MODESTO -- George Lucas shared his Modesto roots with the world with his 1973 breakout film "American Graffiti."
The movie, which follows a group of teens as they cruise around a small town in their cars, was inspired by his experience cruising 10th and 11th streets in downtown Modesto in the early 1960s.
The movie launched Lucas' career and was a springboard for actors such as Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers and Mackenzie Phillips. It inspired the "Happy Days" TV sitcom and its spinoffs, and the nostalgia associated with doo-wop music, the early stylings of rock 'n' roll and the Motown sound. It celebrated the car culture of the '50s and '60s, and the passion people had for their favorite Chevy coupe, Ford pickup or Buick roadster.
More than anything, "American Graffiti" became intertwined with Modesto's civic identity, a common currency shared by residents. When people were asked what city they were from and what it is known for, the answer often was "American Graffiti."
The city has celebrated that heritage for decades with its annual Graffiti Summer festivities, which draw thousands of car buffs and music fans from around the world to Modesto. Many of the actors and actresses from the movie, as well as singers and bands who provided the soundtrack for the era, have returned again and again.
But until recently, Lucas, an intensely private man despite his worldwide fame, has never shown much public interest in acknowledging his hometown's legacy. Much of that has to do with the extraordinary arc of his career after "Star Wars" became a cinematic classic virtually from its release in 1977. Lucas' fantastical tales of "a galaxy far, far away" and unforgettable characters such as Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Yoda eclipsed whatever recognition "American Graffiti" had generated.
"The Force" was much more powerful than a cherry '57 Chevy.
The "Star Wars" franchise -- the six movies already made and worldwide sales of associated merchandise -- was the prime motivator behind The Walt Disney Co.'s $4.05 billion deal to buy Lucasfilm and produce three new films in the series. Certainly, the technical parts of Lucas' moviemaking empire have enormous value, as does "Indiana Jones," but it's "Star Wars" that fans likely will recall for generations to come, just as moviegoers today still watch "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind."
Success and busy life
All that success left precious little time for Lucas to return to his roots. He made a new life in the rolling hills of Marin County on his Skywalker Ranch and other properties, hundreds of miles from the lights of Hollywood. Even as Modesto residents invited him to various events -- prepared to give him a hometown hug -- he was often too busy to participate.
It stung some people that he didn't attend the 1997 dedication of Betty Saletta's bronze "Graffiti" statue at Five Points in downtown Modesto. The statue features a boy and girl sitting on a 1957 Chevy.
Wendy Lucas said her older brother had a good excuse -- he was filming in England and he let the organizers of the dedication know a year in advance. Plus, he has never particularly liked being center stage.
"He's a behind the scenes guy; he's not out front," said Wendy Lucas, who still lives in Modesto, along with her two sisters. "So people mistake that as being aloof."
With the announcement of the Disney deal and George Lucas' acknowledgment he is retiring from management of his company, many local folks hope there will be more chances for him to return to Modesto.
He has committed to be the grand marshal in June's Graffiti Summer classic car parade. Last summer, he attended his 50th Downey High School reunion. He donated money to the Gallo Center for the Arts in honor of his late parents, George and Dorothy Lucas, who graduated from Modesto High School.
Most important to many, he has become involved in the effort to commemorate Modesto's cruising history.
Last year, he filmed a welcome video for the organizers of the Historic Graffiti Cruise Route downtown walking tour.
A 20-year Modestan
Lucas lived in Modesto for 20 years, from his birth on May 14, 1944, until he graduated from Modesto Junior College in 1964 with an associate of arts degree in anthropology.
He attended John Muir Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High School and Downey High School, graduating in 1962, the setting for "American Graffiti." He lived in a small home on tree-lined Ramona Avenue off Morris Avenue and then on a 14-acre walnut ranch off Sylvan Avenue.
Those details and more are included in a biography featured on a historic cruise route kiosk installed over the summer on 11th Street near I Street. He approved the information, which was written by Wendy Lucas and Patti McCarthy, a University of the Pacific film professor.
"A creative and inquisitive child, he showed his talents at an early age," says the bio. "He created cities and landscapes for his train set, published a neighborhood newspaper, designed spooky houses rigged with special effects in a friend's garage, produced carnivals, built forts and even crafted a ramp for a roller coaster (a large tub on wheels) in a friend's back yard. Throughout his childhood, George's vivid imagination and unlimited creativity found fertile ground and blossomed in the quiet suburban neighborhood."
The kiosk also talks about his job at Foreign Car Serv-ice on Scenic Drive, his love of car racing and his horrible, life-changing car accident days before high school graduation at Sylvan Avenue and Rexford Drive. Today, there's a Mormon church and homes all around the intersection, but then it was in the country.
"His car flipped three times before it crashed into a large tree," the bio says. "His seat belt broke on the second flip, and he was thrown from the car, helping to save his life. Because he sustained critical injuries to his chest and lungs, he had a long recuperation period -- two weeks in the hospital, followed by weeks of daily physical therapy sessions. Having been given this second chance, George decided he needed to do something meaningful and significant with his life."
Organizers of the cruise route also have compiled short video interviews with Lucas' friends and other cruisers. The videos can be seen on the Modesto Cruise Route YouTube channel or accessed by smart phone via bar codes on the kiosks.
One interview is with race car driver Allen Grant, who became friends with Lucas in Modesto in the early 1960s.
"George was the type of guy -- small in stature, very thin -- he was the kind of guy you wouldn't take seriously," Grant says in the video. "He was always jabbering about a story and what about this and doing this and, you know, and we didn't take him very serious. But I liked him and he was a great little guy and went to the races with me."
Friends share stories
Other interviews have been completed with Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, one of Lucas' early mentors and his collaborator on "American Graffiti," and his childhood friends George Frankenstein and John Plummer.
Chris Murphy, who is chairman of the cruise route committee, said Lucas has enjoyed watching the videos, which he has seen via Wendy Lucas, and has become increasingly interested in the project. He likes that it's celebrating local history and not focusing on him. He also enjoys reconnecting with old friends from that period of his life.
Murphy and other volunteers continue to record more video interviews and have been talking about creating a "Walk of Fame" on 10th Street highlighting "legends of the cruise" and, far down the road, maybe opening a Graffiti museum.
Anyone with photos or stories about Lucas or cruising Modesto in the 1950s and 1960s is encouraged to submit them at www.modestocruiseroute.com.
Modesto Bee arts writer Lisa Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.