Sam Elliott vs. a Reindeer: Prancer Filming Sites

December 21, 2018 — The 1989 movie Prancer is what we who are usually in the Halloween business call a Sincere Pumpkin Patch—a rarity in the world of overly manufactured, overly set-dressed Christmas movies. Prancer has realistic ambiance, genuine heart, honest grit, and Sam Elliott. That’s all I need for a Christmas movie. And I can skip the first three, honestly.

Prancer is about a girl in snowy Three Oaks, Michigan, who rescues a reindeer with a bum leg that may be the actual Prancer of On Dancer, On Prancer fame. I’ve written about this movie before, so I’d say read that for my full take on it. But also because I was a better writer back then.

Earlier this year, when we discovered that our cross-country trip skirted the real town of Three Oaks, Michigan, where many of the scenes were filmed, we dragged those Google Map lines across the screen enough to get us there.

We visited a series of filming sites that form the corners of a tight box close to the tip of Lake Michigan. The Michigan-Indiana lines cuts directly through that imaginary box like a sword through a wicker basket laden with a pretty assistant.

The first stop on our Prancer tour was in New Carlisle, Indiana. We were there to see two sites. The first was the house of Mrs. McFarland (Cloris Leachman), where Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) takes out those burlap-covered Floribundas with her sled and later helps Mrs. McFarland clean and decorate to raise money to buy Prancer oats.

In real life, the mansion is the Old Republic House at 304 E. Michigan Street. It dates to 1806 and, these days, is an inn. Which means you can stay the night at a Prancer site. Unless, you know, it’s summertime and you still have like 75% of the country to get through before your vacation days run out. 

The second site is across the street from the Old Republic House: Zahl’s Elevator and Feed Mill. This low building and its tall silver silos feature briefly in the movie when Jessica finds the vet (Abe Vigoda) and convinces him to come to her house to help the reindeer she is harboring.

I know, I know. I took the photo from the wrong side of the building.

From there, we drove seven miles north, crossing the Michigan border to the town of Galien to pass by the farm where Jessica’s friend Carol lived. It’s at 17768 Pardee Road, but we didn’t stop for photos because we’d have had to trespass to get a good angle on the place. It only featured briefly in the movie, anyway, and we wouldn’t have put it on the map at all if it wasn’t directly on the way to our next stop.

Twelve miles later, we pulled into the town of Three Oaks, which was mostly unchanged from the movie. The big train intersection on Elm Street where the plastic deer were strung is right in the middle of the town. The intersection looked exactly the same…minus the rind of snow. Even the Big C Lumber is still there.

On the North end of Elm Street, where it intersects with Sycamore Street, is the Three Oaks Methodist Church where Jessica learns that she’s in the newspaper.

On the south end of Elm Street is the space between buildings that was the Christmas tree lot where Prancer was kept as a tourist draw by the town butcher. On one side is Drier’s Meat Market. On the other is the HQ of a production company called FilmAcres.

Drier’s Meat Market was actually worked into the movie as a plot point. Drier was the butcher who bought Prancer to keep Jessica’s father John Riggs (Sam Elliott—who almost singlehandedly keeps this movie from being too treacly) from blowing its antlered brains out. FilmAcres is the production company of John Hancock, the man who directed Prancer. The only reference I saw to Prancer in the entire town was a flyer taped to his door advertising his next movie project.

I assume during the Christmas Season, the town does more to play up its connection to the Christmas flick. Or, maybe, at three decades’ worth of distance, they don’t get as excited about it. Of course, next year is the 30th anniversary of the film, so maybe I just stopped by too early.

From there we drove ten miles south, crossing back into Indiana to reach 701 E. 700 N in LaPorte. This final stop was a quick one, since it’s a private residence, but a meaningful one since it’s Riggs Farm, where Jessica and her father and brother lived.

From the road, you can see all the filming sites, laid out in a perfect balance of foreground and background as if painted there by an artist. In the foreground is the rustic white house. The mid-ground has the tall, red barn where Jessica found Prancer on her property. And, in the background is the low gray barn where Prancer spent most of the movie.

I don’t know if the people who live there watch Prancer every year or if they decorate their lawns with reindeer in December or if they’re completely over all that, but I want them to know that a guy and his family who were crossing the country seeing wonders slowed to a crawl outside their house last summer to say Merry Christmas.