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Thousands attend Petaluma classic car tribute to 'American Graffiti'

PETALUMA (KPIX) -- Saturday morning, thousands gathered in Petaluma to salute "American Graffiti." Many of them brought their classic cars to pay tribute to a movie classic. Reportedly filmed in 28 days with a budget below $850,000, it's now on the American Film Institute list of the top 100 movies of all time.

In 1972, the young film director George Lucas set out to make a movie about his life as a teenager in the Central Valley town of Modesto. With a backdrop of the 60s car-cruising culture and a soundtrack of classic rock 'n' roll, the film became an anthem about the hard choices of growing up. 

"It's that era of, like, you're changing from going to school to not going to school," said event organizer John Furrer. "It's the fact that I'm graduating from high school, what am I going to do next?"

The film struck a nerve with the Baby Boom generation, making American Graffiti one of the most popular movies of all time and Saturday, almost exactly 50 years from the day Lucas began filming, Petaluma hosted a tribute car show on the streets where movie crew assembled.

Furrer remembers watching it.

"At that time, it was not really a big deal," he recalled. "They blocked the streets off for a couple days and it made the newspaper once. Probably more of an inconvenience for all the people."

Lucas started filming in San Rafael but, as the story goes, a local bar owner complained that it was hurting business so the production was moved to Petaluma. While much of the action revolves around Mel's Drive-in (a real place) Mel's wasn't in San Rafael or Petaluma. That particular Mel's was actually located at 140 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

The movie made stars of most of the young cast, including Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and Bo Hopkins.

Candy Clark, who was signing autographs in Petaluma Saturday, got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the bleach-blond party girl "Debbie." Clark said it's every actor's dream to be in a film that stands the test of time.

"It's like being in the "Wizard of Oz" or "Gone With the Wind," she said. "It's forever."

Mackenzie Phillips was only 12 years old when she played Carol, a young girl who spends the evening cruising with local drag race king John Milner, played by Paul Le Mat. These days, Phillips said she is still amazed by how connected the audience is to the movie.

"It's a community that's been created by a movie," she said. "I am constantly amazed, inspired and honored to have even been a part of it."

Equally important are the cars -- chief among them Milner's yellow, chop-top '32 Deuce Coupe. Jeff Zastrow owns an exact replica of the car as well as a black '55 Chevy, just like the one a young Harrison Ford is driving when he challenges Milner to a race.

"I like my hot rods," Zastrow said. "I've always liked them. As a kid I had fast cars and stuff like that."

He said the actual "Deuce" from the movie is owned by a man in San Francisco who keeps it in a heated garage.

"And the original Deuce now is well into the millions, you know, dollar-wise."

Cars are changing and so is the way young people socialize so Zastrow wonders how long the movie will stay relevant. He said he's just happy he can bring his cars to Petaluma to help others remember what it was like wherever they grew up.

"That's what we did in those days," he said. "And I can look back at that movie and say, 'I did that.'"

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