Secret Celebrity

(The Pflugerville Water Tower.)

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has always been one of my favorite movies.  It premiered in 1994, in the middle of my high school years, and captured Johnny Depp at the height of his adorable, grungy angst, right after Benny and Joon and Edward Scissorhands.  Probably because I was a broody teenage girl at the time, I always identified with Gilbert, Depp’s character, and his inability to escape his surroundings for something beyond the fields of his small town.  Isn’t that what every teenager dreams about?  My sisters and I would watch the movie again and again, quoting the hilarious lines of Leonardo DiCaprio and thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t growing up in Endora, Iowa.

After our recent back-to-back trips to Lockhart, where several of the movie’s scenes were filmed, I decided to watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape again.  I immediately felt that old connection, but this time, I noticed something truly bizarre.  In the scenes featuring Mary Steenburgen, playing Gilbert’s older, married, sometime love interest, Betty Carver, I began to recognize landmarks and streets, places that I drive or walk on a regular basis.  It took me days to actually watch the entire film on Netflix because I kept pausing it to study the scenes.  While I knew that What’s Eating Gilbert Grape had been filmed in Manor and Lockhart, both small towns near my little city of Pflugerville, I didn’t know that some of the most pivotal scenes (and the steamiest) took place right around the corner from my house!

If you’ve seen the movie, then you know that Gilbert delivers groceries to the bored, but attractive, Betty, and let’s just say that his visits don’t end at the front door of her house, the one up the street from mine.  There’s an especially hilarious scene involving a carton of melted ice cream and a trampoline, and that was when I first recognized the neighborhood set.  I did a bit of research and found no mention of the house and the film, so of course, I had to write about this.  While the house is a rental property, I’m acquainted with the woman who currently lives there, because she operates an in-home daycare and her children play at the park with my boys.  I haven’t seen her recently because of the oppressive heat, but I’ll have to ask her if she knows about the history of the house.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was made in 1993, two years before my current home was built, and it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the neighborhood twenty years ago, when things were much more rural out here.  I was able to capture a few shots of the house, as well as a few from the movie, just for comparison.  And proof.

Ryan confirmed my suspicions and also recognized the house, but while Manor and Lockhart are mentioned in the movie’s credits, Pflugerville is not.  It is listed online as part of the film’s setting, but no specific locations are mentioned at all.  I’m planning to ask my dentist, a serious movie buff and long-time Pflugerville resident (he used to live near the house in question), to see what he knows, but my next appointment isn’t until the fall.

Also, a water tower similar in design to our local tower features heavily in the movie, as DiCaprio’s character, Arnie, climbs to the top on several occasions.  The tower used in the famous scene is widely recognized as the Manor tower, but I believe some shots were also filmed here in Pflugerville, since the tower is visible from Betty Carver’s house (and my backyard).

 This is a screen shot of Betty Carver’s house, as Gilbert walks up to the door with groceries and Arnie waits in the yard.  The tower is visible in the background.

 And this is the house at it now looks, twenty years later, with an added porch railing, fence removed, and a paved road.

Here it is in the evening sun, with the Pflugerville tower visible behind it.

A screen shot of the trampoline scene.  I first recognized the locale here, with the brown apartment building and blue house in the back.

A view of the background today, with trees mostly covering the side of the apartment building, though the house is still painted blue.

Another screen shot of Betty’s house, with the yard in view.  The location of the trampoline moved after her husband bought their boys a “swimming pool,” which later plays a part in the movie’s plot.  The dirt road leads to the field where my neighborhood now stands.

Two corner photos of the house today, with a paved road leading to the newer homes where I live.

I can’t shake the irony of this story, and the fact that a little piece of my past resides around the corner from me, and has, for all these years.  I am now fascinated by this house and can’t believe there isn’t more information available locally.  I’m going to dig a little deeper to see if I can find anything, and if I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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