Gaye LeBaron: When 'Smile' made Santa Rosans do anything but
There was a lot going on in Sonoma County in 1975. Bicentennial committees, both city and county, were preparing to celebrate America's 200th. Preparations were being made to move the stolid old 1910 stone post office building to make a museum of it. Nell and Hugh Codding's lawsuits had stalled the development of the mall for five years, at least. A Bulgarian artist named Christo and his flame-haired French wife, Jeanne-Claude, were wooing coastal ranchers and regulatory agencies for permission to build a billowing white fabric fence from Cotati to the sea.
But the really big news that summer was the filming of “Smile,” a movie that promised to be “a love song to a great American tradition.”
“Smile” was on TV recently. Talk about your “blast from the past” - as we used to say.
It's been 40 years since director Michael Ritchie snuck up on Santa Rosa with an announced intention of making a “bittersweet comedy” that definitely would not, he said, be a parody.
Suffice to say that the movie that hit the theaters a year later and has hung on through TV and videos and Netflix to remain “still fresh,” as TCM's Robert Osborne said, was not precisely what Santa Rosa expected.
THE CONCEPT was born in 1973 when Ritchie, who had brought Robert Redford to town to film scenes from “The Candidate “at Howarth Park and other downtown locations, was invited to be a judge in the California Junior Miss finals. The pageant had been a winter tradition in Santa Rosa for a decade.
In the spring of 1974, Ritchie returned to Santa Rosa with a script and a plan to stage what he and writer Jerry Belson called the Young American Miss pageant just the way the successful Junior Miss competition was done.
He would use a few Hollywood actors, a couple that passed for “stars” and fill in with townspeople. He wanted “realies” he said, just average folk with no acting experience. More than 400 people turned out at the casting call at the Veterans Memorial Building.
People stood in line to be of help, particularly the Junior Miss organizers and Junior Chamber of Commerce members, who considered it an honor to be asked.
The selection of film sites might have been a clue - had anyone been dubious. The broad, sweeping looks at “quintessential” Santa Rosa were of open fields on both sides of a freeway, the Journey's End trailer park sign, the sprawling Holiday Inn (now called The Palms, which is being converted to a homeless shelter) on south Santa Rosa Avenue, and a giant motor home and car sales lot which was actually in Novato.
There was not even a peek at downtown Santa Rosa or Coddingtown or Montgomery Village, areas that were pretty much what Santa Rosa was about in those years.
The vets building was commandeered for the duration, and Gregg Smith, the brawny ex-Marine building manager, caught the casting director's eye as he marshaled the crowds in the lobby. Gregg was handed a significant role as a deputy sheriff, one of a very few paying jobs for locals. He still gets an occasional royalty check.
Howarth Park, the named changed to Ripley Park on the sign, was once again a Ritchie setting. A dozen or more private homes were offered for the few indoor scenes and the Grace Tract home of Pat and Bill Pedersen (where the furniture was, not surprisingly, in the best current taste) was selected. There were scenes in Hal's Trophies shop on Fourth Street and at a diner in Cotati.
CASTING AND SITE SELECTION complete, Ritchie and his crew returned in the hot July of '74. With 25 local high school girls to play contestants alongside eight young Hollywood actresses (including Melanie Griffith and Annette O'Toole) the faux pageant was underway. It was professionally staged by Judy and Jim Bates, the choreography team that had produced the actual Junior Miss pageant that January. The Bates, in fact, have since produced some 40 Junior Miss pageants, now known as Distinguished Young Woman. The pageant moved from Santa Rosa to Rohnert Park and is now held annually in Bakersfield.
Ritchie's plan was to stage it in true documentary style. No one but Ritchie, writer Belson and the cameramen knew who the winner would be. (Spoiler alert: It was Ursuline sophomore Shawn Christianson.)
Bruce Dern starred as the car-dealer/chief judge and Barbara Feldon as the over-the-top pageant director. Santa Rosans were cast as judges and parents of contestants. Junior Chamber members put on sheets for a (dumb) scene in the park. The Sonoma County Arts Council assembled crowds, charging $2.50 a seat as a fundraiser.
“Don't you dare look at the camera!” was the director's word to the audience.