April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

Welcome to A Tale of Two Cities with the Same Name, starring Burt Reynolds. And introducing…Shalynn Arnold.

Part One—Evening Shade, Ark. Jan. 23, 1991. Shalynn Arnold, a senior at Evening Shade high school, writes a sweet letter to Mr. Burt Reynolds, star of the CBS sitcom Evening Shade, which takes its name from you-can-guess-where. Shalynn invites Reynolds to visit his sitcom’s namesake and to be commencement speaker when her class—all 20 students—graduates May 10. (In the fall she begins prelaw courses at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo.)

“Shalynn,” says one teacher, “get real.” Why would Burt Reynolds come to the real Evening Shade (pop. 397)? Here’s why: Shalynn’s declaration “Just because you’re from a small unknown town doesn’t mean you can’t be a big success” tugs at Burt’s small-town heartstrings. (He’s from Jupiter, Fla., pop. 9,868.)

At any rate, by March 14 it seems pretty certain that Burt will indeed come to Evening Shade. And—surprise!—Evening Shade will come to Burt, in the presence of Shalynn Arnold. At the invitation of the folks at Evening Shade, who read Shalynn’s letter, Shalynn will fly out to L.A. and will even have a bit part in an episode (tentative broadcast date is April 1).

The airfare is an 18th-birthday (March 17) present from her parents, Vickie and Jimmy Arnold, who own a local surveying company. They know that, what with Burt and all, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. “Mom usually doesn’t even send me to Batesville,” says Shalynn, “and that’s only 30 miles away.”

Part Two—Evening Shade, Hollywood. Day 1. Steve Roth, an assistant to Shade’s executive producers Linda Blood-worth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, takes Shalynn on a tour of their other CBS show, Designing Women. Shalynn’s reaction to the excitement: “I may pass out now.” Is she disappointed that Delta Burke has called in sick? “Not that much,” she replies.

Day 2. At the Evening Shade studio, Shalynn meets Jay Ferguson, who plays Reynolds’s teenage son on Shade. (Her sisters, Christy, 12, and Judy, 11, want the 16-year-old heartthrob’s autograph.) “Shalynn!” he whoops. “Sounds like a Japanese karate move!” On the set Burt introduces her to the audience. “This is Shane Arnold, right?” “Shalynn.” He apologizes. He kisses her. Back in the wings, Shalynn fans herself. “Now I’m excited! Ooo-oooh! I’m shakin’!”

For her scene Shalynn sits at a table with three other extras and is instructed to have a conversation. After the taping, production assistants roll out a birthday cake in the shape of Arkansas. Burt sits Shalynn next to him on a bench. The star is about to give her his final decision on her invitation. “You know I’m going, don’t you?” “I do now,” says Shalynn.

Day 3. Two women who had been in the studio audience spot Shalynn at her hotel and ask for her autograph.

The End. A day after coming home, Shalynn is back at her part-time job at the Town & Country grocery store in Ash Flat, 15 minutes outside Evening Shade. Her trip was the best of times. And now younger sister Christy wants to ask Tom Cruise to her graduation.

Tom Gliatto, Lois Armstrong in Hollywood

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