Backlot San Pedro

The Street With No Name (1948) featured the old Ferry Building.

The city of San Pedro has a list of television and film credits that would make any A-list celebrity green with envy and warrant at least three lifetime achievement awards; credits that span the history of filmmaking in California.

In 1910, famed director, D.W. Griffith, is credited with filming the very first movie in Hollywood. That same year, Griffith directed Mary Pickford in the Unchanging Sea, a Biograph Short shot along the Southern California coastline that included San Pedro. This would be the first of a number of films that would bring America’s Sweetheart to the Port Town, the most notable of which was the Little American, the motion picture telling of the sinking of the Lusitania. Under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford jumps from the sinking ship into the frigid night waters of the San Pedro Bay.

Charlie Chaplin, co-founder of United Artists with Ms. Pickford, also spent some time filming in and around San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles. A Day’s Pleasure (1919), a First National Films short, showed Chaplin’s famous Tramp character driving his family to the waterfront to enjoy a day out on a harbor cruise. The film gives us a rare glimpse of the Fifth Street landing pier next to the Southern Pacific Passenger Station. Chaplin’s character dances on the top deck of the pleasure boat as the San Pedro coastline bobs around in the background. For Modern Times (1936), one of Chaplin’s more popular feature-length films, an entire street scene was built somewhere along the waterfront and Paulette Goddard can be seen running across boats outside of the French Sardine Company.

Jean Harlow visits the SP Chamber of Commerce.

Because San Pedro was still in its youth during the silent era, most filming utilized the working waterfront, the natural coastline or the waters of the San Pedro Bay. Writer Jack London played a bit role in the 1913 film version of his novel, The Sea Wolf. The first feature length film, The Squaw Man (1914) included scenes along the San Pedro waterfront. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand wake to have their coastal love nest taking on water in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916). Scenes of the couple standing on the house, roof deep in water, were filmed off the coast of what would now be considered the outer portion of Cabrillo Beach. The very first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), dressed the coastline like a jungle for Olympian Elmo Lincoln to swing around in. Silent era heartthrob, Rudolph Valentino, dives into action to save a floundering Gloria Swanson in Beyond the Rocks (1922), their only picture together.

The Golden Era

The studio system ruled Hollywood during the golden era of filmmaking from the 1930s thru the 1950s. The need for the studios to produce content to fill their movie theaters ramped up production and ultimately location shooting in San Pedro, not only along and on the waterfront, but now reaching into the city limits.

One of the most famous movies to film in San Pedro during this era was the original King Kong (1933). The first shots taken for the movie, the landing party’s arrival, took place on a stretch of beach in San Pedro. The live action portion of Kong getting gas bombed was also filmed during that time.

Chinatown (1974) featured Point Fermin.

The golden era also saw the rise in the popularity of the military themed movies, primarily the navy. This could have been due to the events leading to World War II and the close proximity of the Pacific Fleet to Hollywood while it was based here in San Pedro. Clara Bow played a dance hall hostess in The Fleet’s In (1928). Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler made a couple of movies together here, Flirtation Walk (1934) and Shipmates Forever (1935). Joan Blondell also filmed Miss Pacific Fleet in 1935 in San Pedro, possibly at the same time Dick Powell was in town. The following year, on September 19, 1936, Powell and Blondell married aboard a ship in San Pedro.

The military movies didn’t have a monopoly on San Pedro screen time; some big time Hollywood stars found themselves taking on some local flavor. San Pedrans must have thought the movie Riffraff (1936) hit a little too close to home when Spencer Tracy played a fisherman who marries a cannery worker played by Jean Harlow. Miss Harlow even appeared at a local function at the Jugoslav hall that year and presented the Chamber of Commerce with a cake to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Friedrich March and Carole Lombard fall in love after plunging into port waters in Nothing Sacred (1936). In another movie with a storyline familiar to San Pedrans, John Wayne played a Norwegian seaman who gets shanghaied and rescued by his shipmates in The Long Voyage Home (1940).

To Live and Die in LA (1985) featured the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Hollywood didn’t stop making movies during the war years. San Pedro being home to an active Army base, Fort MacArthur, made it an even more sought after location. There were quite a few movies that capitalized on the close proximity of the army base, including Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Buck Privates Come Home (1947), starring the comedy team of Abbott & Costello. This is the Army (1943), was almost entirely filmed at the upper reservation of Fort MacArthur. The movie starred future president Ronald Reagan, future senator George Murphy and a host of entertainers who were all enlisted in the army at the time. When the film was released, a premiere was held at the theater on the grounds of Fort MacArthur.

Film noir made its way to San Pedro in 1948 with the film, The Street with No Name. A brief chase scene through the municipal ferry building is so important historically for San Pedrans because the ferry ceased operation in 1963 and the building now houses the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. This is a prime example of the unintentional benefits of filming in San Pedro, the town’s history being preserved on film.

The Small Screen

With forty years of film experience under its belt, the city of San Pedro transitioned to the small screen effortlessly. While the show Waterfront (1954) was one of the first shows to film in San Pedro, The Fugitive was one of the most famous television shows to first start filming in San Pedro during the 1960s. The 1970s and 80s brought about the advent of the cop series. Name a cop show or private investigator television series and it probably filmed in San Pedro. Mod Squad, The Rookies, Adam-12, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, Mannix, The Rockford Files, Baretta, Starsky & Hutch, Murder She Wrote, Kojak, Columbo, Knight Rider, TJ Hooker, MacGyver and The A-Team. The draw for these shows to come and film in San Pedro included the waterfront and port, but they were also the first to venture into the downtown area and some of the old neighborhoods. The aging brick buildings and what was left of Beacon Street lent credibility to the crime the cops and private eyes were battling. The classic look of the municipal building for a police headquarters didn’t hurt matters either.

1980s television series Highway to Heaven gets festive on 7th Street.

The Love Boat was another television hit that put San Pedro on the map. The Princess Cruise ship that was used in the show, left from the Los Angeles World Cruise Center south of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Every week the guest stars would start and end the show in front of the cruise ship terminal.

Other notable television shows that have filmed in San Pedro include: Highway to Heaven, General Hospital, Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Power Rangers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Angel, The X-Files, 24, Prison Break, Heroes and Charmed.

There are two current and widely popular shows that have filmed in San Pedro recently, Dexter and Mad Men. Dexter, a Showtime series now in its final season, has filmed here from the inception of the series, creatively shooting around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to make it look like Dexter’s home of Miami. Mad Men, which will begin its final season in 2014, has shot a couple of episodes in the Point Fermin area of San Pedro, but instead of pretending to be another location, Don Draper calls San Pedro by name.

Blockbusters & Big Names

Any article on San Pedro filming locations would be incomplete if it didn’t include certain films. Chinatown (1974) is usually one of the first films to be associated with San Pedro filming locations. Not only was the movie partially filmed in town, in the Point Fermin and Sunken City areas, but also Robert Towne, a man who grew up in San Pedro and whose family ran a business on 6th St. in downtown, wrote the movie. The film’s star, Jack Nicholson, would also star in A Few Good Men (1992) that used both the Coast Guard Station on Reservation Point and the upper reservation of Fort MacArthur. Nicholson’s co-stars included Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Keifer Sutherland, and Kevin Pollack.

The Rock (1996) explodes in downtown on 7th Street.

Pollack would return to San Pedro three years later as part of the cast of The Usual Suspects (1995) that also included Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Spacey. It could be argued that Spacey won his first Academy Award for the performance he gave on Beacon Street in San Pedro during that film.

The following year, San Pedro got its first taste of the Michael Bay treatment with a huge fiery crash in the middle of downtown. Nicolas Cage, who holds the record for most features filmed in San Pedro, co-starred with Sean Connery in The Rock (1996), that chase scene making a lasting impression on the town. The last film that bears mentioning is the cult classic, The Big Lebowski (1998). The scene where John Goodman spreads the ashes and it blows into Jeff Bridges’ face was shot inside of the ruins of Sunken City.

There are so many more movies and television shows that could be mentioned, and every year more are filmed here (Clint Eastwood was just here a couple of weeks ago, directing the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Jersey Boys). Most San Pedrans take it for granted, some love the bragging rights, but San Pedrans and Angelenos alike should be grateful to filmmakers for preserving their heritage on film for future generations to enjoy. spt

A Film Festival For The Community

Ziggy Mrkich and Renee O'Connor, co-directorsof SPIFF (photo by John Mattera)

It was founded to celebrate the diverse culture and community of San Pedro, and after its successful inaugural event last October, the San Pedro International Film Festival is back for its second annual event.

San Pedro has always had a rich film history, in fact, several movies — the original King Kong, Chinatown, The Usual Suspects, Pearl Harbor, and (500) Days of Summer — and television shows — NCIS, Mad Men and Dexter — have been shot on the streets of the city.

It’s the films, and the community of San Pedro, that the San Pedro International Film Festival was founded to celebrate, and founder Ziggy Mrkich proved last year that she is up for the job.

Mrkich is no stranger to the film festival circuit, she has more than a decade of festival involvement on her resume, and after a successful inaugural event, she is “very excited,” for this year’s festivities.

“We had a very successful first year,” she says. “And I am dedicated to continuing this festival and continuing to showcase films, really good films, from the festival circuit.”

“San Pedro has a long and rich history in the cinematic arts. With dozens of feature films, television shows and commercials shot here every year, it’s fitting that we now are host to a festival that celebrates the city’s diverse culture and community, and its contributions to film,” says Los Angeles City Councilman, Joe Buscaino.

Last year’s event, which drew more than 700 people, was the Los Angeles premier of Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The film went on to win several major awards, including Lawrence’s Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

“I was very surprised, but extremely happy to acquire the film as part of our first year,” Mrkich says. “We were very proud to have had the opportunity to be the first in the area to screen it.”

This year’s festival will feature screenings of both documentaries and short films. Mrkich says they received more than 550 submissions. One of the hardest parts of the festival planning is securing feature films for the weekend, she says.

“I handpick the feature films based on the attention the films are getting at other festivals, namely the Toronto Film Festival,” she says. “In addition, I really try to include films that are already getting Oscar buzz.”

She says oftentimes it is difficult to secure the films, but it’s this that makes her job “exciting.”

“It’s actually really very hard to secure feature films,” she says. “I do get a lot of ‘No’s,’ but programming isn’t easy at any festival, but it all works out in the end, you just have to know going into it that you will not get to screen every film you want.”

The workload lightened a bit this year for Mrkich when she brought Renee O’Connor on board.

The duo says the goal of this year’s festival is to “provide a service to the community by attracting new visitors to San Pedro, and exposing them to films they may otherwise not see.”

O’Connor, a director, producer and actress best known for her role as Gabrielle in the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, is facilitating the filmmakers for various panels. She says the panels will include information on producing small and large budget independent films.

“I am passionate about helping fellow filmmakers,” she says. “These panels will allow for future filmmakers to be in the same room as current filmmakers — it’s oftentimes hard to get into the industry, and this will provide an opportunity for people to share their experience of how they did it.”

The San Pedro International Film Festival is featuring screenings at the historic Warner Grand Theatre, as well as new outdoor screenings, pop-up screenings and a special screening aboard the newest addition to San Pedro, the historic Navy battleship, the U.S.S. Iowa.

In addition, Mrkich and O’Connor will be paying tribute to legendary filmmaker Tony Scott, who died in San Pedro last August.

Scott, a renowned presence in Hollywood, spent over 40 years working in the business, carving out a career as both a director and producer. Top Gun, arguably his best-known film, starring Tom Cruise, grossed more than $350 worldwide.

Scott also directed Days of Thunder (also starring Tom Cruise), Beverly Hills Cop II, True Romance, Crimson Tide (starring Denzel Washington), and Spy Game (starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt), among many others.

“The tribute will include a brief retrospective of Scott’s work and his contributions to the San Pedro community,” O’Connor says. “Tony Scott shot several films in San Pedro, and has a very strong tie to this community and we want to honor that, and thank him for his contributions to the city.”

Scott’s family, including widow, Donna Scott, is expected to be in attendance.

O’Connor and Mrkich say they are “overly excited” about this year’s festival. “This is the community’s festival,” Mrkich says. “We have an open door for people who want to volunteer or be involved — this is a festival for the community, and that is why we are including a local program.”

O’Connor says that anyone who has never been to a festival should experience it just once. “This is a great opportunity to come and experience what a film festival can create,” she says. “You can come in off the street and sit down and be right next to the person who wrote and directed the film you are about to see — it’s wonderful.”

Mrkich adds, “The San Pedro International Film Festival is a win-win for audiences and filmmakers. We support filmmakers by providing an audience and platform for films, and the audience can see films they otherwise might have missed.” spt

The San Pedro International Film Festival will take place the weekend of October 4-6 at various venues in downtown San Pedro. This special edition of San Pedro Today includes the complete program and schedule for the festival. For more news and info, visit www.spiffest.org.

Lights! Camera! Action!

Councilman Joe Buscaino and LAHIFF’s Stephanie Mardesich at the festival’s 10th anniversary press launch

Stephanie Mardesichloves movies.

If not for her passion for the cinema, the ebullient director and founder of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival may not have been able to carry the event through to its 10th anniversary this year.

“A decade is a significant epoch and though I don’t feel older, clearly ten years has passed,” she says of the milestone.

As Mardesich describes it, the LAHIFF has always been a celebration of film. Unlike more relevant film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest or Toronto, which are geared towards new and independent films looking for distribution, the LAHIFF prides itself on celebrating films from both past generations and more contemporary times, with a strong focus on children’s education thrown in.

“The motivation to continue corresponds to the values instilled by my parents to persevere, to strive for excellence as its own reward, to be an individual of conviction, and to never give up on something or someone as long as there is some hope for a positive outcome,” says Mardesich. “It’s better to try and fail than succeed at nothing, as a friend once told me. In spite of challenges we have continued and now have a ten-year record.”

Back in 2003, the idea of establishing a film festival in San Pedro wasn’t a far-fetched one. The town already had an iconic theater to host it, perfectly set in the heart of downtown. Not to mention, San Pedro already had a rich history of being used as Hollywood’s backdrop. From classic films such as Chinatown, to popular current television series like Mad Men, San Pedro has become synonymous with film production.

“Stephanie and I were at a San Pedro Chamber mixer at Ports O’ Call Restaurant and we were chatting with the late Gary Cox about how San Pedro should have a film festival,” recalls Jack Baric, an original co-founder of the festival who has since stepped away. “Stephanie really took the conversation to heart and immediately started working on getting a festival launched. She has been generous enough to include calling me a co-founder, but truthfully she put forth all the effort in launching the festival and has kept it going since then.”

Left: Russ Tamblyn and Academy Award winner George Chakiris, co-stars of West Side Story, at the 2009 festival. Right: Mardesich with actress Betty Garrett and host Tom Hatten at the inaugural festival in 2004

The inaugural festival launched on April 30, 2004, and included such films as The Perfect Storm, the 2000 drama starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based on Sebastian Junger‘s best-selling book, the 1949 musical comedy Neptune’s Daughter, starring Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Ricardo Montalban, and an afternoon screening of Disney’s The Little Mermaid for the kids.

Other films featured at the festival throughout the decade include The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), South Pacific (1958), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and West Side Story (1961), among others.

In 2006, the LAHIFF hosted the world premiere of Baric’s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, which brought a near capacity crowd to the Warner Grand that year.

“When I think of what the festival has become, I just think of Stephanie and how she has persevered in keeping it going,” says Baric. “It is not an easy thing to keep a festival running year after year and yet she has done it, which is a compliment to her passion.”

Mardesich’s other passion is education. Her late mother, Lee, was a teacher at Bandini Street Elementary School and instilled in her family the importance of reading. Mardesich used that inspiration to establish the “Read the Book, See the Movie” (RBSM) program, which has become the cornerstone of the film festival.

“From the beginning, it was clear LAHIFF should have an education element for students,” remembers Mardesich. “It’s so simple. Pick a book that has a film attached. We’ve been focusing on classic literature, but the choices are infinite. Read the book and talk about the differences in the two genres. It’s a more thoughtful way to encourage literacy.”

Every year, one film adaptation of a classic novel is chosen for the RBSM program. Publishing sponsors Penguin and Puffin Classics donated 1,200 paperback copies of the book that are distributed to students from middle school to adult education classes. Participating schools include: John & Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, Dana Middle School, Rolling Hills Renaissance School, Pacific Lutheran School, Port of Los Angeles Charter High School, Mary Star of the Sea High School, and the Harbor Service Center (formerly known as San Pedro Adult Learning Center).

For newly-elected L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, the RBSM program is what separates this film festival from the rest.

“‘Read the Book, See the Movie’ is my favorite element of the film festival,” he says. “My wife, who is a teacher at White Point Elementary, has participated in this program, and we understand the educational value that it delivers. LAHIFF’s commitment to San Pedro, its culture and its history, is important.”

Clockwise L to R: The LAHIFF’s 10th annual festival programing includes There’s No Business Like Show Business (1953) starring Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe, Chased by the Dogs (1962) and Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993)

This year, the four-day festival takes place May 2-5 at the Warner Grand Theatre in historic downtown San Pedro, the heart of the Port of Los Angeles, beginning with a free screening of the RBSM film, Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993), starring Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), on May 2 at 10:30 a.m.

“The story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend the runaway slave Jim, speaks to friendship, loyalty, and courage with an anti-slavery theme,” says Mardesich. “The timing of this classic choice with regard to the recent films Lincoln and Django Unchained is relevant considering issues of social responsibility and morality with historical reflection.”

The festival continues on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. with the opening night screening of Chased By the Dogs (1962), the film adaptation of the Egyptian novel The Thief and the Dogs by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

Saturday, May 4, marks the annual Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute night featuring Irving Berlin’s 1953 classic, There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethyl Merman, Dan Daley, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe. The screening is preceded by the “Show Biz and Red Carpet Gala” at the Arcade Building, directly across the street from the Warner Grand. Tickets for the pre-show Gala are $75 ($65 if purchased before April 18), which includes admission to the film, an open bar, appetizers and buffet supper homage to 1950s cuisine. General admission to the film is only $10.

The festival concludes on Sunday, May 5 at 1 p.m., with its traditional “DocSunday” programming featuring the New Filmmakers LA (NFMLA) “On Location Program,” showcasing 22 short films made to promote the City of Los Angeles.

With its eclectic lineup, Mardesich is hoping to pull in audiences who appreciate various genres and who are open to viewing films they might never have seen before.

“Bringing out the audience is probably the greatest challenge of this festival,” admits Mardesich. “[My dream] would be to have a full house — that’s at least one third of the 1,500 seat capacity of the Warner Grand — at the programs. We’ve been fortunate to have several capacity crowds. That’s exciting, though not realistic in current times. When the movie palaces were built, there was an audience to fill the huge space. It’s rare for that to happen any longer, thus theatres like the Warner Grand have become multi-use venues.”

Even with a handful of loyal volunteers, the LAHIFF is still Mardesich’s baby. It’s rare that you spot her around town not wearing one of her many multi-colored LAHIFF t-shirts. Come marketing season, that shirt is usually accompanied by a handful of postcards and posters that she single-handedly distributes across town and throughout Los Angeles.

With continued community support from Congresswoman Janice Hahn and Supervisor Don Knabe, plus local business sponsorships, the LAHIFF continues to stay alive, even through challenging times. With a decade of experience, Mardesich still expresses hope that the festival will become ever grander and more relevant during the next ten years.

“It would be wonderful if an entity or sponsor had the interest to give their name above the title and bring an infusion of funds so there could be a paid administrator and staff and the festival could perhaps go to another level,” she says. “I would still want to be involved and advise so the mission is not distorted, however, the effort it takes now is very consuming and one of these days I might like to take a voyage elsewhere than on the cinematic bridge.” spt

The Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival takes place Thurs-Sun, May 2-5. Tickets for all programs and reception will be sold online through Brown Paper Tickets, Williams’ Book Store (443 W. 6th St., Downtown), and at the box office (cash only) during the festival one-hour before programs start. General admission is $10 per program; $8 with discounts from select affliliations: GVF, LAMM, IDA, CMA, BAFTA LA and ILWU, and seniors and students. Prices subject to change. For full details, visit www.laharborfilmfest.com.