Ventura Ready for Its Close-Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you tune in the TV show "Melrose Place," you may spot Ventura's wooden pier. And if you rent the movie, "The Two Jakes," you might recognize the stately council chambers of Ventura City Hall.

Ventura has a long history of popping up on the big screen. Ever since the silent picture days, movie crews have shot on location here. For the inside story on Ventura's Hollywood history, you can take a walking tour of downtown Saturday led by historian Richard Senate. The tour begins at City Hall at 1 p.m. and costs $6.

Ventura can't claim Santa Paula's popularity with filmmakers, but it's had its moments in the lights. And those moments are more frequent.

"In the last year it's increased phenomenally," Senate said. One day last week three films were being shot at City Hall, a favorite location.

"The tradition dates back to the birth of the cinema business," some 85 years ago, Senate said. In 1911, a silent western called "Mission Waif" was shot in Ventura by French movie maker Gaston Melies--the older brother of film pioneer George Melies. Their film company, Star Film, had an American base in Santa Paula.

Two years later, Gaston Melies shot another silent film at Ventura's historic Olivas Adobe. "The Gringo Strikes" featured a Robin Hood-like character in old Mexico.

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Ventura showed up again in 1922, Senate said, when "Pride of Palomar"--bankrolled by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Pictures--filmed a horse race at the fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds appeared on screen again in 1927, when football great Red Grange starred in "Racing Romeo," a saga about a young race car driver. During the racing scene, one of the cars careened out of control, plowing through bales of hay and a wooden fence, finally ramming into a Packard owned by a local judge.

"Paramount bought the judge a new car," Senate said.

During these years, Ventura also became a popular spot for stars escaping the glare of Hollywood. "They could come up here and get away from people," Senate said. Gloria Swanson walked the streets of downtown Ventura. Comedian Fatty Arbuckle got a speeding ticket on Main Street in the 1920s. Theda Bara, the "vamp" who played a steamy Cleopatra, stayed at the Ventura Hotel and was hounded by local reporters.

Even today, Ventura's pier and its ornate City Hall (formerly the county courthouse) remain favorite filming spots. But shooting goes on all over the city.

In 1981, the Buena High School marching band appeared in the science fiction cult film, "A Boy and His Dog," which was shot at Arroyo Verde Park. But the band members weren't terribly recognizable beneath their layers of white makeup.

Perhaps the most memorable Hollywood encounter was with Jack Nicholson, who stayed at Bella Maggiore Inn for about a month in 1989 while filming parts of "The Two Jakes," the sequel to "Chinatown," at City Hall.

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The filmmakers paid the city about $40,000 to use City Hall, especially the City Council chambers, which became a courtroom in the movie. As a gesture of goodwill, officials wanted to give Nicholson a key to the city, Senate said. But the actor, also the director, ungraciously responded: "We don't accept that kind of crap." City officials were miffed, but the unpleasantness blew over after Nicholson apologized.

Since then, the city has been the setting for numerous movies, many of them forgettable: "Jeffrey Dahmer: The Secret Life," "The Babysitter," "Death Benefits."

Earlier this year, actress Sandra Bullock tried her hand at directing an independent film, "Making Sandwiches," which used a restaurant on Seaward Avenue near the beach as a location.

The city has been the backdrop for scads of commercials as well--featuring everything from cars to aspirin to beer. TV crews pop up here too, with two of the most regular shows being the syndicated "High Tide" and "It Could Be a Miracle." And when or if the upcoming police show "Lady Law" begins its run, don't be surprised if a little of Ventura shows up. Crews from the show were shooting here last week.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Hollywood Ventura Tour.

* WHERE: 1-3 p.m. Saturday.

* WHEN: Ventura City Hall, at California and Poli streets.

* HOW MUCH: $6 per person. Reservations recommended, but not required.

* CALL: 658-4726.

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