American Graffiti (1973)

From Rotten Tomatoes: "This Academy Award-nominated classic, voted one of the American Film Institute's top 100 Films Of All Time, features the coming of age of four teenagers on their last summer night before college. Rediscover drag racing, Inspiration Point and drive-ins all over again in this nostalgic look back at the early '60s. The incredible soundtrack brings you the most memorable rock 'n' roll hits of the era. Directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, this classic stars Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack and Mackenzie Phillips. Capture the heart of America's last age of innocence with American Graffiti."

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

When the film previewed at San Francisco's Northpoint Theater, the audience went crazy but Universal Pictures wasn't impressed. Not until Francis Ford Coppola's defense of the film, did Universal back down (demanding a few cuts, but releasing it just the same). The $750,000 film went on to earn $140 million (a huge sum for 1973 - and best cost to profit ratio at that time).

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 its stand-alone box office that looks just like the original one at the film house in Modesto. Also the J.C. Penny store looks very much 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 at right 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

Link: American Graffiti on Rotten Tomatoes

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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