Dirty Dancing: Appalachia’s Super Hit Movie 30 Years Ago

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PHOTO: Mountain Lake Hotel, Giles Co., Virginia, courtesy of AstaPro5
PHOTO: Mountain Lake Hotel, Giles Co., Virginia, courtesy of AstaPro5

Out of the hundreds of films that are produced each year, only a select handful achieve the status of being a legendary timeless movie with legions of fans decades after its release.  Dirty Dancing, released in August 1987, however, is one these films.

With a budget of only $6 million, the movie’s writers could not have imagined that some thirty years into the future phrases such as “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” would still be quoted and understood just as they were in autumn of 1987.

Originally, the movie was slated to be filmed in the Catskills of New York; however, producers could not find a suitable location and ultimately chose to bring the production to the Central Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

Lake Lure, North Carolina, located outside Asheville, was selected to serve as the place where scenes at the dancers’ cabins were shot at an old boys camp.  The infamous “I carried a watermelon” phrase was made here.

The Mountain Lake Hotel in Giles County, Virginia, was where nearly all other scenes of the movie were filmed.  These scenes included the famous “water lift” scene, dining scenes, Kellerman’s Hotel, the beach games, Penny crying in the kitchen, and the Houseman family’s cabins.

After filming at both locations, movie makers carefully blended the films to give the appearance of taking place at a single location.

The Appalachian weather, however, gave the Hollywood actors and actresses a challenge few anticipated at the start of filming in September 1986.

Outside temperatures climbed to 105 °F and with all the additional camera and lighting equipment needed for filming, the temperature inside reached up to 120 °F on multiple occasions.

According to choreographer Kenny Ortega, on one day 10 people passed out within 25 minutes of shooting. The elderly Paula Trueman collapsed and was taken to the local emergency room to be treated for dehydration. Patrick Swayze also required a hospital visit; insisting on doing his own stunts, he repeatedly fell off the log during the “balancing” scene and injured his knee so badly he had to have fluid drained from the swelling.

The weather and additional delays in shooting pushed what was intended to be a summer-time film into the Appalachian autumn, which created additional problems for set decorators.

As mountain temperatures plunged to near freezing set directors spray painted the autumn leaves green in order to give the allusion of summer. The famous swim scene took place in the frigid Appalachian October — despite her character’s enjoyment, Jennifer Grey (“Baby”) later described the water as “horrifically” cold, and she might not have gone into the lake, except that she was “young and hungry”.

In the end, despite the challenges filming in the Appalachian Mountains created for the producers, set decorators and the actors and actresses, it was the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains that have contributed to the film’s timeless status.

Today, some thirty years after its original release, the movie still ranks as one of America’s top 100 most favorite movies and showcases the beauty and charm of the Appalachian Mountains.

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