Santa Rosa has starring role in new documentary

Millions have loved the city, the creek, the plain and the high school that bear the name. And now comes, Santa Rosa: The Movie.

Set to premiere in a downtown theater on Sept. 13 is a historical documentary that features some of the 148-year-old city's biggest names from the past and present, and a richly illustrated story that sweeps in 33 minutes from the time of the Pomos and Coast Miwok to just the other day.

The official title is “Santa Rosa: The Chosen Spot of all the Earth… ” borrowing from the praise showered on the town by resident and globally renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank.

For the story of Santa Rosa to be the stuff of a movie was the brainchild of Mike Grace, a scion of the former Grace Brothers Brewery and a founder of the young, ambitious Historical Society of Santa Rosa. When Grace and other members of the group concurred that the city and its history deserved a film, they didn't then run out and shoot it with their cellphones.

Grace approached long-ago Santa Rosa High schoolmate Don Cambou (Class of 1964) and asked him to make the movie. Cambou returned to Sonoma County less than two years ago after an acclaimed, 35-year career as a television producer, writer and director in Los Angeles.

Cambou's greatest achievement: He produced about 450 hours of the History Channel's universally popular, “Modern Marvels,” which explores the minds and dreams and foibles of creators of man-made wonders and everyday things.

Cambou, who's 70, tall, trim and engaging, tells of discovering his love of films as a kid who rarely missed the weekend matinées at downtown Santa Rosa's former Cal and Roxy moviehouse.

“On Saturdays,” he recalled, “my mother would give my brother and me 45 cents each.” That was good for admission to a double feature and a cartoon, a bag of popcorn and a Coke.

Currently only semiretired from television, Cambou was intrigued when Grace heard he was back in the area, found him last year and asked, “Hey, how'd you like to make a movie about the history of Santa Rosa?”

Grace approached some civic-minded sorts and solicited donations to cover the cost of producing a short film. And he and Cambou sat down with the person they call the project's guru: Gaye LeBaron, the Press Democrat columnist and co-author of two books of Santa Rosa history.

Cambou read LeBaron's two books on Santa Rosa in the 19th century, then sketched out a blueprint of the story the documentary would tell.

Don Silverek, a lover of local history who's worked as a photographer, Santa Rosa Junior College police officer and emergency planning expert, offered to collect the necessary old photos, film clips, maps and other archival materials.

Said Cambou, “After I wrote the script I came up with a list of 700 things I needed.” Silverek gulped and went off in search of them, at the Sonoma County Library, The Press Democrat, personal collections and elsewhere.

Cambou didn't make the video documentary alone. He called in, from New York, independent videographer Sonja Stark. “She loved it out here,” Cambou said.

He asked “Modern Marvels” narrator Lloyd Sherr if he'd be the voice of “Santa Rosa: The Chosen Spot of all the Earth…” Sherr said sure.

With Stark behind the camera, Cambou interviewed LeBaron, Grace, Silverek and a cast of other prominent, history-loving Santa Rosans: Pomo elder Nick Tipon, Mayor John Sawyer, Press Democrat Editor Catherine Barnett and Vic Trione, son of late Santa Rosa business and philanthropy titan Henry Trione.

Accompanying the tightly written, chronological narrative are videos shot all around town and the hundreds of historic images and clips rounded up by Silverek and also by friends of Cambou at Workaholic Productions in Encino.

The producer, who lives now in the hills west of Sebastopol with his longtime partner, Lisa Pompelli, learned much about Santa Rosa back when he lived there from age 3 to 18. He learned much more through the course of making the movie.

For instance, “I had no idea who Maria Carrillo was,” he said.

“I knew there was a McDonald Mansion and McDonald Avenue, but I didn't know anything about Mark McDonald. I knew Vic (Trione) but I didn't know anything about his father.”

Today the producer has a far better idea of the leading role that Hugh Codding played during the post World War II boom in Santa Rosa. Added Cambou, “Frank Doyle's place in Santa Rosa history is pretty spectacular. That is something I didn't know.”

Of course, Cambou and Grace and LeBaron spoke at length great deal about what the short movie should include, which personalities and historic events should be included. But as important was the question of who the intended audience is.

Cambou likes to think that, foremost, it will teach many Santa Rosa schoolkids about the community they live in, encouraging them to “sink their roots a little deeper.” Beyond that, he'd be pleased for the piece to be viewed by adult residents and visitors and, perhaps, to deepen their appreciation of the place deemed by Luther Burbank as “the chosen spot of all the Earth as far as Nature is concerned.”

He hopes that sometime after the movie's premiere, it might be available for viewing on a loop somewhere in town.

A wine reception will accompany the first public screening, to happen at 6 p.m. Sept. 13 at the Roxy Stadium 14 theater. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing

Writer-producer Cambou will be there for a Q&A session to follow the screening. And he can't wait to behold his work up on the big screen.

After all those years in television, he said, “to see it in a movie theater will be a new experience.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and

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