Tulsa’s unexpected film history is as meaningful as its cinematic future. While our biggest feathers remain Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptations of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (and Weird Al Yankovich’s UHF), the ensuing decades have given rise to an expanding film heritage. Exciting new productions, many of which have been fostered under the Oklahoma Film Enchantment program, which offers rebates and other incentives to filmmakers from within and out of the state; further building prestige for our uniquely photogenic burg.
A lot has changed since Coppola shot here in the ‘80s. Were one in the frame of mind to visit locations filmed in The Outsiders, for example, they’d find few places where the city looks the same. Crutchfield Park (1-99 E. Independence St.) where Ponyboy has his fateful run-in with the Socs remains, but there was never a fountain in which to drown him (that was built for the production and then dismantled).
Many buildings are no longer where they once stood, or have been entirely repurposed. Even the Admiral Twin Drive-In (7355 E. Easton St.), where Ponyboy meets Cherry Valance at a screening of Beach Blanket Bingo, has new, metallic screens, rebuilt after the 2010 fire that claimed the original wooden structure that stood since the Twin opened as the Modernaire in 1951. Not that the “newishness” should dissuade one from taking part in a Tulsa ritual. Just don’t smuggle any friends in the trunk.
Since so few of those locations still exist as they were in the Coppola heyday, the present seems a more relevant and vital place to look both in terms of the city, and the films being made here. Fortunately, there’s plenty to see.
Our skyline’s handsomest appearance of late was in the 2014 indie comedic drama, Home, James, from Tulsa-bred writer/director, Jonathan Rossetti. The films conceit—James is an aspiring art photographer earning extra money at night by driving drunk people home in their own cars, returning on a tiny motor scooter (yes, he falls for a fare)—affords plenty of screen time to Tulsa’s iconic art deco architecture, as well as numerous local hotspots.
A pivotal date scene takes them to The Center of the Universe (20 E. Archer St.), an anomalous circle of bricks surrounding a central spire where—if you stand in the center— sound becomes freakishly amplified, while being nearly inaudible outside the circle. Definitely stop for libations at Arnie’s (318 E. Second St.), where James learns of his potential paramour’s debilitating drinking problem. A favorite Irish watering hole in the heart of the Blue Dome district Arnie’s real draws, besides the beer, are the charming regulars (apparently The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus counts himself as one when he’s in town), the raucous bar staff, and easy access to some of downtown’s best food.
Afterwards hit up Dwelling Spaces (119 S. Detroit), the eclectic, Okie-centric gift shop that also hosts concerts and art exhibitions. Proprietor and entrepreneur Mary Beth Babcock has a cameo in Home, James that only hints at her delightful personality. Their in-house coffee shop, Jobot’s, serves Topeca coffee, a top-quality local brew, prepared by some of the friendliest people you’re ever likely to meet.
Award-winning, Holdenville-born filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s latest film, Meeko (2015), is his best, among award-winning films Barking Water and This May Be the Last Time. A thoughtful thriller set amongst Tulsa’s homeless community, the film finds a Native ex-con named Meeko on the streets of the Kendall Whittier District, where he meets a dangerous denizen who may be the personification of evil.
The gorgeously revitalized Circle Cinema (10 S. Lewis) looms large in the film’s periphery. Opened in 1928, it is Tulsa’s oldest standing theater, and Oklahoma’s only repertory arthouse. It’s also one of the few locations that you can find from The Outsiders that still resembles itself, though that scene only appears on the 2005 DVD release.
The corner is also home to Rough House Creative, Tulsa’s premiere production house for independent filmmakers, among other artistically-inclined businesses. The corner is practically under siege by great Mexican food. Calaveras (2326 E. Admiral Blvd.) is the closest, though there is a taco truck behind Daddy Dee’s Beehive Lounge (2405 E. Admiral Blvd.) that might be my favorite in town.
Another early scene finds Meeko at Brownie’s Hamburgers (2130 S. Harvard Ave.) where he meets a compassionate waitress who offers him a place to stay. Brownie’s is an institution, a bauble among the many Oklahoma-style burger shacks that vie for cult status. Pro tip: get the onions fried in.
These are wonderful, well-crafted and personal films (among many) that genuinely reveal the rich cultural tapestry of the place that they inhabit. Audiences don’t generally care where a movie is made. They care about characters and storytelling. The promise of Tulsa filmmaking lies within the unique tales to be told, and the burgeoning craft of their telling; giving rise to talents whose influence might reach far beyond the city limits.
When Shaft, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Straw Dogs came out in 1971, so did Joe. Transplanted from New York to Tulsa, Joe O'Shansky ultimately wound up seeing all of those movies. Joe writes about cinema, local and otherwise, for The Tulsa Voice; has written for Urban Tulsa Weekly, This Land Press and is a co-contributor to "Videodrone Tulsa," T-Town's best movies and pop culture podcast.