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'Constellation' movie showcases Huntsville

It's fitting that a movie titled "Constellation" was filmed in a city that boasts the country's only vertically erect Saturn V rocket, a white beacon that stretches 363 feet into the sky.
Actor Billy Dee Williams hugs actress Zoe Saldana in a scene from the film "Constellation," as actors Gabrielle Union, left, and Eva Carradine, background, look on.
Actor Billy Dee Williams hugs actress Zoe Saldana in a scene from the film "Constellation," as actors Gabrielle Union, left, and Eva Carradine, background, look on.Greg Gayne / 20th Century Fox via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's fitting that a movie titled "Constellation" was filmed in a city that boasts the country's only vertically erect Saturn V rocket, a white beacon that stretches 363 feet into the sky.

The fearless can take a mission to the red planet that suddenly turns into a ride on a Martian roller coaster, or head back in time by visiting historic homes, living history museums, a cemetery where slaves are buried and an exhibit about Buffalo Soldiers.

Visitors can find these and many other attractions in Huntsville, where the first moon rockets were built and where the down-to-earth film, "Constellation," was shot. The film, starring Billy Dee Williams, Gabrielle Union and Zoe Saldana, was filmed in Huntsville in 2004, and had its premiere here Jan. 27. It opened nationwide on Feb. 2.

Tourism officials are offering self-guided "Constellation Tour" maps that point visitors to sites that are shown in the movie, which prominently displays many of the locations like a big-screen brochure.

Only a few of the locations in the film are the product of movie magic. Some film viewers, upon seeing the majestic exterior of the seven-gallery Huntsville Museum of Art, thought the building was actually a set, "Constellation" director Jordan Walker-Pearlman said.

Walker-Pearlman said the film, about an interracial family coming to terms with their past and present problems, needed to be in a Southern city with old-world charm and modern-day advancements. But, he said, he didn't know at first "if such a place existed."

"Most everywhere I went, I could not find my small shining city in the hills in the South," said Walker-Pearlman, who is a native New Yorker with a home in Los Angeles. He says he has since made Huntsville his third home.

"There is almost a European-like energy here where everyone was not just friendly, but engaged. I suddenly had this revelation that what I had put on page actually existed and it was Huntsville, Alabama."

One of the biggest draws to the North Alabama city is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where there are several flight simulators, dozens of rockets and military equipment on display and a rock-climbing wall for the athletically inclined.

An exhilarating ride can be had on the Space Shot, which zooms adventurers 140 feet into the air with four Gs (four times the force of gravity) for a spectacular view of the city and a few seconds of weightlessness.

The Rocket Center is also home to one of the city's most interesting attractions, which will take you virtually beyond Earth's orbit (emphasis on virtually) - all the way to outer space via a silver shuttle and computer screen.

The research mission suddenly turns into a surprisingly rousing roller coaster where riders learn that Martians listen to country music.

State tourism director Lee Sentell said Huntsville is a draw not only for tourists but also permanent residents partly because of its growing job market.

"Huntsville is among the most progressive communities in the state in terms of education and equal opportunity for African-Americans," he said. "That really stems from the 1950s when that area had an influx of people from across the country to work for the U.S. Army in connection with the German rocket scientists. So the theme in the movie of open-mindedness and acceptance from one another is very valid in the Huntsville area."

Those looking to dine at the rooftop restaurant that was shown in the movie will be disappointed because it doesn't exist. But other restaurants featured in the film, like Humphrey's Bar and Grill with its outdoor stage and brick patio and the white-tablecloth Chop House, are very, very real.

Consider trying a Humphrey's hot dawg with the sweet salsa-like topping called chow-chow and the jalapeno coleslaw. A trip to Melvin's Barbecue is a must for those wanting a taste of the down-home cooking that was shown in Constellation. The barbecue spot has since moved to a new location, but owner Melvin Rogers says the food hasn't changed.

Nightlife in Huntsville is anything but dull - especially on the weekends when most venues have live music. The Jazz Factory is a laid-back swanky spot for the slightly older, professional crowd while Humphrey's and The Crossroads cater to young professionals.

Parking in the downtown Washington Square area can be a bear, but it's worth the hassle to find something for just about everyone within a few blocks.

Barbara Webb, director of the Huntsville Cemetery Department, said slaves and black veterans of America's wars beginning with the Civil War are buried in Glenwood Cemetery, where the movie's funeral scene was filmed. The cemetery was established by Huntsville in 1870 and is still being used, Webb said.

Alabama A&M's Black Archives Research Center and Museum is another site for black history, with several exhibits, including one dedicated to the Buffalo Soldiers.

The city's three historic districts - Twickenham, Old Town and Five Points - are located downtown near the Washington Square area. The homes are privately owned and not usually open to the public, but visitors can tour Twickenham's 1819 Weeden House, the former home of 19th Century poet-artist Maria Howard Weeden.

Big Spring International Park with its gazebos, fountains and dozens of ducks is one of the most scenic locations in Huntsville - and the film.

Huntsville has five hands-on and living history museums, including one at 167-acre Burritt on the Mountain, where history interpreters spin cotton, and the kid-paradise EarlyWorks museum, where visitors can don costumes from pioneer days and sign their names on Alabama's constitution. They can pump a lever to create an explosion in a coal mine, romp around a fully stocked playhouse and when they get tired, sit and listen to stories told by the large aforementioned tree.

A colorful mural painted by Alabama artist John Moore is one of the centerpieces of the museum and is included in the movie.

EarlyWorks executive director Bart Williams said they're expecting an increase in visitors wanting to see the popular mural after its exposure in the film.

"There were three or four hundred people here for the opening," he said. "It's as much a draw as anything we have in the museum."

Others also are looking forward to seeing how the movie will affect the town's tourism.

"Having a premiere like this in Huntsville is a really big deal for us," said a city marketing executive, Charles Winters. "We could get used to this."

And why not? For a city whose motto is "The sky is not the limit," anything is possible.