Where Were You In ’62?
August 11, 2020
When one thinks of Modesto, Californina, it is likely to be associated with an American experience which occurred primarily from the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Having a car had become a status symbol and driving it among one’s peers – or cruising as its known – became an essential element of growing up. On August 11, 1973, the film American Graffiti was released, serving to enshrine the cruiser phenomenon into our shared culture.
The film was a dark horse hit that year, capturing five academy award nominations including one for best picture. It was George Lucas’ first film, show-casing his talent as an ‘outside the box’ filmmaker.
The original budget was only $600,000, which forced Lucas to use mostly unknown actors, a limited film crew, and to secure low cost contracts for the music. The lack of money kept the film from having an original soundtrack, only two cameramen, and truly the launched the careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford.
To encapsulate the main plot, we turn to the Infallible Wikipedia:
“On their last evening of summer vacation in September 1962, recent high school graduates and longtime friends Curt Henderson and Steve Bolander meet two other friends, John Milner, the drag-racing king of the town, and Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields, in the parking lot of the local Mel’s Drive-In in Modesto, California. Curt and Steve are scheduled to travel ‘Back East’ the following morning to start college. Despite receiving a $2,000 scholarship from the local Moose Lodge, Curt has second thoughts about leaving Modesto. Steve gives Terry his 1958 Chevrolet Impala to care for until he returns at Christmas. Steve’s girlfriend, Laurie, who is also Curt’s sister, arrives in her car. Steve suggests to Laurie, who is already glum about him going to college, that they see other people while he is away to ‘strengthen’ their relationship. Though not openly upset, she is displeased, which affects their interactions the rest of the evening.”
Rather than have a main protagonist, Lucas saw the four main male characters has being equal, all based on various stages of his adolescent self. Although somewhat cliché’ now, the four loosely represent the college man, the popular guy, the nerd, and the greaser. The entire movie takes place during the one night and culminates the next morning with information as to what happens with each of the four. At the time it was a unique storytelling method.
As word started to get around Universal Studios that the film was good, funds were put in place for marketing and other studio support. It paid off. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Produced on a $777,000 budget, it has become one of the most profitable films of all time. Since its initial release, American Graffiti has garnered an estimated return well over $200 million in box-office gross and home video sales, not including merchandising. In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.”
Perhaps the thing I find most interesting about this film as well as others from the 1970’s (see my post from July 28th on the film Animal House; link below) is that the adults in charge at that time truly did not understand the impact the Baby Boomers exerted on the culture. 1973, the year that American Graffiti appeared, there were 37 million teenagers and another 21 million in the generation were ages 20 to 27. For those 58 million people the storylines in American Graffiti resonated.
On the day the movie was released I was 16 years old, possessed a ten day old driver’s license, and lived in a city where the cruising culture was king.
Everyone there knew the term “Dragging the Ave” which meant cruising up and down Yakima Avenue. Initially, I was forbidden by my parents to drive on the Ave after dark. But, being the youngest of four, the other three had done an outstanding job of bending the rules for me and I’m not sure what, exactly, happened, but by the time I was a junior in high school, I was a regular in the Friday and Saturday night promenades.
One thing I never did was drag the ‘Ave’ solo. I participated with a variety of friends, but my frequent partners in crime were my two best buddies who – to provide them a bit of anonymity – will henceforth be called by their aliases Deborah and Cynthia.
On the particular night which stands out, it was Deborah riding shotgun. A warm summer’s evening and the opportunity to see and be seen was at its best.
Now, in Yakima in the mid-1970’s, there were two major high schools: AC Davis and Dwight D. Eisenhower (IKE). Yes, there were other high schools in the surrounding communities, but those two were the biggies. We attended IKE.
To us, those who attended Davis were cross-town rivals and somewhat of a mystery; a forbidden fruit, if you will. Although we recognized a few who attended Davis, for the most part we didn’t know them and they didn’t know us.
So Deborah and I are driving along and, at one of the stoplights, a car carrying a couple of guys is idling next to my car and we engage in a shouted conversation between the two vehicles. Mostly it’s Deborah doing the talking out the passenger side window. There’s flirting and banter. The light changes, we drive on.
At the next light, or perhaps the one after, first names are exchanged. Then one of the guys says to Deborah, ‘what’s your last name?’
To which she replies, “Guess.”
The two of us giggle away as the guys venture forth with such answers as “Smith? Jones?”
Deborah replies, “Nope.”
More names are proffered then followed by the same question “what’s your last name?”
And the same answer “Guess.”
This went on for at least two runs up and down Yakima Avenue as the guys try to get us to stop and meet them in person. The name guessing continues until Deborah says to me “These guys are not very bright, are they?”
All because they kept asking the same question and never understanding that she was, in fact, telling them her last name. Every. Single. Time. By now you, the reader, should have ‘Guess’-ed it, but they never did.
Once we became bored with the game, I managed to ‘lose’ them and soon the night was over and by the time I was 19 or 20, ‘Dragging the Ave’ had lost its appeal, relegated to the status of a cultural reference.
Thanks to American Graffiti, that phenomenon is preserved. Future generations who happen upon the movie will, perhaps, regret that they did not live in the era of muscle cars, cheap gas, and summer nights dragging the Ave.
Although the tagline was ‘Where were you in ’62?’ it was the summer of ’73 and American Graffiti which was the defining year for the Baby Boomers.
Answer to the Facebook question: Van Nuys Blvd, Los Angeles. 1972