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Y'all hop in the General Lee and come on down to Cooter's Place

Thursday, May 18, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

SPERRYVILLE, Va. -- Ben Jones sits in front of Cooter's Place talking about the creation of this roadside fruit stand-turned-"Dukes of Hazzard" gift shop/museum. But the conversation -- and his snacking on Cooter's goobers (peanuts) -- is frequently punctured by honks from passing cars. To each one, he raises an arm and waves in return.

Everybody comes to Cooter's.

On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-April, some of those passing by stop in, drawn by the lure of a look-alike "General Lee," Bo and Luke Duke's '69 Dodge Charger. The car sits in front of "Cooter's Place," just begging to be photographed by tourists passing through this town of approximately 350.

Whenever Jones -- who played the town mechanic Cooter on "Dukes of Hazzard" -- sees a customer, he tables the conversation, rises from his rocking chair and greets the fans. As an actor on the 1979-'85 CBS series and later as a two-term Georgia Democratic congressman (1988-'92), Jones knows the value of a handshake and an autograph.

Two girls in their 20s -- one pierced and tattooed -- visit Cooter's from Harrisonburg, Va., about an hour southwest.

 
 

Cooter's Place is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday during the summer. It's located on U.S. 211, 1.5 miles west of Sperryville, Va., near Shenandoah National Park. Contact Cooter's Place at 540-987-8545 or online at www.cootersplace.com.

   
 

"We knew it was out here somewhere," Elizabeth Hiser says. "We just took the day and tried to find it. Is this the only place like this?"

"Pretty much," Jones replies.

Another woman stops in with her young nephew. He hides behind her legs as she opens her arms wide.

"I wanted to give you a hug," she tells Jones, who returns the embrace. "We used to watch you all the time."

"I hope you don't drive like we did," Jones says.

Jones, 58, opened Cooter's Place last June, despite doubts that he'd make a go of it. Even his wife, Washington, D.C., public relations executive Alma Viator, didn't think there was a market for the store.

"I just thought, how could there be that many people interested in 'Dukes of Hazzard,' and other people thought the same thing," Viator says. After the grand opening weekend, when 5,000 people stopped by, Viator and others realized they underestimated the following of "Dukes" and its cornball humor and gorge-leaping cars. Some weekends a nearby cow pasture gets pressed into duty as an overflow parking lot, and off-duty police are hired to direct traffic.

"They scoffed at all the great geniuses," Jones says with a smile, "Galileo, Einstein, Cooter."

When cable network TNN began airing reruns in 1996, a whole new generation of viewers discovered "Dukes of Hazzard,"

"It's such a timeless sort of thing," he says. "It either brings back fond memories or it's retro hip. There's very little family programming of any quality on television. We hear everyday, ' 'Dukes' was unpretentious fun for the whole family.' "

Inside Cooter's Place, Jones sells "Dukes" T-shirts ($20), Daisy Duke shorts he autographs ($18), cast photos ($4 to $6) and Cooter's Blue Plate Lunch Special, which consists of RC Cola and a Moon Pie ($1).

The second "Dukes" reunion movie, "Hazzard in Hollywood," premieres tomorrow night at 8 on CBS. Once again Jones was called on to play Cooter.

"We're doing the 'Beverly Hillbillies' thing," Jones says, describing the story that takes the backwoods characters to the big city to raise money for a new Hazzard County hospital.

Viator plans to rent a big-screen TV for a party at Cooter's Place tomorrow night, and among those planning to attend are Plum residents George Repp and Shirley Upperman.

Viator says Repp has made it to most of Cooter's big events, driving down in Uncle Jesse's pickup truck (he bought it in 1992 from a "Dukes" crew member).

"They got to Cooter's Place on opening day before we did," Viator says.

Repp, 38, has been a fan of the show since it first aired.

"I love the whole crew of characters, especially how [the late] Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg and Jimmy Best as Roscoe worked off each other," Repp says. "It was a great comedy team."

In addition to Uncle Jesse's truck, Repp also owns one of the General Lee cars used on the show, but he has to keep it garaged because it's not street legal.

While seeing the General Lee at Cooter's Place thrills many fans, Repp says Jones is the real star of the store.

"That's the main attraction as far as I'm concerned," Repp says. "It's meeting him and vice versa. He loves meeting everybody. We went down as fans and have become really good friends."

The popularity of Cooter's Place may have as much to do with Jones and the store's out-of-the-way location as residual fondness for "Dukes of Hazzard." Would Cooter's Place succeed as a slick store in a major metropolitan area? Doubtful. Although "Dukes of Hazzard" was set further South (think Georgia), the rolling Virginia countryside sets the right tone.

"Hazzard is a mythical place," Jones says. "I tell people they found it here."

Cooter's Place is located just down the road from the Appetite Repair restaurant where Jones' Georgia congressional license plate hangs on the wall alongside other automobile memorabilia. It may be the only "Dukes" collector's item not at Cooter's Place.

Jones says part of his interest in opening Cooter's was to find a place to display the "Dukes of Hazzard" material he collected during the show's prime-time run. Inside crudely constructed Plexiglas display cases, visitors can see "Dukes of Hazzard" toys, a sleeping bag, scripts, TV Guide covers, a National Enquirer, even Underoos.

"He's got more 'Dukes' memorabilia there than I've ever seen under one roof," says John Schneider, who starred in "Dukes of Hazzard" as Bo Duke. "It's really 'Dukes' heaven. It's the only place since we did the show -- actually, even when we did the show I never saw that many General Lees."

Schneider, who was in Pittsburgh last month with the touring "Civil War" musical, estimated almost 6,000 people showed up for his country music performance at Cooter's last year, and with them 20 replicas of the General Lee (design plans about how to convert a '68 or a '70 Charger into the '69 version used on "Dukes of Hazzard" can be found on the Internet).

Schneider has no plans for a return engagement at Cooter's this summer, but James Best (a.k.a. Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane) will appear June 17 and 18. Catherine Bach (better known as Daisy Duke) will stop by July 8 and 9.

Saturdays feature country music from 12 to 3 p.m., including Cooter's Garage Band with Jones as lead singer. Sundays are devoted to bluegrass music with live performances from 1 to 4 p.m.

"If you are a bluegrass music fan, Cooter's Place is the most amazing place to be," Schneider says. "He has constant bluegrass music live with the best singing and picking and playing I've ever heard."

This "Dukes of Hazzard" revival comes even as the controversy over the confederate flag remains in the news. The General Lee has the stars and bars painted on its roof and Jones wants to keep them there.

"It's a totally benign symbol of the spirit of the South," he says. "Millions of people watched the show, and I don't think there were ever any complaints. There's simply no racism here, and there was none in Hazzard County.

"Symbols can mean different things to different people," he acknowledged. "I'm speaking as a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and a Democrat, and 99 percent of the displays of the flag are benign, a display of affection for a region, not the cause of the Confederacy."

Jones continues to appear on political talk shows, but he's also resumed his acting career with roles in the films "Primary Colors" and Stanley Tucci's latest, "Joe Gould's Secret." On TV he guest starred on "Sliders," "Michael Hayes" and "Lateline."

"I love acting," he says. "It's what I do, it's who I am. Actors don't retire."

If offered another series, Jones says he'd readily agree to commute from Sperryville to Los Angeles.

"[During 'Dukes of Hazzard'] I commuted from Atlanta to L.A. and kept my involvement in Atlanta, which is how I got elected to Congress," Jones says. During his years on Capitol Hill he met and married Viator ("I married a congressman and ended up with Cooter," she says). They moved to Rappahannock County -- home of Sperryville and Cooter's Place -- two years ago, a few years after Jones' 1994 bid to return to Congress. He ran in a redrawn district and lost to Newt Gingrich, but Jones doesn't miss the political life.

"This is a lot more fun," he says. "I imagine I could be sitting in some boring subcommittee meeting or something. This is my own business. I'd never done this before. I have a second childhood here."



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