The South is flush with stories: stories of people well known and completely unknown, stories of average and exceptional places that personify a generation and a way of life, and stories of amazing events that changed history.
When film producers bring these stories to life on the big screen, they are often drawn away from the Hollywood lots to the towns and cities that originally gave life to those moving tales. Southern stories and Southern scenery are implicitly intertwined at these Southern film sites.
“Most people identify Keeneland with ‘Seabiscuit’ because it was the biggest production we had here, but Keeneland has [been] featured in many films,” said Amy Owens, communications associate for Keeneland Racetrack.
It’s easy to see why. The National Historic Landmark, which keeps its grounds open 24 hours a day to serve as a park for the local and visiting public, has been operating continuously since 1936, right around the time that underdog racehorse Seabiscuit famously won the “Match of the Century.”
“We always recommend coming in the morning if at all possible because the horses are working out and breathing,” said Kate McLean, Keeneland’s meeting and event planner. “To hear them running and their hooves hitting the track is much different than a normal racetrack tour because you can imagine what a race day is really like. Mornings represent an amazing chance to see some of the sport’s biggest stars strut their stuff.”
Many Keeneland employees have taken part in the local filming and can share their stories with visiting groups, but one of the highlights of the group tour experience is the luncheon lecture. Though the lecture is often organized around a racing topic, groups can also opt to hear from Racing Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who played the jockey for War Admiral, the prize horse Seabiscuit famously beat in the film’s final race.
Keeneland is open for racing two months of the year, April and October, and groups visiting on a race day can pair a morning tour with an afternoon of racing. During the offseason, a luncheon speaker can give a short demonstration on how to place bets on horses, and the group can take in some offtrack betting in the lounge in the afternoon.
First a New York Times best seller and now an Academy Award for Best Picture nominee, Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” narrates the writing and publication of a scandalous book that looks at society from the viewpoint of African-American maids during the civil rights movement. Though people, customs and attitudes have changed, groups can still have a glimpse of that period in Mississippi society in Greenwood, where the movie was filmed.
Greenwood was chosen to represent Jackson in the 1960s because of its wealth of historic buildings, several of which are open to the public or by appointment for visiting tour groups.
“The driving tour takes approximately an hour with a free step-on guide from our office,” said Paige Hunt, executive director of the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“To totally immerse yourself in the ‘Help’ itinerary, start off with the tour, go in the locations that we’re able to open — the Elks Lodge, Minny and Aibileen’s church — and then stop at what was the Junior League House in the film. It’s actually the Mississippi Garden Club Headquarters, and we can arrange for one or all three of the main food stylists from the film to do a demonstration. In ‘The Help,’ food is central; it’s what brings all the characters together.”
After lunch, Hunt recommends shopping in the historic district or, for those particularly interested in food, a “Help”-themed cooking class through the cooking school of the Viking Range Corporation.