American Graffiti - 1973

A Lasting Work of Art


Superlatives are dangerous, but sometimes hard to resist. George Lucas's American Graffiti is easily the best movie so far this year. Beyond that, I think it is the most important American movie since Five Easy Pieces - maybe since Bonnie and Clyde. The special excitement of the film is that it takes us beyond nostalgia - into a rediscovery of the past, and of memories that might have been lost forever. American Graffiti is like going home; it's a primal experience.

Stephen Farber,
The (Sunday) New York Times

This was George Lucas's first big hit film. It is based on his experiences as a teenager in Modesto and as graduate of Downey High School, called Dewey High School in the film.

While the film is set in Modesto in 1962, it was actually filmed in Petaluma in the Bay Area. The town shared many similar building styles with Modesto - in fact, when you are watching the film, take a look at the State Theatre, with it's stand-alone box office that looks just like the original one at the film house in Modesto. Also the J.C. Penny store looks a lot like Modesto's old downtown store.

The Real Mel's Drive-In

Everyone assumes that Mel's Drive-In existed in Modesto at the time depicted in American Graffiti even though it didn't. There were a few drive-ins in Modesto that fit the description - none of them a Mel's. The photo above shows Burge's Drive-In, which was round and had, at times, roller-skating carhops. It was located on the northeast corner of Highway 99 (9th St) and "O" Street. Dragging the main was from the Lucky parking lot down 10th to a left turn on "O" Street to Burge's, where you turned around and backtracked to repeat the process. The city, due to congestion and hoping to discourage cruising, made 10th a one-way street. The route then became 10th and 11th - a long time ago. On the southwest corner of 10th, kitty-cornered across from Sears, was a diner called Ted's. It was a long shotgun affair where you could get a FINE bowl of beef stew for 75 cents. (Gone are those days).* Al's Drive-In existed for many years on McHenry Avenue, and was another gathering place for teenagers out for a good time. The Mel's in the film is not in Modesto.

*Source: Grady Williams