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Press Democrat (28/Mar/2009) - Films that put Santa Rosa on the map




Film that put Santa Rosa on the map

There have been several national stories in recent months about how escapist movies are packing the theaters. In troubled times, the writers tell us, people find solace sitting in a darkened theater watching Batman take on the Joker.

People find such adventures so far removed from their worries about house payments and health care that they are, somehow, comforting.

Remember the 1970s, when the economy was tanking (nothing compared to today, but who knew that then?) we lost a war, a president resigned and homegrown terrorists were bombing government buildings?

Those were the times, the writers point out, that Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas chose to bring us “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters.”

Bringing the point to the present day, Chicago Tribune writer Christopher Latham reports that there were more superhero films made in 2008 than any year in recent memory. And 2009 hasn’t bucked the trend.

Which brings us to another Depression and another war and another film director who could be called “escapist” — although the designation “film noir” more often is applied to his work.

It also brings us to Santa Rosa in the summer of 1942 and a movie that is a favorite of mine. It was a favorite of the director as well. It was also a favorite of the leading man. And both director Alfred Hitchcock and star Joseph Cotten had a lot of films from which to choose.

THE GREAT DEPRESSION had yet to end and an Allied victory over the Axis was still in grave doubt when Hitchcock brought his company to Santa Rosa not only to use the town as a location but to make it an integral part of the story as well.

Shadow of a Doubt” was a lot of “firsts.” It was the English director’s first truly American film. It was the first movie (of many) made in Santa Rosa, and it was the first time in decades a major studio had “gone on location.”

The story Hitchcock wanted to tell was about what happens when an evil force invades a idyllic small town populated by average American families. To write the film he hired the acknowledged expert on small-town Americana, Pulitzer prize winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, whose “Our Town” was a Broadway success and a recent movie.

Had there been no war, Hitchcock may well have built his small town idyll on a Hollywood sound set and given it a generic name — like Grover’s Corners. (And I do not choose that one willy-nilly, since it was the name chosen by Wilder for “Our Town.”)

But the War Production Board, one of the earliest wartime economy measures, had put a ceiling of $5,000 on expenses for sets. And Hitchcock did something revolutionary. He decided to take his show on the road.

Filmmakers had given up filming on location not long after the “Bronco Billy” days. Set designers could construct New York City on a Hollywood lot and the sound stage was considered the actors’ home.

Hitchcock’s decision, made along with producer Jack Skirball, to find a town that fit the script and move in, was considered important enough that LIFE magazine sent three photographers and published a six-page spread on Hitch’s Santa Rosa adventure.

The whole town, population 13,000, became a Universal studio for four weeks in the summer of 1942. After a statewide search for just the right spot, Wilder and Hitchcock narrowed their choices to Visalia or Santa Rosa. And Santa Rosa won.

They didn’t have to change a thing — except to put a coat of oil on the Victorian at 904 McDonald Ave. they had chosen to be the family home. The owner, Dr. Clifford Carlson, had been so pleased when his house was selected; he’d spruced it up with a new coat of white paint between the Hitchcock-Wilder visit and the arrival of the actors. It looked too new, Hitchcock said, and ordered it oiled.

Otherwise, it was just Santa Rosa in the summer of ’42.

If you want to time travel back, rent the movie. You’ll see the courthouse in the middle of town, the old stone library, the Gothic spires of the Southern Methodist Church, the American Trust Bank, Fourth Street at night with the policeman directing traffic at Mendocino Avenue, the railroad depot.

You can go inside the old ‘Til Two bar at the corner of Third and Santa Rosa Avenue. You can see hundreds of Santa Rosans (along with the uniformed soldiers from the surrounding camps and airfields) walking the streets as extras.

There were some with bigger parts, such as bank manager Harold Bostock and his staff (including Jim and Billie Keegan) and, one with an important speaking role. Young Edna May Wonacott, the daughter of a Santa Rosa grocer, was snatched from her sixth grade classroom at Proctor Terrace School to play Teresa Wright’s kid sister.

Envious classmates recall that Edna May returned from Hollywood, where the interior of the family home was filmed on a sound stage, wearing a fake fur coat. Imagine!

IN WHATEVER WAYS were possible, the month-long Hollywood sojourn in the summer of ’42 provided a respite to the troubles of the world. Byrd Wyler Kellogg, The Press Democrat society editor, wrote columns about the charming Miss Wright and about the handsome Joseph Cotton, dressed in his “whites,” playing tennis on the town’s one court — in the old Howarth (now Burbank) Park.

As for Hitchcock, he made friends with Judge Donald Geary and spent many pleasant cocktail hours in the Geary’s McDonald Avenue home — where he could keep an eye on his equipment from a window.

Much was written about Santa Rosa being quintessentially American and other film companies took note — and came in quick succession.

Before the war ended, Santa Rosa had become the “hometown” of aviator Eddie Rickenbacker, the “Fighting Sullivans” and Don Ameche in “Happy Land.” (“Happy Land” was the film that was being made when the director spotted a winsome 5-year-old spectator/extra named Natasha Gurdin, who lived on Slater Street. He promised stardom — and delivered. Natasha became Natalie Wood.)

Burt Lancaster and Howard Duff were Edward G. Robinson’s sons in the movie version of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” filmed at Virginia and Tom Grace’s house, again on McDonald Avenue. In 1948

In 1955, Bette Davis was the librarian in that same old stone library for a film called “Storm Center.” And in 1959 Walt Disney productions took over most of the new Flamingo Hotel for a summer month, filming “Pollyanna” at Isabel McDonald’s “mansion.”

Since then — well, pick your favorite — Robert Redford picnicked at Howarth Park for “The Candidate” in ’72 and, in “Smile,” the beauty contest satire, Santa Rosa again played itself, but not nearly so majestically. “Little Miss Marker” in ’80, “Peggy Sue Got Married” in ’85. The list goes on.

When Joseph Cotton, as Uncle Charlie, picked up that telephone in the bleak New Jersey boarding house where “Shadow” begins, and said, “I want to send a telegram to Santa Rosa, California ... Yes, that’s right. Santa Rosa, California,” he really started something.

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