Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, Part V: Myrtle's Place---"As Seen On Oprah"!
Late last year, Oprah Winfrey sent line producer David Rivera on a final trip to Poplar Bluff to film Marion West and Vy Higginsen—“The DNA Cousins”—as part of her special Dr. Martin Luther King Day television tribute. At that time, Rivera and a video crew filmed Marion West at home; at a big bash for three of his New York cousins, including Higginsen; and at that age-old, bustling nerve center of Poplar Bluff life, Myrtle’s Place—the diner of legend, the barbeque haven known by all for miles.
Rivera had been looking to shoot inside a “typical small-town diner”, a popular spot with a bit of flavor and history; Mack West told him that Myrtle’s was the place to go. This worked out quite well, as it’s the diner Marion West has visited frequently for morning coffee over the past 11 years.
As it happens, Debbie Sliger waited tables at Myrtle’s for 11 years, and has owned and operated this Poplar Bluff landmark for another 12. To say that the running of Myrtle’s is a family affair is to perfect the art of the understatement: Sliger’s sister, Pete Ingle; daughter, Leanna Alexander; daughter-in-law, Amy Hood; and niece, Sarah Long, all keep those heaping breakfast and lunch platters coming 6 days a week for the patrons of this busy establishment.
Sliger’s mother, Georgia Benfield, has for many years been a warm and cheerful presence at Myrtle’s Place. Of her responsibilities at the diner, she explains, “I used to be a waitress ’til I turned 80; now I’m mostly on the cash register”. She adds, laughing, “If I didn’t keep working with all these people, I would probably just shrivel to nothing”.
Though Sliger notes that very few physical changes were necessary at Myrtle’s to accommodate Oprah’s video crew, some customers suggest the atmosphere itself during the shooting was transformed into one of excitement and considerable curiosity—and that Myrtle’s became even more crowded than usual for a time after Team Oprah departed. Marion West himself remarks that “it’s not every day Oprah Winfrey sends her best man down to Poplar Bluff, Missouri”; and in keeping with their desire to film West’s typical activities, Rivera and crew descended upon Myrtle’s to cover him and some friends doing their pre-sunrise java ritual.
Sliger says she met Vy Higginsen and her daughter Knoelle when they, too, were filmed at the restaurant, and she met all crewmembers as well. But in response to rumors that whipped through the area in December suggesting that Oprah Winfrey herself had made an appearance in the Bluff, Sliger says, “If Oprah’s been in this town, I certainly don’t know anything about it!”
Georgia Benfield has this to say about the meeting of cousins West and Higginsen, and how Dr. King might have perceived their earnest efforts to learn more about each other’s lives and experiences: “I think he would be proud that they had come together—and I’m just glad they chose to spend some time at Myrtle’s Place”.
Though Debbie Sliger’s take on recent events is similar, she says only this—with a wry grin—of the uncommon circumstance now being explored by the families of West and Higginsen:
“God is up to something!”
Debbie Sliger and Co. were delighted to see Myrtle’s featured on Oprah Winfrey’s Dr. King tribute on January 21st. “Yeah, we were on the show,” Sliger reports, explaining that Myrtle’s was in fact the backdrop for an interview with Vy Higginsen, and that Sliger herself, Pete, and Pastor Ron Webb of Mt. Calvary Powerhouse Church of God could all be seen in the restaurant at the time.
Says Sliger: “It’s not every day you’re gonna be on the Oprah Show, and we were real pleased.”
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