Documentary highlights Newport Harbor High School as heartbeat of the community
Rick Chatillon can’t drive anywhere in Newport Beach without seeing the 99-foot-tall bell tower at Newport Harbor High School.
The original tower was built — along with the rest of the school — in 1930. The historic structure was subsequently demolished in 2007 when inspectors determined the bell tower wouldn’t be able to withstand a major earthquake. The tower was then rebuilt and reopened to the public in 2009.
But that tower, Chatillon said, is still as much of a pillar of the community as when he graduated in 1970 from the high school, which opened in 1930 and in the intervening years has seen almost four generations of students and any number of administrators, teachers and coaches.
It is for that reason that Chatillon and other members of the Newport Harbor High School Alumni Assn. said they named their 50-minute-long documentary on the school’s history and its relationship to surrounding Newport Beach and Costa Mesa “The Tower.”
The association announced earlier this month that it would be hosting a screening via Zoom on Sunday, June 6.
Interested readers can reserve a spot to watch the documentary at newportharboralumni.org/the-tower. The cost depends on what the viewer can afford, but all proceeds are going directly to the Newport Harbor High School Alumni Assn.'s scholarship fund.
The documentary spans the high school’s 90-year history and ends on the graduating class of 2021. It includes interviews and vignettes from past and present administrators, teachers, coaches and students.
“We wanted to cover all the changes that the school has seen and really encapsulate what the past 90 years have been like, not just for the high school but for the whole Newport-Mesa area as a whole,” said Sara Robinson, a 1997 graduate of the school who helped produce the film.
Inspiration for the documentary arose in 2014 when the organization started a Hall of Fame to honor graduates of Newport Harbor. Robinson said it was important to them to honor the founders of the school and the students who got it started. In the process, they discovered the depth of the history.
Robinson said the association decided to create a documentary. The first interviews were recorded in 2015, but it was a slow-rolling project until its eventual completion in April.
“The kind of storytelling that you can do on film is a really unique thing,” said Robinson. “I think we [realized] that we had them here live and in person and being able to capture them — their words, their memories, there’s something special about that that you can’t quite get from a picture or a written word; that really inspired us.”
Chatillon said he came onto the project in about 2014. He’d recently come off of completing a different documentary on surfing in Newport Beach when some of his former classmates asked him to make one on Newport Harbor High School.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK. Where does it start? What’s so interesting about it other than when I went there?’ I didn’t realize they’d put in Heritage Hall, which is the museum there,” said Chatillon.
“I started looking into it and researching and realized the enormity of everybody that had been the school there, all the history, where it was placed in the history of high schools in Orange County and Newport Beach and thought, ‘Well, this is a really great project,’” said Chatillon. “I dug into it and the rest is history.”
Early development was slow, though Chatillon said the project got revitalized in 2019 when his wife, Ann, joined on.
Alumni President Alan Gaddis said he joined onto the project in 2018 when he became the president after Gregg Kelly stepped down. He said he wasn’t very much involved in the project and didn’t really understand the scope of the film until he saw it.
“I thought I knew everything about [Newport Harbor]. It’s 50 minutes, and I feel like I do now know everything about Newport,” said Gaddis. “There’s no way you would get that from walking through a museum, looking at one artifact at one time. I’m excited about it. I’m excited for people to see it.”
“I think people who would consider themselves historians of the school, there is so much of it that they will not have seen before or had known about before,” said Gaddis.
Robinson said plans were to show the documentary in September last year on what would have been the school’s 90th anniversary, but those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic.
She added that the hope is to show the film on a bigger screen in the near future. For now, she said, Zoom will do. The modest cost of the viewing is to make the film as accessible as many people as possible.
Gaddis said the film focuses a lot on the faculty and staff at the schools in addition to the administrators and coaches.
“These people who are or were here for 20, 30 years there, they impact a generation of alumni and so with that said, they are kind of the school,” he added. “The tower is there. All the physical stuff is there, but ultimately, it is all of the teachers, administrators, coaches that make the memories and the fellow students, of course.”
“I think the other thing about the movie is that it’s really fun and funny. It’s lighthearted. It’s not a heavy documentary. I think we all sort of think of Newport as not thick and heavy as kind of a culture of lightheartedness. Where there’s generations of kids whose parents went here too and ... just a really community ... of beach-living Californians,” Gaddis said, laughing.
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