George Lucas' 1973 blockbuster, the comic, poignant coming of age movie classic, American Graffiti (set in the rock n' roll, drag-racing, diner days of early 1960s Modesto), came close to being filmed in San Rafael. Thanks to consistent complaints of one particular Marin County bar owner, the film's production crew hopped the county line and shot in the heart of Petaluma.
Filming was challenging. Lucas as director, his soundman and cameraman were forced to ride in the trunk of a makeshift camera car.
It certainly was a showcase for the cruisers, such as the white Ford Thunderbird in which Bay Area Irish Catholic actor Suzanne Somers made famous in a cameo as the "Blonde in the T-Bird".
Aside from the classic teenage angst of relationship issues and post high-school decision making, the film's fleet of fabulous vintage cars (and groundbreaking musical score) is what continues to resonate most with scores of American Graffiti enthusiasts around the world.
One particularly ardent, die-hard global American Graffiti fan, now sleeps all the more soundly at night, knowing that his dream car from his favorite film of all time, is parked in peaceful, covered splendor, on his rural Petaluma property.
Vintage car restoration enthusiast Jerry Causbrook estimates the number of times that he has seen the movie, as an astonishing 700 and counting. A consultant for reenactments of American Graffiti, there is not a single scene shot or slightest quip that he doesn't know by heart.
Causbrook was in his young teens during the making of the movie that would have such enormous impact on his life. "It was an exceptionally cold June in Petaluma," he recalled. "actors needed extra jackets".
"Lucas rented around 300 cars. He bought about six and painted them to suit the scene. He wanted a yellow Thunderbird, not a white one, but shooting was at night," said the film aficionado. "One of the owners of a white 1956 T-Bird had parked on Water Street while she was at work at the old Sears store, downtown," he said. "Lucas left a note on a paper bag on the windscreen asking to rent it for filming."
Clay and May Daly had originally bought the car, used, in 1964. They relocated to Southern California after the release of American Graffiti, maintaining the by then, famous white T-Bird in their care for a full 50 years.
Petaluma-raised Causbrook, owner of the 1967 Citroen 2CV driven by Richard Drefuss' character in the movie, had long-since dreamed of one day bringing the white T-Bird back to grace the boulevard, downtown.
After sensitive negotiation with the Daly family, the impassioned automobile collector persuaded them that the car's eventual return to Petaluma was its destiny. A boost to the annual Salute to American Graffiti event, the future allure of the white T-Bird, with its impressive 300,000-mile track record, is secured with thousands of in-person admirers, each May.
Its proud new owner bid against a museum and a major restaurant chain and is the only person in the world to own two original American Graffiti motors.
Coincidentally, Causbrook's own mother, as a young Italian American in North Beach, San Francisco, babysat neighboring child, Suzanne Somers (real name Mahoney).
The public is invited to take pictures (Like I did!) in the white T-Bird that Somers and the movie made famous at a fundraiser party at Buffalo Billiards on the Boulevard, in Petaluma, on Sunday, November 9th, 2014. Visit this and other original cars from the movie from 3 pm to 6 pm.
This special Tribute to American Graffiti Volunteer Party kicks off celebrations for the event's 10th Anniversary in 2015. Enjoy live music by Smoke and Mirrors, Henhouse Brewery beer samples, raffles and food.
With a modest budget of $700,000 and more than $50 million in rental earnings, American Graffiti has become one of the most profitable films of all time.
Profits from the November 9th fundraiser will go towards the purchase and placement of automated external defibrillators, a portable electronic device used in emergency situations within the community.