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Tour offers visitors a special screening of New Orleans

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It's been more than 50 years since Blanche DuBois of the New Orleans-set play "A Streetcar Named Desire" wistfully declared that she had "always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Now, a local tour service brings strangers close to settings where the lives of DuBois and later fictional characters, such as Benjamin Button (portrayed by Brad Pitt) and "GI Joe" Colton (Bruce Willis), played out in dramatic style.

New Orleans Movie Tours owner Jonathan Ray personally escorts visitors to film locations and other movie-related spots. Sites related to 30 movies are now on the tour, he said.

"I want to be able to answer every question about every movie ever filmed here," Ray told Reuters.

He and his wife Michelle began the tours seven months ago with the idea of giving visitors a cameraman's view of New Orleans by highlighting its history as a filming location.

Twice a day, Jonathan Ray drives as many as 10 passengers around the city in a van equipped with individual video monitors.

At each location along the two-hour route, Ray shows clips from a movie or TV episode filmed at the site and offers anecdotes related to the location.

They visit a spot near the foot of Canal Street as they watch video of Vivien Leigh, starring in the 1951 film version of "Streetcar," stepping off a train and asking directions to a street called Elysian Fields.

When a scene from the 1991 movie "JFK" pops onto the screen, showing Kevin Costner's character in the French Quarter bar called Napoleon House, tour guests get to see the bar up close.

"We'll show you that clip while parked right outside the Napoleon House, and then we'll tell you about the history of the building, too," Ray said.

Guests, who pay $39 for the tour, also get popcorn and bottled water.

Ray, who worked behind the scenes on several locally-shot feature films, spent much of the last two years researching local movie history and amassing details about more than 100 classic and contemporary New Orleans-related productions, from the 1958 Elvis Presley movie "King Creole" to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008).

PRODUCTION HOTBED

Keeping up with local movie trivia is a growing challenge in a city that's become a hotbed of movie production.

Since 2002, when Louisiana implemented a tax credit program that gives producers financial breaks in exchange for making movies in the state, New Orleans has become one of the largest film centers in the country outside of Los Angeles.

Some 90 feature films and television productions came to Louisiana during 2011, according to the state's Department of Economic Development. New Orleans hosted more than half of those projects.

The industry's growth here has increased the chances a visitor wandering along local streets might bump into a screen idol such as Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock, who own homes in the city, or Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Sylvester Stallone and a host of other stars who have worked here.

Guests on Ray's tour last week caught sight of Will Ferrell and Dylan McDermott as the van visited a location for "Dog Fight," a comedy slated for release in 2012.

Cris Roman, a recent visitor from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, said New Orleans Movie Tours gave him an insider's view of one of his favorite TV shows, the HBO series "Treme."

Now in production on its third season, the series uses sets throughout the city, including the series' namesake neighborhood just north of the historic French Quarter.

"I loved seeing the Treme neighborhood," Roman said. "And the fact that Jonathan would screen clips in the bus while driving by the locations -- I haven't taken a tour like that before."

Local tourism officials welcome the movie tours as an extension of the local film business, which they count among the city's growing visitor assets.

"When a tourist comes to the city and sees Matthew McConaughey or Jessica Alba, it supports the idea that New Orleans is an exciting place to be," said Jennifer Day-Sully, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)

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