Driving along Ponchatoula's Pine Street last May, you couldn't miss the street lamps wrapped in silver tinsel, giant red bows topping doorways and the more-than-usual amount of twinkling white lights stretched over the Tangipahoa Parish city's main thoroughfare.
Were they getting their holiday decorating done early or had they neglected to dismantle last season's adornments?
Ponchatoula, known as "America's Antique City" and "The Strawberry Capital of the World," is playing itself in Lifetime's new yuletide movie "A Christmas Wish," which was filmed last spring.
"Every December in the small town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, a wooden wishing box is placed in the park as a Christmas tradition. People write down their true heart’s desire on a slip of paper and place it in the box in hopes that their wish will be granted," the film synopsis explains. "After a night out together, Maddie (Megan Park) encourages her sister Faith (Hilarie Burton) to put a wish in the box — a wish to experience true love for the first time. Faith and Maddie are surprised the next day when she meets the very handsome and eligible Andrew (Cristián de la Fuente). At first, Faith thinks that her Christmas wish has come true. But as Christmas nears, Faith begins to wonder if Andrew is really perfect for her, or if the wish is leading her to her best friend, Wyatt (Tyler Hilton)."
The hunt for a suitable "Ponchatoula Park" for the wishing box scenes took film runners just two blocks off Main Street to Kiwanis Park. A 1924 log cabin at the park's center is headquarters for the local chapter of the international service organization.
"They came to one of our meetings and talked to us and looked over the grounds," recalled Darrell Rousseau, president of the local Kiwanis Club president. "It wasn't long after that we got the call."
For about two weeks, faux snow and decked-out lampposts lined the front walkway leading up to a giant Christmas tree surrounding the park's flagpole. The wish box was positioned in front of a temporary tree.
"We were real pleased with that," Rousseau said of the prime-time exposure for the park, historic cabin and the community. "I thought they had Ponchatoula well-represented, (they) even use the entrance sign coming into Ponchatoula in several scenes in the movie."
Rousseau and hundreds of other residents were the first to see "A Christmas Wish" during a special outdoor premiere screening Nov. 2 at the larger Memorial Park in town.
Meanwhile, Christmas returned to Kiwanis Park last week, as the club held its annual poinsettia sale, a fundraiser to benefit area schoolchildren.
"It put an extra smile on our faces knowing we had that movie right there, too, you know?" Rousseau said.
Back downtown, several storefronts, businesses and eateries formed the backdrop for the majority of the movie's scenes.
"The beauty of the whole movie is that it's set in Ponchatoula," said Randy Tomeny, who with wife Kayla, owns Roux & Brew on Railroad Avenue. "It's not like they came in and changed the name of the town or anything, so it's wonderful that Ponchatoula is getting the recognition for hosting the movie.
"Everybody participated, had the Christmas decor up," he said. "The movie set did a good job of filling in with the Christmas decorations where they were filming."
Crews spent two days shooting on the restaurant's patio before the restaurant opened for dinner.
"There was a scene where one of the main characters was meeting a friend, they were having a little lunch, it was pretty cool," Tomeny said.
"We felt that it was a great trade-off (giving free use of their restaurant) because they showed the Roux & Brew sign on the stage, we had all our Roux & Brew paraphernalia on the tables and all," he said. "I feel that the whole town got a lot of recognition that's going to benefit us."
The Tomenys missed the park premiere but plan to watch "A Christmas Wish" on Friday morning with two of their grandchildren, they said. Why not on Thursday night? Can't miss that Saints game.
A couple of blocks east of Roux & Brew, Ponchatoula Junior High School was another filming location.
"It's kind of the pride of Ponchatoula," executive producer Daniel Lewis explained. " … Most everybody that I spoke with in the community either attended the junior high or had a family member that attended the junior high (the building was originally the high school). Lead character Faith Mason, is played by Hilarie Burton, and her character is an art teacher for the junior high school, so we featured the junior high a lot. We had some of the junior high students as part of the film."
Lewis, an LSU graduate, said he fell in love with the town when he lived in nearby Springfield, and developed the Lifetime script specifically for Ponchatoula. Lewis and his family now live in Madisonville, allowing him to stay close to home for the project, which was produced by Active Entertainment along with Evergreen Film Productions.
In addition to 300-plus local extras, several Louisiana actors have speaking roles, Lewis said, including: Rachel Whittle (Tina) and Ryan Broussard (James), of Lafayette; Damon Lipari (Joey), Baton Rouge; Amy Brassette (Elf), Lake Charles; May Badr (Meg), Slidell; and Peaches Davis (Greta), Baker. Veteran actors Dean West, of Baton Rouge, and Dane Rhodes, of New Orleans, also make appearances.
In addition, nearly the entire crew, including director/writer Emily Wilson, director of photography Matt Bell, production designer Scotty Morris, editor Misty Talley and composer Andrew Morgan Smith are all residents of Louisiana.
"The town is just buzzing about it," Lewis said about the project. "They're super happy with it, really proud of it. So, I'm just happy that, at the end of the day, it's a movie that they're proud of, that they feel like shows off their community in a really good light."
'A Christmas Wish'
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday