American Graffiti | 1973
Dismissed as ‘a disgrace’and ‘unreleasable’ by the suits who know the business, American Graffiti not only grossed millions and spawned a wave of pale imitations, but earned a pair of Oscar nominations for George Lucas as both writer and director.
The film was inspired by Lucas’ own adolescent years cruising the Strip in Modesto, on Highway 99 between Stockton and Fresno in central California. And Modesto is the town to head for if you’ve got the wheels and want to show them off.
The regular cruise has moved from its sixties location – Tenth Street between G and K Streets – to McHenry Avenue. There is an annual Graffiti Summer event each year.
Modesto even boasts roller-skating waitresses at the A&W Root Beer Drive-In, close to the cruise strip, at 1404 G Street. Despite all this razzmatazz, Modesto is not where the movie was filmed. The two towns used, which had barely changed since the sixties, were Petaluma in Sonoma County and San Rafael in Marin County, on Highway 101 north of San Francisco.
San Rafael, now all rather gentrified, was the first choice for filming but the disruption caused by initial shooting on Fourth Street, downtown, led to the production being moved to another location.
You’ll instantly recognise Petaluma as Graffiti-town. Proud of its varied and well-preserved architecture, Petaluma has provided the backdrop for a whole slew of movies including Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, Joe Dante’s Explorers, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct, legendary turkey Howard The Duck and the controversial Nineties remake of Lolita.
You can take a walking tour of the town’s many movie sites, with a guide from the Petaluma Visitor Center, 210 Lakeville Street/Hwy 116 (tel: 707.769.0429).
The boys drive up and down Petaluma Boulevard North, on D Street and Washington Street, the main drag used in the movie. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is drafted into the Pharaohs gang in front of the Old Opera House, 149 Kentucky Street.
And the used car lot, where Curt chains the axle of the police car, could still be recognised. It’s a vacant lot alongside the McNear Building, 15-23 Petaluma Boulevard North. The ‘State Movie Theater’ (showing Dementia 13, the horror movie directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola for Roger Corman) is the Mystic Theater in the McNear at number 23.
The high school is Tamalpais High School, 700 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.
Sadly, the film’s most famous location, Mel‘s Drive-In, with its rollerskating waitresses, no longer exists. It was real, and actually situated in the city of San Francisco itself, on the corner of South Van Ness and Mission Street. It closed down and was, amazingly, demolished.
The good news is, it was one of a chain, and a surviving classic Mel‘s can be found at 3355 Geary Boulevard (tel: 415.387.2244).