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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.

But now, using the pause button on our remote, those of us who have been here awhile can take long looks at the audience and see people we know, people we worked with, people we went school with, people we went to church with, all of them applauding and laughing with delight - without a clue as to the true plot.

No one, so far as I can tell, had read the script.

I MISSED the filming. My family was off house-sitting for friends who lived on Maui that month. Tough duty.

But the local papers covered it like a blanket. PD reporter Susan Swartz caught up with Ritchie at the casting call in the spring. He promised Swartz the movie would not be a parody, but “played straight … letting the humor, sadness and suspense come naturally.” He never said a word about the chief judge's son taking Polaroids through the window of the girls' dressing room. Nor did screenwriter Belson tip his hand, telling Swartz it was “a human comedy, not a joke comedy.” He didn't mention the club initiation rites with white sheets and a dead chicken.

The Chronicle's Stanley Eichelbaum visited, interviewed Ritchie and reported, “Surprisingly, he isn't planning a spoof, mockery or put-down, but a gentle, essentially affectionate satire.”

The first doubt was cast in Rona Barrett's Magazine when Ritchie was quoted, or misquoted, saying that the people of Santa Rosa were either “dumb or very idealistic.”

Ritchie denied the quote and the magazine retracted. But Playboy magazine's reviewer thought that the plot seemed to be “seen through the small town of Santa Rosa, which appears to be blighted by a kind of inbred cultural smog.” And Variety's review called it “slick but lacking heart, humanism and empathy.”

Nor were “gentle” or “affectionate” among the words Bill Pedersen used when I talked to him about “Smile” the other day. He termed the movie “corny,” and, like others involved, said he and his late wife had “no idea” about the plot and certainly didn't expect “all that kind of language.”

Bertram& Milner, a Santa Rosa ad firm, lent its creekside offices as a location and partner Alan Milner played the father of the winner. It also fell to Alan to plan the grand extravaganza Santa Rosa premiere at the Coddingtown Theater, arranging limousines, red carpet, even a tub of wet cement for handprints. By that time, he had heard the news, from several other cities, about the troubling subplots.

Georgia (Tenter) and Herb Hogle's daughter Mary, who had been a Junior Miss contestant, told her parents that she went to see the film and “wanted to get up and leave.” This did not, however, discourage the Hogle family from support of Junior Miss. Another daughter, Donna, won the state contest four years later.

Herb Hogle says now he felt, despite Ritchie's denial, that it was a “spoof,” and, while he remembers laughing a lot, he also believes the nude photos were “really a shock” to people involved.

Choreographer Bates, who has “always been proud of the girls we put through that program,” nonetheless admits that he was “surprised by some of the things” in the film.

I LAUGHED a lot at “Smile” last week. My favorite part was the girl who played “Delta Dawn” on the saxophone. The passage of time and all it involves have made the transgressions seem very tame.

Santa Rosa has played itself twice on film. The town has been a main character, actually, in two motion pictures.

The first was in1942 as small-town America - filled with innocent, gentle folk and a safe haven for a treacherous killer in Alfred Hitchcock's “Shadow of a Doubt.”

The second time this city became an example of small-town America on the screen, it was as a landscape of car lots and trailer parks and a warped value system.

The first film brought pride and joy. The second, between those bursts of genuine laughter, a lingering regret that no one insisted the moviemakers change the name of the town.

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