San Francisco Chronicle (19/Aug/2001) - Schoolhouse last roost for 'The Birds'
- article: Schoolhouse last roost for 'The Birds
- author(s): Christine Delsol
- newspaper: San Francisco Chronicle (19/Aug/2001)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Bodega Bay, California, Daphne du Maurier, Potter School House, Bodega, California, Rod Taylor, Santa Rosa, California, Suzanne Pleshette, The Birds (1963), Tides Wharf Restaurant, Bodega Bay, California, Tippi Hedren
Schoolhouse last roost for 'The Birds
It could have been the ordinary malevolence of any sea gull stalking food. But the bird planted on a piling just outside the window, glowering at my crab cakes Benedict, looked as if it might try to burst through the plate glass at any moment.
I was, after all, at The Tides restaurant in Bodega Bay, and Alfred Hitchcock deemed this town's gulls menacing enough to star in his classic 1963 horror film, "The Birds." I was luckier than the movie's star, Tippi Hedren; I solved my problem by shifting my chair to turn my back on the bird, and finished my meal unharmed.
But I couldn't really accept that the bird and its winged accomplices were blameless in the fact that all but one recognizable landmark from the movie, filmed here in 1962, have burned or been torn down. Even the restaurant where I was eating has been replaced, expanded and remodeled several times since Hedren ran in here for help after the frightening avian attack on the schoolchildren.
The remaining landmark, the Potter Schoolhouse (Bodega Bay School in the movie), is actually in the town of Bodega, about 7 miles inland. All these years it's been a private home, with brief stints as an inn and a restaurant. This spring, for the first time, the owners began offering public tours.
Ken and I, both fans, decided to make it a "Birds" weekend, heading north with a rented copy of the movie tucked into our bag. The Inn at the Tides, where we stayed - not to be confused with the restaurant called The Tides - doesn't have much to do with the movie, but it's where Tippi Hedren returned on her first visit to Bodega Bay in almost 40 years last March, for a fund-raising party for her Southern California wild animal retreat.
We arrived in late afternoon on a clear, windy day that sent sunlight streaming in through our room's window, which looked out over the harbor. The menu at the hotel's Bay View Restaurant had a Filet Mignon Hitchcock, stuffed with Dungeness crab, Madeira and bearnaise sauce, and turned out to be worth all $29, even if the roasted potatoes accompaniment was a bit skimpy.
We passed up the pool, hot tub, workout room and sauna to settle in with our movie. That's when we encountered the weekend's one disappointment: Our room had no VCR, only pay-per-view movies. "The Birds" wasn't among them.
The wind had disappeared by morning, and after our breakfast at The Tides, we stripped down to T-shirts. Today, the wharf caters to tourists and shoppers, and despite intriguing photos and other movie memorabilia, it bears little resemblance to the working-class bar and restaurant where fishermen sought both liquid and solid sustenance. The complex is where the movie's gas station, cafe and boat dock scenes were filmed. (The gas station, though, was blown up on a studio lot).
Mitch Zankich, who owned The Tides in the 1960s, allowed Hitchcock to use the restaurant on three conditions: The town would be called "Bodega Bay" (Daphne du Maurier's original novella was set in Cornwall); Rod Taylor's character would be named Mitch; and Zankich would have a speaking part. If you watch the film closely, you'll see Zankich asking Taylor, "What happened, Mitch?" right after the first sea gull dive-bombs Hedren's boat.
As we strolled the wharf along the harbor where that attack set the horror in motion, every piling and rooftop was claimed by the loitering, feathered punks, all thankfully uninterested in two empty-handed interlopers.
We drove up Bay Hill Road, just north of town, which Hitchcock used as a stand-in for Highway 1 on Hedren's drive to Bodega Bay. About a mile inland, we turned back toward town and encountered the same view of open coastal hills and distant gleaming water that Hitchcock filmed in 1962.
Westside Road took us past Wil's Fishing and Seagull Cafe, Bodega Bay Kayak and other businesses west of Bodega Harbor, separated from the Pacific by the hills of Bodega Head. After a succession of marinas, markets and shoreline parks, we passed the entrance to the Bodega Marine Lab. This is where the abandoned ranch house that Hitchcock turned into Mitch Brenner's home stood before it burned down in the late 1960s.
The ocean overlook at the end of Westside Road has nothing to do with "The Birds," but everything to do with Bodega Bay's abundant bird life. From Bodega Head Trail, we saw the ocean curve into the protective arm of Bodega Head to become Bodega Bay, and the jetty that keeps the thrashing currents from placid Bodega Harbor. The habitats created by these disparate waters support thousands of shore birds, ducks and geese that winter in the mud flats, and others that stop to rest and feed on their way north from wintering grounds farther south. They're plentiful, but peaceful.
To get to the schoolhouse in Bodega, which appears in the movie to be just uphill from The Tides, we took Highway 1 south and veered east on Bodega Highway through a block of antique and crafts shops, one conspicuous surf shop and a tiny but well-populated coffeehouse. Uphill from the corner where St. Teresa's Church stands, the Potter schoolhouse loomed white and large, appearing in better repair but otherwise a ringer for its movie image. A life-sized poster of Hitch himself invited us in for the tour.
The school, built in 1873 of virgin redwood, was abandoned the year before Hitchcock filmed here, and the movie is credited with saving it from destruction. The front room - the only one fixed up for the schoolroom scenes - is now a gift shop and a mini-museum on Bodega history and the making of the movie.
Lea Taylor, who grew up in the house and lives there now with her husband and son, told us her parents bought it in 1966 because her mother was a teacher and loved the idea of saving an old-fashioned schoolhouse.
"The most often-asked question I get is, 'Why did Hitchcock film here?' " Taylor said, while Hedren and Suzanne Pleshette talked silently on a TV screen in front of us. The area was heavily logged until 1971, she explained, and the sparsely populated, open landscape reminded him of the Cornwall coast. The sunny spring thwarted him, though, and he had to employ darkroom magic to provide the dark, moody skies.
The second most often-asked question, Taylor said, is "Where are the monkey bars?" The playground where the birds - both the live and mechanical varieties - slowly and relentlessly gathered while Hedren waited outside the schoolroom was a Hollywood prop, as was the teacher's house next door.
Taylor took us upstairs, which had been home to four owls and was 2 feet deep in bird droppings when the family moved in. Today, it's an expansive parlor, with high Italianate windows framing the coastal hills, that does double duty as an informal art and music salon. It's also where the Organization for Scientific and Investigative Research, which examines paranormal phenomena, documented apparitions that classified the house as a classic haunt. Taylor believes them to be Clive Keefely, a teacher with the school's first class, and his daughter Clara, who died of measles after Keefely left for a higher-paying job in Santa Rosa.
We left the schoolhouse with the warm sun at our backs. The only birds in sight were a few hawks circling overhead - a far cry from desperate dawn escape by the bloody and catatonic Tippi Hedren. But our weekend wasn't over: We still had "The Birds" in our bag, ready to pop into the VCR the minute we got home.