When finally I was able to park at Cooter’s Last Stand in Luray, Va., and wade through the mud, I discovered that the ticket line had more than 100 people waiting to purchase tickets.
Though I was perfectly willing to buy a ticket, and while I remained stunned by the tens of thousands of “Dukes of Hazzard” fans who showed up to see the cast, cars and shows, I decided to play the media card. I had a newspaper clipping of a column tucked into my pocket so I bypassed the line, went to a young man in a tent and explained that I was there to do a story. With speed and courtesy, he called for Amy Burge, who was overseeing media relations.
With equal speed and courtesy, she arrived and asked, “What can I do? Would you like to speak to Ben Jones?”
“Follow me,” she replied – which was harder than it sounded. The mud was slick and deep even though they had brought in 10 truckloads of gravel over the last few hours. She took me to a motor home where Ben Jones — let’s call him Cooter here — was holding court. His brother, Bubba, and Bubba’s wife, Sandy, were with him.
“Come in, come in,” he said. We talked about the time I filled in on an Atlanta morning radio show and he guested. For the next hour, I sat on the sofa as Cooter ran the event that had drawn 40,000 people, commanding people to do this or that. Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke, stopped by and brought a dose of joy.
Sandy offered me a sandwich that was the best I ever tasted because it was the first time in years that I had white loaf bread. Aw, the simple pleasures.
“Is this really Cooter’s Last Stand?” I asked. It was obvious that Cooter and his wife, Alma, are geniuses at doing a huge event and had it down to a science. People, nice looking middle class folks, were pouring in for a family event that declared: No likker, cussing or fighting.
“It really is.”Cooter was seated, leaning forward on a cane he uses these days. Back surgeries and a degenerative spine issue are one reason that the undertaking is falling away. “We’ll do smaller things but nothing like this anymore.”
The pilot for the “Dukes of Hazzard” was shot in Conyers, as were the first few episodes of the show. “We owe a huge debt to the state of Georgia and mostly to Newton and Rockdale counties because shooting there is what created the look of the show.” He stopped and locked eyes. “Jimmy Carter started the first film office in Georgia and I want him to know that Cooter thinks that Jimmy Carter is the greatest man alive.”
Cooter likes to point out that Howard Rosenberg, television reviewer for the Los Angeles Times (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which Mama could have won had we known there was such an award), wrote about the “Dukes of Hazzard,” “This show will not last past the first commercial break.”
Just like Mama was wrong sometimes, so was Mr. Rosenberg. The show lasted for seven years, bringing in an average viewing audience of 20 million every Friday night. Today’s number one television — at a time where the population is almost double but so is the dramatic increase of channels — draws around 12 million. When CMT relaunched the series a few years ago with a weekend marathon, 30 million watched. After the Charleston tragedy, the show was pulled from syndication.
Don’t get Cooter started on that. He used to be a U.S. Congressman so he has plenty to say. He is well informed, articulate, and smart.
Learned something, didn’t you?
He’s an admirable man. I highly recommend his memoir, “Redneck in A Promise Land” because it shows the power of the American Dream. May the dream continue for America.
This is the final installment in a three-part series. Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Her column appears Tuesdays.