Back To Mill Valley
It was an early summer evening as my family and I arrived at the Secret Cinema showing of Back To The Future at the Olympic Park here in London. Our daughter and son were teenagers and were, like my wife, very keen on this movie. As we entered the compound for the sold out event, we were greeted by an army of young people putting on the most dreadful American accents I had ever heard.
“Welcome to Hill Valley,” they said with an exuberance which seemed to have been painted on with a brush. These weren’t just British kids. They were Polish, Dutch, Latvian, Brazilian and goodness knows how many other nationalities. My English daughter, Billie, turned to me and said: “Now you know how we feel when we hear Dick Van Dyke doing a cockney accent.”
Once inside the gates, where we had to prove that we had no food, drink or cameras on our persons, we were able to wander into little houses, supposed to be the homes of the characters in the movie. The beds inside these houses all had duvets rather than sheets and blankets. The mock 1955 telephones had buttons rather than dials.
Walking past a billboard which had featured in the film we got closer to the town square. It was surrounded by shops to look like the 1955 Hill Valley of the movie. There was a travel agent, a newspaper office, a barber shop as well as a movie theatre showing Cattle Queen Of Montana with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan,
All these attempts at recreation were interesting to me as someone who had experienced the real thing growing up in Mill Valley in the 1950s and in practically every instance they got the little details wrong. But then that was also true of the film Back To The Future, however enjoyable it was. The people who paid good money for this shindig and had dressed up for the occasion were not interested in small town America of 1955. They were only interested in the movie Back To The Future.
So this was a re-creation of a re-creation and it sparked off certain memories which I conveyed to my daughter, like the fact that in high school, students were encouraged to make book jackets out of brown paper for each of their textbooks. We also had a binder with lined paper for doing homework and tabs separating the subjects. As you set off for school each morning you’d invariably be carrying a book or two as well as the binder but the boys would bear this burden differently from the girls. They would hook their right or left hand over the books and binder which lent against their hip as they walked to school while the girls would cling the binder and books to their breast. Of course this detail was overlooked in this European re-creation of a vanished American era.
I remember trying to surrender to the movie Grease when I took my English niece to see it in the 1970s but I couldn’t get past the slightly flawed approximation of what high school life was like before the heady clouds of psychedelia changed things forever. All I could think of was that Ed Byrnes was being Dick Clark and that Summer Nights had the same bassline as Hang On Sloopy and You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.
The only film which, in my opinion, succeeded in recreating that era was American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas. Every character in that lovingly realised movie was almost exactly like someone I knew from my days at Tam High, including myself. George Lucas was older than me and knew that way of life whereas Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis who wrote Back To The Future were three and two years old during 1955 so they really had no actual experience of teenage life at that time.
Of course Hollywood movies have always taken huge liberties with history, particularly when it interferes with a good story. The idea of Biff, the movie’s villain, storming into the soda fountain to loudly demand that McFly should do his homework for him was patently ridiculous but it served the story. The sight of a young man in Biff’s entourage wearing 3-D comic book glasses was equally ridiculous as that particular craze had vanished by 1955. Those glasses were only utilised for reading the comics and never as sartorial accessories. But that’s a historical detail. The glasses looked good on Biff’s colleague though it should be remembered that they were capable of giving people terrible headaches.
I particularly liked Christopher Lloyd being puzzled by Michael J. Fox’s use of the word ‘heavy.’
“Sounds pretty heavy,” says Marty.
“Weight has nothing to do with it,” replies the Doc.
With American Graffitti I do believe that Lucas, whose idea it was, set out to recreate a small town high school reality before the sociological changes which occurred in the middle 1960s. The most significant of these changes was the emergence of marijuana.
Early in my senior year at Tam I accidentally stumbled onto the fact that a few of my friends had become heads and were smoking weed. I was immediately terrified by this new reality but was drawn towards it nonetheless. Phrases like turning on, paranoid, matchbox and getting stoned danced through their conversations punctuated by a tedious repetition of the word man.
“Oh man, I went to Sausalito to score a matchbox, man, and wound up getting really stoned.”
The interesting thing about this discreet underground phenomenon was that it straddled the social classes. Well heeled white kids from Mill Valley wanting to score their dope were mixing with hard guys who hung out at C’s Drive-In, black kids from Marin City and beatnik types from Sausalito.
It didn’t take long for this activity to cross the radar of the Federal Narcotics Bureau and an undercover agent, who drove a flashy red GTO, began hanging out at C’s and befriending the relevant people.
Only weeks before my graduation in 1965 a huge raid was carried out in Marin County on a Saturday night and I remember being shocked to see a photo of a kid we all knew from Sausalito on the front page of the Sunday Chronicle as he was being arrested at the Fireside Motel. The raid was almost certainly meant to deter people from smoking weed but this well publicised roundup had the exact opposite effect.
Two days after I graduated from Tam High I was on a Norwegian tanker sailing across the Pacific, working as a mess boy. I didn’t return to Mill Valley until the following September and the high school I had only recently graduated from was totally unrecognisable.
What had been a secret subterranean scene had erupted into a way of life and it looked like practically all the students at Tam were smoking weed. All the young men had long hair and the young women wore serapes and beads. This seemed to change forever the way of life I had grown up in….all of it kind of melted away like ice cream and it would never be the same again.
American Graffitti was set in 1962 and it captured in look, dialogue and style a pretty solid approximation of teenage high school life as we had known it. Something good was bitchin’ and the ridiculous ritual of cruising on 4th Street in San Rafael was, for many of us, a regular weekend activity.
Lucas in his first draft script seems to have invented the main four male characters but it was the writing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz who made them and their female counterparts flesh and blood.
George Lucas and his new bride Marcia had moved into a rented house in Mill Valley in 1969, the same year I left for England. It was here that he did all the work on his first feature film THX 1138, which I saw in London. In fact I went to all the movies which came out of Hollywood in the early 1970s in London. I was living in a completely different culture but I maintained my connection to things American by reading Rolling Stone magazine and going to the movies.
Lucas’s producer on American Graffitti was Francis Ford Coppola who soon bought a house in Mill Valley, compounding a series of events which changed the sleepy little town we grew up in to become the place satirised by Cyra McFadden in her hilarious 1977 book The Serial.
Watching the film at the ABC Holloway Road, I immediately recognised 4th Street. The sign for JC Penny and the unmistakable shape of the Rafael Theatre in the distance was too familiar for me to miss. I learned later that my old classmate Tad Alvord had sold the production the police vehicle which had its rear axle ripped out. Tad had been running his successful towing business in San Rafael for some time. “We always had a dozen or so vehicles for sale, these being unclaimed impounded cars,” he told me. “One day Bob Hamilton, an auto mechanic from Ignacio, walked in and said he wanted to buy a black 1961 Ford Galaxie four door sedan.” Tad tried to offer him other cars but he was adamant and agreed to pay the asking price. When he told Tad what it was for he wound up hiring my classmate to do all the towing of the various classic vehicles on the night shoots and to help engineer the shot with the cop car which happily they got in one take.
All the characters in this movie seemed so familiar to me. The hard guy played by Paul Le Mat was a synthesis of so many who had hung out at C’s. Bob Tomei, Bunky Robertson, Bob Compagna and many more could easily have been this guy with his greased back hair, white T-shirt and a pack of camels rolled up in one sleeve.
Ron Howard played what we would have described as a rah rah. He was going steady with Cindy Williams’ Laurie, the sister of Curt who was Richard Dreyfuss. The dance they attended was shot in the girls’ gym at Tam High School. Another important character was the ‘dork’ Terry played by Charles Martin Smith. I never visited Mel’s Drive-In in the city so I don’t know if the car hops really delivered the burgers on roller skates but I certainly never saw any at the A&W in San Rafael.
The actress Kathleen Quinlan was a student of our English and drama teacher Dan Caldwell who strongly recommended her to Fred Roos, the casting director for American Graffiti.
Movies are a contrivance but this one appealed to me because it rang so true in the small particulars and the cherry on top was the appearance of Wolfman Jack as the disk jockey heard throughout and finally seen at the end. The advertising art was by Mort Drucker, a favourite artist of mine from MAD Magazine.
Of course I was in London when American Graffiti came out but back in the bay area I had always read the reviews by Paine Knickerbocker and John Wasserman in the Chronicle. For some reason neither of these two reviewed Graffiti. Instead it was left to Anitra Earle who panned it, describing it as: “The most tedious film I have ever seen.”
But for me this movie will stand for years to come as an accurate picture of small town teenage life before Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles invaded the American charts, the Vietnam War divided the nation and drugs ravaged the youth of America.
It was also very funny, touching and seemed to be the launching pad for several lasting movie careers. I wonder what my daughter would make of it.
I must thank Tad Alvord for sharing his story of working on American Graffiti. I must also thank Laurent Bouzereau who directed the film The Making of American Graffiti which was a very helpful source. Other books were also useful: Skywalking; The Life and Films of Geoge Lucas by Dale Pollock; George Lucas-A Biography by John Baxter: George Lucas-The Creative Impulse by Charles Champlin.
For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org