Graffiti season begins with rods and reminiscing

June 1, 2008 

The Faros triumphantly returned to 10th Street on Saturday, reclaiming, for a moment, the turf they once dominated so many years ago.

Brian Murray and Daryl Weitl and Dennis Billington and Jerry Jackman, Faros all, enjoyed a beer and all the "cherry rides" and "muscle cars" that once again filled what used to be Modesto's "main drag."

The stories flashed and danced and dazzled, leaping from the past -- many of them raked and chopped, and, in some cases, completely rebuilt -- just like the old Chevys and Buicks and Fords that first inspired them.

Yep. It's "Graffiti Season," all right.

How else do you explain all the Elvis impersonators and poodle skirts seen wandering around the street outside the State Theatre?

Inside the refurbished movie house, members of the Faros, one of Modesto's celebrated car clubs, as well as car buffs, film experts and critics and a handful of Hollywood personalities -- held court, poking and prodding the 1973 movie responsible for Modesto's annual cruise down memory lane, "American Graffiti."

The movie, by Modesto native son George Lucas, focuses on the waning hours of the "Summer of 1962" -- one last night of fun for the high school grads about to take their first reluctant steps into adulthood.

The movie featured a young and talented cast, including Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and Candy Clark, and a world-class cinematographer, Haskell Wexler.

But it well may have been the music -- the rock-n-roll and doo-wop of the 1950s and early '60s -- that was behind its initial popularity and the reason for its staying power.

Without that music, said Wendy Lucas, one of several speakers Saturday, there wouldn't have been a film. Wexler and Clark also were on hand at the State to talk about the movie.

Lucas, the filmmaker's sister, said her brother waged a fierce battle with the movie studio over the music.

The film cost $750,000 to make, she said, with $90,000 of that figure -- more than 10 percent of the budget -- spent on the rights for the film's wall-to-wall music.

That the movie continues to resonate with audiences 35 years after its release also speaks to a longing for a return to a simpler time.

At least that's the way Lucas sees it.

During that brief period depicted in the movie -- after the Eisenhower years and before the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the escalation of the Vietnam War -- Lucas said "life was simple (and) fun. It was safe."

Cars and music and girls -- or boys, as the case may be -- were the hot topics of the day.

Cheryl Skavdahl said she and her friends cruised every Friday and Saturday night during their high school years.

"You would pull up to someone at a stoplight and roll down your windows and talk," she said. "Then we go over to the A&W and talk some more. We'd drive around and around for hours."

Custom car builders like Gene Winfield, who grew up in Modesto, were idolized.

Winfield was among those who spoke Saturday afternoon.

His presentation included a slide show depicting his automotive creations, many of which were used in movies and television shows.

Now 80, Winfield continues to build custom cars at his shop near Mojave.

Though car clubs -- Winfield helped found Modesto's first car club, the Century Toppers -- have been around since the late 1940s, they seemed to have peaked during the early 1960s.

"We were a social club, really," Weitl said of his years with the Faros. "It was a way for us to do things with cars, drink a little beer and have fun."

Murray, Jackman and Billington agreed.

"And don't forget chasing girls," Murray said with a laugh. "Your car and your girl, well, they were objects of pride."

Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.

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