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Movies: After 25 years, ‘Shag’ is ready for its closeup

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Lanier Laney remembers the summer of ’63. He was too young to go to the Pawleys Pavilion, but not too young to sneak down the road from the Ellerbe’s inn to peek through the windows of the popular creekfront night spot.

Twenty years later, those memories drew Laney and his partner, Terry Sweeney, back to Pawleys Island, where they stayed at the Tip Top Inn for six weeks writing the script for “Shag.” The movie debuted in 1989 and on its 25th anniversary has found itself ranked third in an online poll of The South’s Greatest Films being conducted by Garden & Gun magazine.

“It’s the only movie in the top 10 that’s set in South Carolina,” Laney said by phone from his and Sweeney’s home in Beaufort. “We’re thrilled.”

The voting ends Wednesday and Laney hopes “Shag” will finish comfortably behind “Gone With the Wind” at No. 1 and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at No. 2. “We’re a point or two ahead of ‘Steel Magnolias,’ ” he said. In the film, Carson (Phoebe Cates) is about to be married so her friends, played by Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish and Page Hannah, take her to Myrtle Beach for a weekend fling. “I don’t think that people know that even though the story was set in Myrtle Beach it was based on Pawleys Island,” Laney said.

Portions were filmed in the Pawleys Island area as well as Myrtle Beach and Georgetown.

Sally Streetman, a former Pawleys Island resident, remembered spending hours with the writers listening to beach music and sharing stories about the pavilion during their six week writing stint. “She was a wealth of stories from that time,” Laney said.

He grew up in Spartanburg, but his family always came to Pawleys the first two weeks in June. “I was conceived at Pawleys,” he said.

Beach music enjoyed a revival when he was a student at the University of South Carolina in the 1970s. But the motivation for writing the movie came when he moved to New York. “I was really shocked at what people thought about South Carolina. It was Ku Klux Klan meets The Dukes of Hazzard,” Laney said. “This wasn’t the South I grew up with. I wanted to do a story about well-bred Southern girls who knew how to have fun.”

Sweeney, who was an actor and writer on “Saturday Night Live” with Laney, pitched the story to the studio executive who admitted he didn’t know much about the cultural context. “I think you’re funny. I’m going to green-light it,” he told them. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” Laney said.

The result was what he calls “a girls road movie.” It’s got a loyal following. Laney learned of one woman who was in the hospital dying of cancer who said she wanted to spend her last days watching “Shag.”

“I’m just happy to keep the vision of that time in the South alive,” Laney said. “Pawleys was some of my happiest memories.”

To vote on the Garden & Gun poll, go online to gardenandgun.com.

To learn more about the shag, the official state dance, the Georgetown Rotary Club is holding its eighth annual Shag Festival in Downtown Georgetown on Saturday. It starts at 6 p.m. on King Street with shag lessons. The dance is from 7 to 11 p.m. Tickets are $25.

The shag is also a part of the Pawleys Pavilion Reunion, held each year on the site of the last pavilion at the east end of the North Causeway. It is sponsored by Habitat for Humanity. This year’s reunion is May 10 from 6 to 11 p.m. with music by The Tams.

Tickets are $30 in advance at 546-5685.

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