL HUMANITIES: UNDER A PAPER MOON
July 22–23 / Wilson
Inspired by the 50th anniversary of the movie Paper Moon, Humanities Kansas plans an immersive weekend experience at the Midland Railroad Hotel in Wilson where several of the movie’s scenes were filmed. The event begins with the Lucas Triangle, an arts adventure presented by the Grassroots Arts Center in nearby Lucas that includes the Florence Deeble Rock Garden, Mri-Pilar’s Garden of Isis, and Bowl Plaza. Later at the Wilson hotel, facilitators will explore the state’s art, history, literature, poetry and song to promote ideas and conversation. Reservations and pre-payments of fee required.
Learn more here or call 785.357.0359