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Bailey Ables and Jacqueline Peppar, both 10, study a mural at the EarlyWorks Museum.
AP photos by Michael Mercier
Bailey Ables and Jacqueline Peppar, both 10, study a mural at the EarlyWorks Museum.

Constellation Tour
Visit to Huntsville offers otherwordly time

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

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.

It’s also a city where an eccentric philanthropist averse to hot baths built an X-shaped mountaintop mansion, young art museum patrons can create bizarre animals like a pig with a bird’s body and horse’s tail, and the fearless can take a mission to the red planet that suddenly turns into a ride on a Martian roller coaster.

And there’s a talking, storytelling tree here, too.

Visitors can find such out-of-this world experiences in Huntsville, where the first moon rockets were built and where the down-to-earth film, “Constellation,” was shot in 2004, starring Billy Dee Williams, Gabrielle Union and Zoe Saldana.

Self-guided movie tours

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. The film had its premiere in Huntsville on Jan. 27 and opened nationwide Feb. 2.

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.

The New York native 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 has since made Huntsville his third home, along with Los Angeles and New York.

“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.”

Space center big draw

Rocket Park at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
Rocket Park at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
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 G’s of force 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 for not only 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 BBQ 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.

Night life, museums

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 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.

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.

If You Go...

CONSTELLATION TOUR SITES:

  • EARLYWORKS CHILDREN’S MUSEUM: 404 Madison Street, also has two other living history museums: Alabama Constitution Village at 109 Gates Ave. and the Historic Huntsville Depot at 320 Church St. N. www.earlyworks.com

  • HUNTSVILLE MUSEUM OF ART: 300 Church St. E. in Big Spring Park, (256) 535-4350, www.hsvmuseum.org

    n BURRITT ON THE MOUNTAIN: 3101 Burritt Drive off Monte Sano Blvd. via U.S. 431 South, (256) 536-2882, www.burrittmuseum.com

  • NORTH ALABAMA RAILROAD MUSEUM: U.S. 72 East, (256) 851-6276

  • STATE BLACK ARCHIVES AND MUSEUM: Located in the James Hembray Wilson Building on the campus of Alabama A&M University, (256) 851-5846, www.aamu.edu

  • U.S. SPACE AND ROCKET CENTER: One Tranquility Base off I-565 Exit 15, (256) 837-3400, www.spacecamp.com

  • MELVIN’S BBQ: 2300 Governors Drive, (256) 533-6775

  • HUMPHREY’S BAR & GRILL and THE CHOP HOUSE: 109 Washington St., (256) 704-5555

  • GLENWOOD CEMETERY: Near downtown off Clinton and Cemetery streets, located on the corner of Hall Avenue and Derrick Street. Huntsville Cemetery Department, (256) 427-5730, www.maplehillcemetery.com

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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