April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

What happens when a celebrity takes a shine to a small town? Checkbooks open, castles are sketched…but all may not proceed according to extravagant plan. In the following report, PEOPLE revisits three locations left wiser, but not necessarily richer, by the whim of a star. Tom and Roseanne Arnold opened the Big Food Diner in Eldon, Iowa, then failed to feed their marriage. Kim Basinger invested in Braselton, Ga., then developed financial woes of her own. Yet quietly, Dolly Parton has made Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a platinum tourist hit.


In 1991, when Tom and Roseanne Arnold blew into this farming community of 408 residents 86 miles southeast of Des Moines, Eldon already had a notable home—the house that served as the backdrop in Grant Wood’s famous painting of a stoic prairie couple, American Gothic. By the time the Arnolds decamped some three years later, during their lengthy and acrimonious divorce, Eldon was left with more troublesome landmarks.

Tom has fond childhood memories of Eldon, which is located just 10 miles from Ottumwa, where he grew up. “I love the town. My grandmother was from there,” he says, “and I had my college graduation party on the farm Roseanne and I eventually bought. I drove my car full of my buddies into the pond right where we built our house. Wasn’t much of a risk; it’s shallow.” (Roseanne, who was raised in Salt Lake City, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

The Arnolds pieced together a 1,300-acre spread that would eventually cost them an estimated $3 million. “They paid me $125,000 for my 40-acre farm,” says dog breeder Leonard Hill, whose 6’8″ frame makes him an outstanding local figure. “It was worth $75,000, but money meant nothing to them. Tom was the man with the plan.” The plan included what would have been the largest private home in Iowa, even bigger than the Governor’s mansion. When they weren’t in L.A., the Arnolds camped in a luxurious house trailer on their property to oversee construction of a 28,000-square-foot Victorian-style residence, which was to cost nearly $16 million. The basement alone would contain an Olympic-size swimming pool, a screening room and a four-lane bowling alley. “I never wanted a house that big,” says Tom. “It started as a $4 million deal and just kept growing. Crazy. If it had ever been finished, it would have been a white elephant out in the middle of Iowa.”

For immediate fun, the couple built a 100-by 60-foot steel barn to house lavish parties for hundreds of local and L.A. friends. One guest, Eldon Postmaster Bruce Thiher, was awed. “They even bought new cattle troughs,” he recalls, “and filled them with shrimp on ice.” Sustenance was never far from the Arnolds’ hearts. In 1993 they opened the Big Food Diner in town, serving hearty, modestly priced fare. “We’d fly in from shooting in L.A. at 3 a.m. and open the place for everyone. It was great,” says Arnold. The action helped make the diner a tourist draw until it closed in 1995, a casualty of the marriage. Lines often stretched around the block. “It got so crowded,” says former waitress Michelle Fligg, “Tom and Roseanne had to wait for a table once.”

Most townsfolk give the Arnolds credit for generosity. They built a weight room for the local high school and served free food during 1993’s disastrous flooding of the Des Moines River. And they were tolerated, if not embraced, by Eldonites. “Rosie was very quiet and subdued when she was in town,” says Ron Oswalt, dean of students at Ottumwa’s Indian Hills Community College, from which Tom graduated in ’81. “She liked it here.”

As the Arnolds headed into divorce, neither would foot the bill to complete the house or operate the diner. They eventually donated both to Indian Hills in 1995. The college may turn the half-built mansion into a corporate retreat center or a camp for disadvantaged kids. Whatever its fate, Tom believes “the best thing that came out of our marriage was to give that great place to the college. And I’d still like to have a business in Iowa. It will always be my home.”


On March 31, 1989, a New York Times headline trumpeted: ACTRESS BUYS TOWN. Kim Basinger, the story revealed, had joined other investors to pony up $20 million to purchase 1,751 acres, including a number of businesses and residences, in Braselton (pop. 418). The 121-year-old burg, located 25 miles from her hometown of Athens, Ga., was going broke. Kim and her brother-in-law Gary Guyer (married to younger sister Barbara), an Athens developer who brought the town’s plight to her attention, were stunned by the media play, which eventually misconstrued the event to cast Basinger as sole purchaser. “It scared me,” says Basinger. “I didn’t buy a town. I don’t have $20 million.”

What she did have, she argues, was a passionate desire to “preserve and restore a beautiful place.” So Basinger and Guyer, who knew that the Braselton family wanted to sell their significant holdings in the town that carries their name, convinced Ameritech, the Chicago-based baby Bell, to pay $20 million. In return, Basinger agreed to be, in her words, “the creative partner.” (Ameritech refused to comment for this story.) And on her own, Kim bought the tiny Bank of Braselton, also on the block, for $900,000.

“We had incredible plans,” says Basinger, “like an arts center and an animal preserve. I really love the town. Every time I went there it was like a ticker-tape parade.” But a few years into the deal, according to Kim, Ameritech changed its policy, putting a freeze on all of its developments. Consequently, little happened in Braselton, much to the consternation of the townspeople. “We had high expectations,” says restaurant owner Jeff Forrester, “and we were disappointed.” Ameritech sold its interest in 1995 for a mere $4.3 million. Basinger had declared bankruptcy in 1993 during a Hollywood lawsuit against her. To raise money to pay $3.8 million to settle the case in 1995, she sold the bank for $600,000. “I still get calls about buying towns,” she says. “I might do it again. But I’ll be wiser about it this time.”


Sometimes hometown dreams do come true. For years, Dolly Parton thought about building a theme park in Pigeon Forge, five miles south of the dirt-floored cabin in which she grew up with 11 brothers and sisters. “I wanted to do something nice for the people here,” says the 51-year-old singer-actress. “My roots run deep, and this place keeps me sane in a crazy world.” Parton didn’t actually have to build what is now Dollywood; she just had to change the name. A modest amusement park called Silver Dollar City, owned by a Branson, Mo., family, was already there. And when the singer came home to visit her large clan in the town of 3,800 an hour southeast of Knoxville and near the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she would take her nephews and nieces for a day’s fun. In 1986, she bought a significant position in the operation, and thanks to 9-to-5 management and a steel magnolia’s gift for improvements, attendance nearly doubled that year. The name change didn’t hurt, either. Dollywood, says the entertainer, “came from seeing that Hollywood sign when I was a starry-eyed kid. I thought, ‘If only I could change that H to a D.’ ” She also changed a sleepy mountain crossroads into a booming tourist center. Last year her park registered 2.1 million clicks at the turnstiles, outdrawing Nashville’s Opryland and grossing Dollywood $40 million. In 1996, Pigeon Forge businesses took in a whopping $545 million.

Amid scores of restaurants, 200 outlet stores and dozens of amusement attractions, Dolly’s bootprints are everywhere. There’s her 2,000-seat Music Mansion theater and Dixie Stampede, a rodeo-show dinner theater. Says Pat Wright, a Dollywood administrator and a high school pal of the singer: “It’s hard to look around this town and not see a place Dolly’s touched.”

Why did Parton’s efforts succeed? In part, says Dollywood executive and close Parton advisor Ted Miller, “her life story is central to her persona, and the park directly reflects that.” The centerpiece of Dollywood, fittingly, is not a space ride, but a replica of her birthplace. Appalachian arts-and-crafts shops and the Rags to Riches Museum, an artifact-filled tour of Parton’s background, are big draws. Several dozen members of Parton’s extended family, including brother Randy, are among Dolly-wood’s 2,000 employees.

Her charity work is focused locally. Parton funds a program whereby every baby born in her home county of Sevier receives a book monthly until the child reaches school age. Parton believes this generosity to be a legacy as important as her songs. “I can go home again,” she says, “and when I do, they welcome me with open arms.”

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