Those in the know in Wilson County’s miniature municipality can tell you that if not for unheralded Ruby Guidara, Watertown would never have evolved into Middle Tennessee’s “Little Hollywood.”

(OK, the “Little Hollywood” metaphor might be a bit of an exaggeration.)

Trying to pinpoint what jump-started the multitude of productions that continue to shoot in the southeastern corner of the county is sketchy, but it likely began on the town square exactly 20 years ago with the convergence of Garth Brooks, a Dr Pepper commercial and, of course, Ruby, a highly sought set decorator and prop master.

Guidara points to that two-day shoot as the first major project she ushered into Watertown.

“I think I got a Garth Brooks-Dr Pepper commercial that had a tie-in to a music video. I dressed up the town and did a few alterations. We shot the commercial one day and made a similar version for the straight-up version of the song (‘Wrapped Up in You’) on the second day,” she said.

“It really showed Watertown that the town square had the ability to be its own little film studio. … That was the first big one, and there have been many, many more since then. There were many I was involved with and a lot that I haven’t.”

Guidara has worked on about 40 music videos in her adopted hometown with such artists as Justin Bieber, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Kellie Pickler, Keith Urban and Blake Shelton.

“I got the ball rolling for the industry out there, and once the ball was rolling Watertown sells itself. I’m the unofficial Watertown film commissioner,” said the creative spirit, who served as set decorator for all 124 episodes of the “Nashville” TV series that aired from 2012 to 2018.

“Watertown hasn’t had that many movies yet but a ridiculous amount of videos,” said Guidara, optimistic that more films will be coming down the pike. “I hate to talk about the past so much because I want to focus on the future and that’s right here.

“We did a Trace Adkins photo shoot several weeks ago, and the whole month of December we shot an entire film on Horse Thief Hollow Ranch called ‘Old Henry’ that stars Tim Blake Nelson. It’s likely going to be a streaming movie and could be on Amazon or Netflix.”

Finding her community

She described her path to Watertown as “an accident or serendipity” because in two instances, before she ever laid eyes on the village, friends told her that she would like the ambience of the laidback community of 1,500-plus, which boasts a healthy tribe of artisans and crafts folks.

“I didn’t even know where it was,” she confessed. “Then one day my boyfriend and I were driving around because I needed a barn to keep my props in, and we got lost. We were looking at The Tennessee Gazetteer, and I noticed Watertown on the map. He said, ‘Do you want to go look?’ and I said, ‘Definitely.’

“We drove into Watertown at 7 o’clock, and it was a beautiful evening with nobody around and it looked like the back lot of Warner Brothers Studios. It was an adorable little town where not much happened. Most of the businesses were not operating. Of course, it’s now 20 years later and it’s getting very vibrant again.

“It’s so insanely small that it’s just charming. It’s quaint and classic Americana. It’s a sweet, hidden, little gem. I can hide out on my farm. People don’t bother me there,” said the animal devotee, who relates to Elly May Clampett, “The Beverly Hillbillies” lass who had a wide range of pets on the 1960s TV series.

Self-confessed hoarder

While she lives in the country several miles from town, Guidara owns a 22,000-square-foot building just off the square where she originally opened an antique store called the White Elephant Emporium. It soon turned into her prop house where she stored thousands of items that she would use to dress music video, TV show and movie sets.

“It was an accident that I started shooting videos in the building,” she noted. “Carrie Underwood needed a place to shoot her first video, ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel’ (2005), and I offered up my place and they took it, and more people kept asking. It worked out very well until I got the ‘Nashville’ TV show, which took me away from Watertown about six years.

“In the meantime, the building, which had a leaky roof, got too congested. The open-floor space went away and there was not enough room to shoot in it anymore. I finally got a new roof on my building this year, and it will be going under renovation so I can use it as a studio space again and hopefully make it a more multi-use space.

“Eventually I will sell it, but in the meantime I will use it for shooting again because the film incentive program in Tennessee has just been re-upped, and I want to make sure that Watertown and the surrounding area in Wilson County, including my building, will be used.”

Guidara gives kudos to the state legislature for voting for the bill which creates a sales-tax exemption for equipment purchased to make films, TV shows, music videos and video games or interactive digital media, CGI, stand-alone audio and post-production editing done in Tennessee. The bill also offers a 40 percent to 50 percent tax credit for productions, based on employee payrolls, which will put a lot of locals to work and means much of that money will trickle down to local vendors and merchants.

Because of that new bill, the set decorator has lined up jobs on several films to be made between now and Christmas.

‘Davy Crockett’ scouting Watertown

Sharing a few details she said, “There will be a Davy Crockett movie shooting, hopefully in Chattanooga and possibly on a Watertown farm. The same production company has plans to do 48 small movies in the next six years and hopefully a lot of them will happen in the state, thanks to our legislature.

“There’s another movie called ‘The Mink Slide,’ based on a true story about a race riot that took place in Columbia, Tenn., in the 1940s, that’s in the works also. It’s nice to have an African-American story being told here where it happened. It’s important to tell these stories and it will involve a lot of Columbia citizens, and the city is so totally supportive.”

About her long-running gig with the “Nashville” TV series, she said she got the job via word of mouth.

“Basically I was the only local Tennessean in Nashville who had that kind of Hollywood experience. Anyone else would have to have been brought in from out of state and then it wouldn’t have had the essence of Nashville, even though it was always a bit more posh than it really is,” said the set decorator, who had 20 people working for her on the show.

“We did 22 episodes for six seasons. It was so grueling that it took me completely away from my home. I had to rent an apartment in Nashville, and my son (now a junior back at Watertown High) had to go to school in Nashville. It was all consuming.”

How she does what she does

Explaining a set decorator’s task, she said the job title pretty much describes itself.

“You decorate the set no matter what it is. You create the appropriate environment that fits the script with décor, be it good, bad or indifferent. If it’s a network show, you have to be established to fit the show and please the production company and then the director, of course. And my job is to try and make it as appropriate as possible for the actor playing the part. That’s the way I decorate, so it helps them feel more in character.”

Her force-of-nature character likely has served her well in a high-pressure arena where time is money.

She described herself personality saying, “I’m earthy and eclectic and bawdy and fun and bold. I have the mouth of a sailor and am kind of no-holds barred. I’m passionate about what I do. If you’re timid, then your work doesn’t look good. I have to fight for it with the money man. The director and director of photography expect that from me. So I strive very hard to find balance between these two parties.”

As for her prop house near the square, which has been thinned down but still remains a hoarder’s paradise, she can’t even guess how many items she once had stored inside.

When asked, she said, “Oh, my gosh, millions. I don’t even know. Thousands. I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea, and I have six tractor trailers full and several barns full. It’s ridiculous. I’m a props-set hoarder, and my reason is I use it. The film industry requires a lot of assorted set dressing.

“I find things everywhere: flea markets, consignment stores, thrift stores, antique stores and these days on Facebook Marketplace and Craig’s List Nashville, and the Lebanon Habitat for Humanity ReStore was a huge resource for me.”

What Ruby brings to Watertown

One of her local suppliers has been Jim Amero, owner of Jim’s Antiques and coordinator of the bi-annual Watertown Mile-Long Yard Sale. He said that among the scores of articles she has carried away from his shop over the years have been kitchen gadgets, nautical items and “unusual things that nobody else seems to want. She tends to gravitate to them.

“Most of the time she has a lot on her mind when she’s shopping. I respect that she’s got a job to do. She knows what she’s looking for. There’s no suggestions. I just let her roll with it and thank her when she leaves.

“She means a great deal to help highlight Watertown. It’s been amazing for the rest of us,” said Amero, who otherwise would never have met musicians Garth Brooks, Justin Bieber, Kellie Pickler and Little Big Town, among others.

Also benefitting from Guidara projects are the wife-and-husband team of Donna Delmas and Pat Jackson that operates Sun Graphics Signs.

“Ruby has brought excitement, prosperity and frenzy and created a platform for art to flourish in Watertown,” said Delmas. “Because of Ruby’s work we are more appreciative of our town. Pat pointed out that she has been a powerhouse in bringing movies and major videos here and because of that improvements to the square and old houses have happened. She loves this town and the people.”

Sharing a few of the assignments that Sun Graphics completed for a variety of Guidara’s sets, the artist said, “We owned the laundromat when a Justin Bieber video was shot here, so Ruby directed us to ‘doll-up the place.’ It’s still there and people still take pictures inside. We have painted classic show-cards for a Kellie Pickler video, circus banners for Dolly Parton and a giant heart and dagger for Steve Earle.

“One of my favorites was making loads of signage to reface most of the square in the Garth Brooks-Dr Pepper commercial and video but painting a huge variety of paintings for ABC’s ‘Nashville’ was a dream for me. We love the speed of the orders and her trust that we’ll provide a quality piece.

“We and others in town also have learned to keep things on the hush-hush. and I think that’s why the production companies and celebrities like to come here. They like it that nobody bothers them when videos are being shot and things like that,” Delmas added.

Growing up years

Guidara spent the best part of her young life on a goat farm in Maryland where she graduated from Damascus High School in 1980, but her early childhood years were difficult.

“My father was killed in a car accident when I was 2. My mother was young, 23, and was pregnant with my brother when the accident occurred. So we had a really rough time starting out,” she reflected. “When I was 9, my mom remarried. and then my new father, who was never a stepfather, took us directly to the courthouse and adopted us, which is how I got the name Guidara. (He also nicknamed her Ruby.)

“He was fantastic and still fills my life. He lives in Tennessee. He moved us from a bad situation in D.C. to Montgomery County, Maryland. We lived in a fabulous place on the edge of thousands of acres of parkland. I spent my adolescence living in the woods and riding my ponies, and we raised goats and horses. The Elly May Clampett side of me really came out and never left me. I milked goats before I went to school in the morning and milked goats before dinner. It seemed like work then, but what I love to do now is play with animals.”

That includes sharing her beloved mules with the Wilson County Birthing Barn, a project created by Tim Edwards and Jennifer Apala. (During the 2018 Wilson County Fair, millions of people around the world watched Squeakers the sow give birth to piglets via Edwards Feeds’ Live Facebook stream.)

Being a ‘mule mama’

{div}When Ruby took Sadie to the Birthing Barn last year, her infant mule was a huge hit with the children.“I love mules more than life itself, and I want to be the mule mama that helps mules have babies in the Birthing Barn,” said Guidara, who envisions helping create a TV show to coincide with the activities at the barn.{

“Baby mules are just spectacular,” she gushed. “I’ve wanted to create a reality show that will include mules, such a charming and amazing animal, maybe on RFD or Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel.”

From Maryland she enrolled in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where she studied theater and fine arts for a couple of years but never finished. She next tackled an acting conservatory in Washington, D.C., and then went on a wild hair.

Off to Hollywood

“There were a couple of movies shooting in D.C. One of them was ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ and the other was some brat-pack move with Demi Moore. I tried to get a job on a film, and the producer told me, ‘You have no experience. I couldn’t possibly hire you.’

“So that pissed me off because I knew it wasn’t true. I said, ‘Fine. How about I get some?’ I went back to my apartment and packed up and went to Los Angeles to get some experience, which I did,” Guidara recalled.

In Hollywood her first professional job came as a prop assistant in 1989’s “CBS Schoolbreak Special: Frog Girl.”

“That title cracked me up because when I was 10 I was playing with frogs. The show was about a schoolgirl who sued her school for making her dissect a frog,” Guidara recounted.

“With each job I did I got a reference for a bigger, better job and quickly climbed the ladder in the art department. I was there eight years. Whatever I was asked to do, I never said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ I constantly figured things out and worked very hard and got more and more jobs.”

During those formative years on the sets in Tinseltown, she crossed paths daily with the rich and famous. So was she ever star struck?

“No, and I’m still not,” she said. “I tried to really stay under the wire and make myself unseen and tried not to infringe upon their quiet time, and I think that was greatly appreciated by the actors, who were always getting pestered.”

Possum-eating girl

There was no hiding, however, from comedic genius Robin Williams while working as a set dresser on “Bicentennial Man” in 1999.

“Robin always was making jokes and picking on someone on the crew to keep the rest of the crew laughing. When I started he figured out I came from Tennessee, and he chose me to be the brunt of his jokes, and he nicknamed me ‘the Possum-Eating Girl From Tennessee,’ even though I don’t eat possum. It was an honor but sometimes awkward. Sometimes he would go on a rant for five minutes, and the crew enjoyed his comedy for free.”

Guidara also recalls instances when two major movie stars spoke directly to her and her being so un-star struck backfired.

“One time I was sewing a teeny-tiny little curtain for a miniature backdrop on the set for ‘Basic Instinct’ in a dark movie studio in Hollywood, and this big man walked into the light of the space I had and he said in a really recognizable voice, ‘Have you any idea where my son is?’ Here I am bent over a sewing machine and think, ‘Who is that? I know that voice.’ It was Kirk Douglas standing over me asking me where his son is because Michael was starring in the move, and it took me aback because Spartacus asked me where his son was,” she said.

“And on the movie, ‘Outbreak,’ I was decorating an African village set on a magnificent ranch in Hawaii, and on the day the film crew arrived, Dustin Hoffman was staring at me and there were words coming out of his mouth. I thought he couldn’t possibly be talking to me. I turned and looked over my shoulder to see who he was talking to and there was nobody there. Then somebody said, ‘He’s talking to you,’ and he thanked me for the set. I felt like such an idiot. I was so unused to being addressed by anyone like that, so I made a fool of myself with my social skills. But I’ve gotten better.”

Making her niche in Nashville

From the Sunshine State, Guidara tested the waters of Music City in 1994 when she arrived to work on “Xs & Os,” a TV movie that served as a pilot for a TV series, that she described as “almost identical to the concept of ‘Nashville’ but before its time.”

“Nashville was a fledgling film market and three or four movies were made here in a row, and I worked on them, and I realized you could make a living in the film industry in the South. And it also was right after the Northridge Earthquake, which I had been fully ensconced in,” she recalled.

Ninety-nine percent of the time in the background, Guidara has appeared in three or four films including a minor role in “Charlie’s War,” which was shot in Watertown in 2003.

“I had a great part with (two-time Oscar nominee) Lynn Redgrave. I played her daughter and to be in a scene with her was kind of otherworldly,” she said happily.

But in front of the camera is not where she longs to spend her time.

Running her own zoo

She’d rather busy herself with the menagerie of mules, donkeys, ponies, goats, dogs and chickens she spoils on her farm in the boonies of Wilson County. Practically all her pets have names.

“They’re my babies, mostly the mules, and all the boy goats are named Pete or Peter or Petie,” she said of her critters, which includes a Shetland pony, her favorite, named Minnie Pearl, and its son, Little Jimmy Dickens.

Finding the 1840s farmhouse she lives in was as serendipitous as her discovery of Watertown.

“I got lost once and saw this abandoned house. Later some property came up for auction, and I went to look at the land for sale, not knowing there was a house on the property. When I got there I realized it was the same house, but nobody had lived in it for generations. It’s wonderful,” she said.

The house and her barn spill over with all sorts of props that she has used in her work. She estimates 80 percent of her home décor has been seen onscreen whether at the cinema on TV or streamed on handheld devices.

“Everything I have here has been a prop or is destined to be a prop,” she said, and yes, that includes her mules, goats, rooster and other mostly tame critters.

Assessing her two passions in life, Guidara said, “My job is not who I am. What I am is a farm girl, and I love sharing the blessing of what I had growing up on a farm with others, but I have to do the film work to play farm. I’m never gonna quit working in film or working with animals until I’m six feet under. I usually tell people I want to be buried in the dirt so the worms can make more glorious dirt out of me.”

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