Marijke Rowland

June 26, 2014

Rowland: Windy city steals away California’s Lucas legacy

By George, he has gone and done it.

By George, he has gone and done it.

This week, it became official: Modesto native son and longtime Bay Area denizen George Lucas has picked the Midwestern city of Chicago as the new home to his massive collection of art and movie memorabilia. The legendary filmmaker had long wanted his signature museum to sit in a prime spot near Crissy Field in the Presidio. But officials in San Francisco scrapped that plan, offering Lucas first a smaller site in the national park and then a waterfront spot just south of the Bay Bridge.

Instead, Lucas chose Chicago, the home of his wife, Mellody Hobson, to hang his formidable $700 million project. His museum is now slated to sit on 17-acre plot of land on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The ultimate reason for his decision to pick Chicago over San Francisco (and Los Angeles, which got into the wooing game after the City by the Bay’s initial rejection of his plan) might boil down to simple economics. Chicago Mayor Mayor Rahm Emanuel lobbied hard for the museum to move to his Windy City and offered the plot for a lease of just $1 a year. In San Francisco, Lucas would have had to shell out some $30 million or more to buy the port property.

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, Lucas said, “Choosing Chicago is the right decision for the museum, but a difficult decision for me personally because of my strong personal and professional roots in the Bay Area.”

This is great news for Chicago, lousy news for San Francisco, and déjà vu for Modesto. (We won’t comment on what it means to L.A., because – let’s face it – we’re pretty much happy when anyone beats L.A.)

When you think legacy, you automatically have to think back. Lucas’ legacy is in the stars – filled with lightsabers and pod racers and those galaxies so far, far away. But it was undeniably built in California. He grew up in Modesto. He went to college in Los Angeles. He made his movies partly in Marin County. California made George Lucas, and he made wonderful things here in return.

Chicago, well, his wife of just over a year lives there. He says he considers the city his second home. But is second – second choice, second home – really good enough? Is the heartland city really where Lucas wants to forever leave his heart and legacy?

Guess so.

There were dreamers among us who had hoped against hope that Lucas might cast a glance at his old hometown of Modesto for his museum. We’ve had opinion columns and letters to the editor stating as such recently. But those of us who have lived here for any length of time knew that was never going to happen. Such public sentimentality for the places of his past is apparently not a priority for Lucas.

The filmmaking icon has made exceedingly rare public appearances back in Modesto since he rocketed to fame. He and then fiancée Hobson graciously waved and smiled to the crowd when Lucas was grand marshal of last year’s American Graffiti Classic Car Parade. But until then his trips back to the Valley where he was raised and his three sisters still live were the stuff of rumor. He did not attend the 1997 dedication of the statue of two teens resting on a Chevy hood at his namesake Lucas Plaza. (He was in London filming “Phantom Menace” at the time.)

I had the good fortune to interview him, twice. And both times, he acknowledged the city as a fine place to grow up, but when asked if any inspiration was drawn from Modesto to ultimately create his movie masterpieces, his answer was simply, “No, not really.”

As he told me back in 2005 when we were talking about the last of his “Star Wars” prequels, “Revenge of the Sith,” “You don’t really make movies about the way you grew up.”

Then again, last year, when asked how Modesto influenced some of his more popular works, he said, “Most of these things come out of your imagination.”

But there was one movie, set in 1963 and released in 1973, where we know our town’s influence on the moviemaker can undeniably be felt. “American Graffiti,” his ode to cars and cruising, remains the one blip of nostalgia on Lucas’ storied career.

So now, people from the places that helped nurture him will be traveling more than 1,500 miles to see the monument he is building to his own artistic legacy.

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