‘Close Encounters’ and Muncie, my hometown

There’s been a long history between my hometown, Muncie, Indiana, and Hollywood.

Sometime I’ll do a fairly comprehensive look at the many mentions of Muncie in movies and TV shows ranging from the 1960s “Tom Slick” cartoons to “The X Files” and “Angel.”

In the meantime, though, I wanted to note the special relationship between Muncie and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the 1977 UFO thriller. The movie was airing on SyFy this afternoon and I got sucked into watching some of it.

The movie wasn’t filmed here in Muncie, although there was discussion of that happening. Local officials and Columbia Pictures apparently negotiated for a while and rumors swept through town that the city bought new police cars specifically to seal the deal. It didn’t happen, although the city got some publicity from having the first half of the move set locally.

If you haven’t seen it, Spielberg’s movie is about the the first meaningful contact between humans and aliens. The movie opens with a team of scientists, led by Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), discovering mint-condition World War II-era fighter planes in the Mexican desert.

The scene moves to Indiana as we see air traffic controllers in Indianapolis communicating with the pilots of two airliners that have near-misses with some unexplained object. Then we’re in Muncie – the on-screen title still gets me a little goose-bumpy – at a rural farmhouse where single mom Jillian runs into the woods to find her toddler son, Barry, who has happily followed something out of their house and into the dark.

In the suburban Muncie home of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a power company lineman, Neary is trying to persuade his kids to go to see “Pinocchio,” the re-issue of the Disney classic. They’re more interested in playing miniature golf, however.

Before long, Neary is sent to investigate the cause of a power outage and his truck is buzzed by low-flying UFOs. He gives chase along with half the Muncie police department. Thus begins his obsession. It is one he shares with dozens, maybe hundreds of others.

Some random thoughts, from a Muncie-centric perspective:

The Neary house, while looking like a shambles, has some authentic touches, including some Ball State University merchandise.

At one point, radio scanner traffic says Harper Valley. There’s no Harper Valley around Muncie. But if there was, they would have a dandy PTA, I bet.

There is a Cornbread Road – where Neary is sent to work on a power outage – and you can bet it was chosen for inclusion in the movie because of its quaint name.

The McDonald’s and Shell station look just right for the period.

The hillbillies – softly whistling “She’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes” as they wait for the UFOs to appear – are a nice touch but one that caused a lot of consternation at the time among local people who didn’t want to be represented onscreen by hill folk. Especially when one of them, played by character actor Roberts Blossom, says, “I saw Bigfoot once.”

There’s no toll road right outside Muncie, and certainly no nearby toll gate that divides Indiana and Ohio.

The movie got the police emblems on the patrol cars right, though.

There’s not much in the way of hillsides around Muncie, and certainly no mountainous overlook that cops and Neary could watch from, first as the UFOs fly over and then as lights come back on below.

The look of The Muncie Star wasn’t quite right, although its gargantuan size was. Holy crap, newspapers were big back then.

Neary’s “Ball U” T-shirt was a nice touch. I had one right about that time. They were a slightly naughty hit.

On the second night, when a newly fired Neary and a crowd of Muncie residents go back to the hill to wait for the alien ships to reappear, the collective mental seed that compels them to seek out the UFOs is destined to take them out of Muncie.

By the time Neary becomes obsessive about his encounter and begins building replicas of Devil’s Tower, Wyoming – scene of the ultimate Close Encounter – in his mashed potatoes and in a huge mound of dirt in his family room, his family bails on him and so, frankly, did I.

“Close Encounters” is a terrific movie that builds to a touching climax. I can’t help but be more interested, however, in the early scenes and what they indicate about my town.



4 thoughts on “‘Close Encounters’ and Muncie, my hometown

  1. Jim Franks

    Neary.. to me..represented “Everyman”… and in “Pinocchio”… the tune “When you Wish Upon a Star” is followed with the reason I think he liked it.. “Makes NO DIFFERENCE who you ARE!” All the prepared prospects to go with the Aliens were shunned for Neary… who had to bust his way to the ‘prom”. I think Speilberg kept the lid on this movie well and it shocked the theatre goers with its common sense… your govt WOULD keep it a secret and when it happens they solve a lot of “unsolved” Mysteries. I gave it 4 stars out of 5 gene. the aisle is closed. 🙂

  2. Sam

    My grandpa was a police officer at the time, and was actually suppoesd to have a cameo, but since they moved the location he just photoshopped his uniform.

  3. Cathy deVeer

    My husband and I liked picking out “mistakes” that you catch if you know Indiana. Driving through a tunnel (none exist in the flatlands of Muncie), the single mom walking through a pine forest (Not where the winds would flatten it.) and a very obscure mistake- The ABC TV news on Channel 4. Channel 4 in Bloomington was and is a very successful Independent station. This was before cable, so you can’t say it was a cable channel.


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