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Shelby moviemaker Earl Owensby featured at NC history museum in Raleigh

The “Starring North Carolina!” exhibit at the state Museum of History in Raleigh has more than 500 movie and television artifacts, including the race car from the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights” and Fess Parker’s coonskin cap from “Davy Crockett.”

Visitors will see props from “Iron Man 3” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in the first major exhibition about the history of filmmaking in the state.

Prominent in the collection are items that document the 41-year career of Shelby’s movie maverick, Earl Owensby. He was known as the “The Dixie DeMille” or the “King of the sub-Bs.”

Among the artifacts are the Elvis-like jumpsuit worn by Owensby in the 1980 movie “The Living Legend,” which co-starred Elvis Presley’s last girlfriend, Ginger Alden. And there’s also a prop dog from “Rottweiler,” a 1982 3-D horror movie renamed “Dogs from Hell” in the Netherlands.

“Certainly Earl was very helpful in contributing these artifacts from his collection,” said Ken Howard, director of the North Carolina Museum of History. “Through his contacts with filmmakers he helped set the stage for the expansion of the film industry in the 1980s.”

The curtain rose on North Carolina’s film history during the silent era. Thirty silent movies were filmed in the state, including a 1921 production of “The Lost Colony” story shot in Manteo.

During Hollywood’s Golden Era of the 1930s and 1940s, filmmaking declined in the state, Howard said.

For the next two decades, things were spotty. “The Swan,” a 1956 release with Grace Kelly, was filmed at Asheville’s Biltmore House and was the last movie she made before becoming the princess of Monaco. In 1968, Elvis Presley came to Charlotte to make “Speedway.”

Part of the hit movie “Deliverance” was shot in Western North Carolina in 1972. That same year, Owensby opened his 67-acre studio outside Shelby.

“Starring North Carolina!” deals with the role Wilmington played in the growth of modern North Carolina filmmaking. Movie producer Dino De Laurentiis came to Wilmington in 1984 to make Stephen King’s thriller “Firestarter,” starring a young Drew Barrymore. Later, De Laurentiis opened a studio there, laying the groundwork for major productions in the future.

About a decade ago, the N.C. General Assembly began a state tax credit program that allowed companies to get a 25 percent credit up to $20 million on qualifying expenses. The incentive program expires Dec. 31 and will be replaced by a smaller grant program.

For Owensby, 78, it’s a nonissue.

“I never got one nickle of incentives,” he said.

Although critics trashed his movies with titles such as “Wolfman” and “Buckstone County Prison,” Owensby paid little attention.

“Entertainment – that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I made sure audiences got their money’s worth. We always did the best with what we had.”

At an opening gala event for “Starring North Carolina!” Owensby was reunited with Martha De Laurentiis, widow of Dino De Laurentiis, who died in 2010.

They’d originally met in the early 1980s, when Dino De Laurentiis considered making “Firestarter” at Owensby’s studio. A film crew had already settled in Shelby when the deal dissolved at the last minute and De Laurentiis went to Wilmington.

Some thought the two filmmakers had a falling out, but Owensby said that’s not the case.

“He (DeLaurentiis) got a better deal,” Owensby said. “Business is business. We became friendly.”

Production at the Owensby studio has slowed to a trickle in recent years. His last feature – a film about the life of Christ – came out on DVD two years ago.

Meanwhile, Owensby sells DVDs of his movies worldwide, mows the grass at the studio and remodels sound stages and other facilities. And he’s always reading scripts pitched to him by would-be filmmakers. Mostly, the stories are horror and action/adventure.

Money can be a issue and Owensby is cautious about doing business with others.

“Until the eagle flies over this office and drops the bag with pictures of Ben Franklin on it, there ain’t no deal,” he said.

He’s proud of being in the “Starring North Carolina!” exhibit and wants to make at least one more movie.

“We’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing and hopefully hit the home run sometime,” Owensby said. “I’m still right here, yes sirree.”

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