The Last Picture Show
It may look like just another intersection in a faceless Texas town, but this is where my imagination was born. I was 12 years old growing up in New York when I first saw the film. I'd never been west of New Jersey! And then I met that place and those characters. Sonny and Duane and Sam the Lion and Jacy and Ruth Popper – god, they were larger than life to this suburban kid. When poor Billy and his broom met up with that cattle truck in the very intersection pictured above, I was wrecked. So no surprise, when I found myself in North Texas yesterday I had to go see where it was filmed.
If you know North Texas (or most of Texas for that matter), these small towns never change. Neither had Archer City. I walked the fabled two blocks clicking away and drinking in the breeze rolling off the scrub grass plains. I noticed the small storefront library was open. I had questions that needed answering. Meet Cheryl, the town librarian for the past 40 years.
The wall of Sam's Cafe still stands, though it's been closed for 20 years. A kindly old gentleman with a deep Texas drawl told me they had the best burgers in town, though they could have used a table or two more. Larry McMurtry, who wrote the original book, not to mention Lonesome Dove, Texasxville, and about 30 others, went to Archer City High School and the town is rich with the real stories that became the movie. He still has a place nearby and owns a couple of bookstores in town. Unadorned and simple, same as Archer City.
Cheryl told me stories about "Larry" and the townsfolk, but she might as well have been talking about Duane and Sonny and Ruth themselves. I was transfixed.
I asked how many people came traipsing through on a Last Picture Show pilgrimage. She said about one a day, a few more in the summer. Cheryl was an extra in Texasville, but her scene ended up on the cutting room floor. I told her I'd read "Eddie & Gardenia" – a book about a boy and his goat on a West Texas ranch – about a thousand times as a kid. She reached under the checkout desk and pulled out an Archer City library bag as a gift. Then she disappeared into the back of the library for a moment. As I waited for her to return a tow-headed boy with a backpack clattered in and set up shop. He pulled out his schoolbooks and started his homework.
Cheryl came back with a book in hand. It was the last installment of McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series. "I'm sorry Larry's not here to sign it for you," she said. Then she grabbed her Archer City Library Book stamp and firmly marked the front page. "There you go," she said. "Now you have a book from the Archer City library."
"Any fees if I return it late?" We both laughed. I shook her hand but felt a deep urge to give her a hug. I held that thought, as well as the tears welling up in my eyes. I glanced at the boy as I walked towards the door. I'd guess he was about 12. He could have been me, head buried in his book. I stood at that intersection where a cattle truck had brought Sonny and Duane's youth to an end. It was just a location in a movie scene. It was also the crossroads in my life where a kid from New York's writing life began.