MODESTO — Seems you can go home again, and doing it while riding in an 1946 apricot-colored Mercury convertible and waving at sidewalks packed with thousands of welcoming fans doesn't hurt, either.
Modesto native son and iconic moviemaker George Lucas made his first public return to his hometown in some 40 years Friday night, whisking in to accept an armful of awards and serve as grand marshal of the North Modesto Kiwanis American Graffiti Classic Car Parade.
Lucas spent a little more than three hours in the public eye during his homecoming, first sitting down for about a dozen media interviews to mostly Modesto and Sacramento-based outlets, but he also piqued the interest of The New York Times, which sat down for an interview with him at the event in the Gallo Center for the Arts while crowds gathered outside to the revving of car engines.
The famously private filmmaker, who still has a key to the city given to him decades ago when "American Graffiti" first came out and he made his last public appearance in town, returned as a favor to his youngest sister, Wendy Lucas.
"My sister, the small one the really small one, grabbed my arm and put it behind my back and almost broke my arm a couple of years ago, and I said, 'OK, OK. I'll do it. What is that, a couple years from now?' And so here I am," he said.
Wendy Lucas has helped provide information that is part of the kiosks throughout downtown Modesto last year that mark city's historic cruise route.
Lucas' appearance at the 40th anniversary of his nostalgic ode to cars and cruising began with a brief appearance on the bed of a vintage truck used as a stage. He accepted honor after honor, from the North Modesto Kiwanis Club, Modesto Historic Cruise Route committee and Mayor Garrad Marsh.
One of them was the very first sidewalk plaque to be placed on the Legends of the Cruise Walk Hall of Fame along 10th street. Lucas deemed it "better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard."
"It's a great honor to be back here," he said. "I spent a a great deal of my life on this street. My father's store, business, was right in that building (the Black Building along I Street) right there in the corner. For 20 years, I was roaming in the streets here both in my bike, running around, and also in my car. So I am very happy to be where the inspiration for my movie came from. And it's great to see you all. I'm glad you are continuing to keep the ritual going."
Then, a little after 7 p.m., it was time to make the 16-block slow cruise around downtown Modesto, from 10th to 17th streets along I and J. A handful of dignitaries kicked off the parade, but the crowd's cameras all were trained on Lucas dressed in his trademark long-sleeve plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy boots sitting atop the back of the open convertible.
Cell phones, cameras, iPads were trained on him throughout his trip. As his car passed, a wave of screams of "We love you, George!" "Welcome home!" and "May the Force be with you!" could be a heard
Handmade signs were hoisted and young children were quickly informed as to why their parents were so excited to see the gray-haired man pass by.
Lucas, who never has been one to court the press, did stop to sign some autographs for lucky fans as he was getting into and out of his car. Earlier in the evening, he also met with a group of young filmmakers from his alma mater, the University of Southern California, as well as the University of the Pacific and the Academy of Art, that had been part of the historic cruise route project, putting together the documentary videos that went with the Lucas-centered placards.
Lucas now divides his time between his Marin home and Chicago, where his fiancée, Mellody Hobson, is from. Hobson came with Lucas to Modesto and joined him on his second lap of downtown Modesto in the convertible.
The scene undoubtedly was not the first time Lucas drove the Modesto streets with a lady by his side. But he said he doesn't have any particular favorite memory from his days driving along 10th Street.
"Cruising is kind of like fishing. You know, unless you are out in the San Joaquin River and you happen to catch a shark, there are no great moments," he said. "Mostly, it's just sitting around talking and having a good time and occassionally you get a fish, but it's never that exciting."
But for the crowd, the second time around was just as good as spectators scrambled to get the perfect shot of Lucas as he rolled by, hoping for a wave or a nod. The more than 1,000 cars in the parade began to fill in behind him as he started his second lap, providing a roaring soundtrack to his last loop.
As Lucas completed his second lap, his driver took them down 10th street to greet all the drivers still waiting to get onto the parade route and were lined up all the way to E Street.
Then, a little after 8 p.m., it was back to 10th and I streets, where a black Lincoln Towncar was idling, and after a few more quick autographs and hugs with his sisters (Wendy Lucas and Kate Nyegaard), he was whisked away again out of the public eye behind the darkened glass, watching a Modesto very different than the town he memorialized 40 years ago on film pass by.
"(Modesto) was different 40 years ago, and the film is locked in time," he said. "It was made 10 years after the events, but even a lot changed in 10 years. But the movie is about change. It was made to make you accept how fast things change."