JARDINE: Linked to Lucas by more than Graffiti statue

June 6, 2013 

— While working on the statue that now graces Lucas Plaza at Modesto's Five Points, sculptor Betty Saletta more than anything wanted to meet the man whose movie so perfectly captured the cruising era.

So in February 1997, she typed a letter to George Lucas, "American Graffiti" filmmaker and Modesto native. She invited him to visit her studio near Oakdale, to see the statue before she cast it in bronze.

Input? Suggestions?

Saletta worked closely with Frank Damrell, a longtime Modesto attorney who went on to become a federal court judge in Sacramento. He spearheaded the statue project, but it was her creation.

"Frank wanted a whole '57 Chevy," she said. "I said, 'Oh, Frank … you don't want to do that."

Saletta is a well-known local sculptor whose works also include the Paper Boy statue in McClatchy Park, the Cowboy in front of the Oakdale Cowboy Museum, Chief Estanislao in Courthouse Park downtown, the Nurse at Memorial Medical Center, the Mountain Man along Scenic Drive and many others.

All are special to her. The Lucas Statue at Five Points features a portion of the Chevy, with a young man and woman hanging out during a typical midsummer night's cruise.

"If you are interested in inspecting the work, please let me know approximately when," she closed her letter to Lucas, mailing it to his studios in San Rafael.

About two weeks later, she received a reply from his personal secretary, Ann Merrifield.

"While he appreciated the sincerity of your request, unfortunately, his production schedule won't permit him to inspect the sculpture (he is getting ready to film three new 'Star Wars' movies).

"We know the statue will be wonderful, and you have our best wishes for success with it."

Oh, well, Saletta thought. It was worth a shot.

"You'll never catch a fish if you don't throw a line in the water," she said.

Her consolation prize arrived a few days after Modesto officials dedicated Lucas Plaza and Saletta's statue in July 1997. She received a letter written and signed by Lucas himself.

"News of the Modesto celebration reached all the way to London," he began. "I hear it was quite a special night and a very successful event. I'm sorry that I was unable to participate in the festivities."

He noted that he'd seen one of the maquettes, or miniatures of the statue, before leaving for England, and that it passed muster.

"I understand from my sister, Kate (Nyegaard), that the actual life-size sculpture captured the essence of the teenagers with their innocence leaping out at you — even the '57 Chevy had life," he wrote.

He finished by telling her he planned to visit the statue with his children upon his return to the States and to Modesto.

"I'm sure that seeing the sculpture and feeling its spirit will inspire me to cruise 10th and McHenry one more time. Warmest regards, George Lucas."

That's exactly what he'll do today as grand marshal of the Graffiti parade.

S o she never got to meet him, right? Are you kidding? Hollywood endings don't work that way.

One day maybe 10 years ago, Saletta visited her daughter, Kamber, who lives in Marin County.

"We were in a shopping center and I saw (Lucas) walk by," Saletta said. "I was sure it was him. Kamber said, 'Don't bother him. People here see him all the time. Respect his privacy.' "

Fine, but most other people didn't sculpt the statue that stands in his honor in the plaza named for him in the town where he was born.

"I walked up next to him in a McDonald's," Saletta said. "I said, 'Are you who I think you are?' He said, 'Probably.' "

She introduced herself as the sculptor of his statue and the recipient of his letter.

"He remembered it and he said he liked it," Saletta said. "We chatted and he was so pleasant."

Saletta hasn't talked to Lucas since, nor has she attempted to. She might get a glimpse of him at the weekend's festivities, along with tens of thousands of others who will attend in the predicted 100-degree-plus heat.

No matter. They're forever linked by a statue, his signature beneath his words on LucasFilm Ltd. letterhead and a chance meeting in a Marin McDonald's.

And for Saletta, the metal, mementos and moment are as good as, well, bronze.

Jeff Jardine's column appears in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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