Thursday, May 18, 2000


Ben Jones sits in front of Cooter’s Place talking about the creation of this roadside fruit stand-turned-“The Dukes of Hazzard” gift shop-museum. But the conversation and his snacking on Cooter’s goobers (peanuts) is frequently punctured by honks from passing cars. To each one, he raises an arm and waves in return.

Everybody comes to Cooter’s.

On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-April, some of those passing by stop in, drawn by the look-alike General Lee, which was Bo and Luke Duke’s ‘69 Dodge Charger. The car sits in front of Cooter’s Place and just begs to be photographed by tourists passing through this town of approximately 350.

Whenever Mr. Jones who played the town mechanic Cooter on “The Dukes of Hazzard” sees a customer, he tables the conversation, rises from his rocking chair and greets the fans. As an actor on the 1979-85 CBS series and later as a two-term Georgia Democratic congressman (1988-92), Mr. Jones knows the value of a handshake and an autograph.

Mr. Jones, 58, opened Cooter’s Place in June, despite doubts that he would make a go of it. Even his wife, Washington public relations executive Alma Viator, didn’t think there was a market for the store.

“I just thought, how could there be that many people interested in ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ and other people thought the same thing,” Mrs. Viator says. After the grand opening weekend, when 5,000 people stopped by, Mrs. Viator and others realized they underestimated the following of “Dukes” and its cornball humor and gorge-leaping cars. Some weekends a nearby pasture gets pressed into duty as an overflow parking lot.

When cable network TNN began airing reruns in 1996, a whole new generation of viewers discovered “The Dukes of Hazzard,”

“It’s such a timeless sort of thing,” Mr. Jones says. “It either brings back fond memories or it’s retro hip. There’s very little family programming of any quality on television. We hear every day, ‘Dukes’ was unpretentious fun for the whole family.”’

Inside Cooter’s Place, Mr. Jones sells “Dukes” T-shirts ($20), Daisy Duke shorts he autographs ($18), cast photos ($4 to $6) and Cooter’s Blue Plate Lunch Special, which consists of RC Cola and a Moon Pie ($1).

The second “Dukes” reunion movie, “Hazzard in Hollywood,” premieres tomorrow night on CBS. Once again Mr. Jones was called on to play Cooter.

“We’re doing the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ thing,” Mr. Jones says, describing the story that takes the backwoods characters to the big city to raise money for a new Hazzard County hospital.

The popularity of Cooter’s Place may have as much to do with Mr. Jones and the store’s out-of-the-way location as residual fondness for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Although “The Dukes of Hazzard” was set farther south (think Georgia), the rolling Virginia countryside sets the right tone.

“Hazzard is a mythical place,” Mr. Jones says. “I tell people they found it here.”

Mr. Jones says part of his interest in opening Cooter’s was to find a place to display “The Dukes of Hazzard” material he collected during the show’s prime-time run.

“He’s got more ‘Dukes’ memorabilia there than I’ve ever seen under one roof,” says John Schneider, who starred in “The Dukes of Hazzard” as Bo Duke. “It’s really ‘Dukes’ heaven. It’s the only place since we did the show actually, even when we did the show I never saw that many General Lees.”

Mr. Schneider, who recently toured with a road production of “The Civil War” musical, estimated almost 6,000 people showed up for his country-music performance at Cooter’s last year and, with them, 20 replicas of General Lee.

Mr. Schneider has no plans for a return engagement at Cooter’s this summer, but James Best (a k a Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane) will appear June 17 and 18. Catherine Bach (better known as Daisy Duke) will stop by July 8 and 9.

Saturdays feature country music from noon to 3 p.m., including Cooter’s Garage Band with Mr. Jones as lead singer. Sundays are devoted to bluegrass music, with live performances from 1 to 4 p.m.

“If you are bluegrass music fan, Cooter’s Place is the most amazing place to be,” Mr. Schneider says. “He has constant bluegrass music live with the best singing and picking and playing I’ve ever heard.”

This “Dukes of Hazzard” revival comes even as the controversy over the confederate flag remains in the news. The General Lee has the stars and bars painted on its roof, and Mr. Jones wants to keep them there.

“It’s a totally benign symbol of the spirit of the South,” he says. “Millions of people watched the show, and I don’t think there were ever any complaints. There’s simply no racism here, and there was none in Hazzard County.

“Symbols can mean different things to different people,” he says. “I’m speaking as a veteran of the civil rights movement and a Democrat, and 99 percent of the displays of the flag are benign, a display of affection for a region, not the cause of the Confederacy.”

Mr. Jones continues to appear on political talk shows, but he’s also resumed his acting career with roles in the films “Primary Colors” and Stanley Tucci’s latest, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” On TV he was a guest star on “Sliders,” “Michael Hayes” and “Lateline.”

“I love acting,” he says. “It’s what I do, it’s who I am. Actors don’t retire.”

If offered another series, Mr. Jones says he would readily agree to commute from Sperryville to Los Angeles.

Mr. Jones and his wife moved to Rappahannock County home of Sperryville and Cooter’s Place two years ago, a few years after Mr. Jones’ 1994 bid to return to Congress. He ran in a redrawn district and lost to Newt Gingrich, but Mr. Jones doesn’t miss the political life.

“This is a lot more fun,” he says. “I imagine I could be sitting in some boring subcommittee meeting or something. This is my own business. I’d never done this before. I have a second childhood here.”


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