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

Gold Star Memorial Day

Every Memorial Day, our nation honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. But what happens if you can’t remember the soldier for whom that day means the most to you? If you are Tony Cordero, you spend most of your adult life volunteering to make it easier for others that carry the same cross. Tony was just four-years-old when his father, Air Force Major William Cordero, died on a bomber plane that went down in the Vietnam War. Tony can’t remember anything about his dad.

In 1990, Tony was among a very small group that started Sons and Daughters in Touch, which represented the children who lost their fathers in Vietnam. Until then, the only organizations that were set up to provide assistance for grieving family members were Gold Star Mothers of America, which was started around the period of World War II and later a group called Gold Star Wives was formed. Gold Star represents all Americans that had a U.S. military family member killed in war.

Many similar organizations have sprung up since Tony’s group started their nonprofit. They each provide benefits for Gold Star families, such as scholarships and counseling. Tony talks about kids that lose a family member to war when they are very young. He says, “What is their life supposed to be like? We can help because we’ve gone through it.” Tony cites a local member of his Vietnam group that every year flies out a recent widow and her two daughters from Texas to spend a couple weeks with their members. He explains, “We don’t sit around and grieve and visit cemeteries. We go camping, do tourist things, and share stories.”

Whatever their opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans treat our soldiers and their families with respect because we understand the huge sacrifices they have made. That wasn’t the case during Vietnam. Tony says, “That mindset today is an outgrowth of the lessons learned a generation ago when there wasn’t a big embrace. Whether you think we should have gone into Iraq is one conversation, but the reality is a couple thousand of our citizens who volunteered to go didn’t come home, and it’s a good thing their families are embraced.”

One of the hallmarks of that new respect is the overwhelming outpouring of love that Americans show when they see heartbreaking photos of young children at the funeral of a parent killed in battle. Oftentimes the children are the same age as Tony when he lost his dad in Vietnam, which is tough for him to see. However, there is another scene that is harder for him to watch. He explains, “When you see a little kid in class and the teacher says we have a special guest today and in walks dad returning from war, that’s painful for all Gold Star children because that’s what we missed out on. We all had a funeral. Those are great moments and I’ve never met a single Gold Star family that has animosity because someone else had their loved one return home and we didn’t, but you look at them and selfishly say, ‘I didn’t have that homecoming.’”

As part of the cathartic process of honoring his dad, ten years ago Tony was among fifty Gold Star sons and daughters that returned to Vietnam. It was the largest contingent of Gold Star families to ever visit Vietnam together. “The families got to stand in the place where their fathers died. Combine that with seeing Vietnam and making Vietnam a place instead of a bad word and it was an outstanding experience. The locals loved us, anything made in America they wanted. I wish every Gold Star family could have the same experience,” states Tony.

As we all enjoy the Memorial Day holiday, let’s take a moment to remember the fallen soldiers and their surviving family members for their ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Tony was especially keen that this year we remember former Wilmington resident, Tofiga Tautolo, and his family. Memorial Day falls on May 27, which is the one-year anniversary of Tofiga being killed in action in Afghanistan. He is survived by a wife and two-year old son. spt

Jack can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

WWII Air Corps Veteran Gets Silver Star He Never Knew About

After World War II, New Mexico native Domitilio Lucero, like so many others, came to Southern California looking for work.

He got a job at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island and discovered San Pedro. He married his high school sweetheart, and they put down roots and raised four sons, two of whom graduated from Fermin Lasuen High and two from San Pedro High.

Lucero didn’t talk much about the war, which was typical for most veterans. He had been a sergeant in the Army Air Corps, an engineer/gunner on a B-26 Marauder medium bomber based in England, and had seen plenty of action before being gravely wounded in a mission over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. It took years of research from his sons to get the whole story, and it turned out to be a whole lot more than even Lucero himself knew. Back in the states, recovering from his wounds, he was unaware he had been awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award exclusively for combat valor.

Nearly 70 years later, Lucero, now 89 and living in Barstow, will receive his Silver Star in a special ceremony Nov. 5.

The Dec. 23, 1944, raid on the German rail bridgehead at Arhweiler was supposed to be a “milk run” for the 391st Bombardment Group, part of the Ninth Air Force. But the fighter support for the 32 planes in the raid never materialized, and they were sitting ducks when set upon by 60 German fighters. Only 16 bombers made it back to base, and nearly every one of those was damaged, including Lucero’s. His citation for “gallantry in action” reads:

Although thrown from his position, Sgt. Lucero crawled back to his post and although his armament was inoperative, he gallantly continued to inform his pilot of enemy aircraft positions. Sgt. Lucero’s heroic determination and courage under heavy enemy antiaircraft fire despite his painful injury reflect the highest credit upon himself and his organization.

Gerald Lucero, the youngest brother and 1970 SPHS grad, told The Air Force Times what his dad remembers of that day.

“He said they were coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe – five, 10, 15 of them, just coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe. He said he was just shooting everywhere he possibly could, and then they disappeared.” Then came the flak from below.

“He said you could see these black smoke bombs coming from the bottom, and then they were just tearing at the aircraft. He said he saw several aircraft going down, and that’s all he remembered.”

Struck by cannon fire from an enemy fighter, Lucero, then 21, spent 18 months in hospitals, where part of his rib was used to rebuild his nose.

Before he left his supply job at the naval shipyard in 1972 to go to work at the Marine Corps Logistics Base outside Barstow, he saw all four sons follow his footsteps into the service. The oldest, Elroy, a ’65 graduate of Fermin Lasuen, joined the Army and served in Germany. Today, he’s an electrical engineer in San Jose. Stevan enlisted after a cousin was killed in Vietnam. The ’67 Lasuen graduate became a member of the Army Airborne’s Special Forces and fought in Vietnam from 1969-70. The San Pedro resident is a recently retired schoolteacher after a long career with Los Angeles Unified. Vincent joined the Army and served stateside. He’s a security guard in Victorville. Gerald broke with family tradition by joining the Navy. Today he’s a time-share manager in Hawaii. Gerald, point man in the effort to get his dad’s Silver Star, told The Air Force Times of the impetus behind the effort:

“We just want to make sure that my children – his grandchildren – know, and their children know, about his involvement in the war because we’ve all felt… that my dad is a hero and what he had to endure… and I now… hear about this, and it’s even more so.”

Veteran Thanks a Veteran
I got this letter in response to my Memorial Day column on Bob DeSpain, the Rancho Palos Verdes veteran who survived the sinking of the USS Hoel in WWII. It speaks for itself:

“I served aboard the USS Hoel (DDG-13) from Jan. `69-Nov. `72, a guided-missile destroyer. (On) my first WESTPAC cruise `69-70, the ship was chosen to represent the U.S.A. in New Zealand’s bicentennial celebration.

“Our course took us to Pago Pago, then to Samar and over the site of the sunken USS Hoel (DD-533). All aboard paid their respects with a ceremony and wreath casting in memory of the crew lost in the battle.

“The information from official records was read to the crew of the battle and heroism of those men lost and those that survived.

“I salute Bob DeSpain for his labor, tenacity and survival. The battle, being outgunned, was lost yet successful in slowing down the enemy.”

It was signed by William G. “Bill” Forst, a Torrance resident. To Bill, Bob, all of the Luceros and every other veteran, an early happy Veterans Day. spt