LIGHTS, ACTION, CAMERA
I’ve been crazy about cars since my first memories of riding in the family car, with my dad behind the wheel, at around age four. In those days there were no children’s car seats and some of the time I was allowed to ride standing up, with my short legs straddling the hump in the rear floor of our 1949 Studebaker Commander 4 door sedan, my small arms wrapped over the top of the front bench seat for stability. From that vantage point, I could see everything. By age 7 I could name nearly every car that passed, both by make, model and year of production. My Parents were amazed that I could do this and bragged to everyone.
My extended family knew to give me toy cars and trucks for my birthdays and Christmas, because I could never have enough and was always thrilled with a new one. At age 12 I built my first AMT 3 n 1 model car kit, a 1959 Ford Galaxy, the first of dozens. In 1962 at age 17 I customized my own 1951 Pontiac 2 Door sedan, by nosing and decking the hood and trunk lid, which involved filling the joint, which separated the two halves of the clamshell hood. I also installed lowering blocks on the rear leaf springs, so it would have that special front to rear rake, which was so popular at the time. That Poncho Straight Eight sounded great with a custom split manifold and dual Hollywood mufflers. True to the customs of the time, the name “Angel Baby” was painted on each rear quarter in cursive script. That may have been my first project, but it certainly wasn’t my last. I recently took a tally and came up with over 50 cars to my credit, which I either partially or completely restored, some to concourse quality.
In 1992 I acquired a 1955 Oldsmobile Starfire Convertible. I purchased it from the estate of the original owner, who had been employed in the movie industry in Hollywood. I went to retrieve it from his palatial home in Beverly Hills, a couple of blocks off Sunset Boulevard, where he kept it in a 4 car detached garage. Keeping it company were a 1964 Rolls, A 1975 Mercedes 280SEL 6.9 and a 1953 Buick Super Woody Station Wagon. His son explained that he had not been a collector and that all of the cars were purchased new, driven as daily transportation and simply never sold. All were shabby and they all ran and drove.
The Starfire ran also and I drove it nearly 70 miles to my home in Riverside California, but not without some trepidation. It was original and complete, but nearly every component needed rebuilt or restored. It showed 89,000 miles on the odometer, which I suspect was the original mileage, but time had taken its toll. I spent the next 2 years, bringing the car up to solid #2+ condition, while keeping it as original as possible. I won many awards with that car, including “special cruising awards” two years running at the famous Route 66 Rendezvous in San Bernardino California. Only15 cars were picked for this award, out of over 2500 entrants.
The exterior of the car was two/tone red over black, with a white convertible top which was later changed to black. It wore wide white wall tires. The red leather interior was a combination of well-preserved original and newly upholstered genuine matching leather, all done in the original pattern. The Olds was one of the few 55 convertibles produced with factory air conditioning, the first year for it to be installed in the dash instead of in the trunk. I’m very particular with my cars and when it was finished it looked, drove and smelled as if it had just come out of the show room. It was not a wallflower, being one of 3 cars that I drove alternately for daily transportation. I used it in this manner for nearly 11 years.
With our roots in the Midwest, my wife and I decided in 1998 to finally take the trip we had talked about for many years. We scheduled our trip in late August, in order to take advantage of the onset of pleasant fall weather. We left from our Home in Riverside California, headed for Springfield Missouri where we would visit our newest grandchild and spend time with our daughter and Son in law. Our eventual destination would be Saint Louis Missouri, where we grew up and many of our family members still reside. These visits, while important, were not the main purpose of the trip though. Our primary goal was to spend as much time as possible retracing the original path of old highway 66, at least as much as we could find anyway
We had both traveled this route with our respective families, as teenagers in the late 1950’s, so it would be a trip filled with nostalgia and many pleasant memories. One of those memories stands out as extra special and is the subject of this story.
We left Riverside California early on a Thursday morning with no particular destination in mind. We were determined to escape the rat race, take our time and stop when the mood hit us. We were self-employed and it was our first real vacation in several years. After retracing old 66 through San Bernardino and up through the Cajon pass, we passed through Victorville and Apple Valley stopping at many route 66 points of interest, while taking many pictures. Still on old 66 we left Victorville in route to Barstow. East of Victorville there is a long straight section of the old two lane highway, which travels through the sparsely populated, high desert community of Newberry Springs.
Along this section there are many reminders of the old days, with several old motels, gas stations and coffee shops, most boarded up and abandoned, with some few having been repurposed for current use. One of these structures was an old service station in the classic style of the 50’s, complete with a covered service island, which was home to a complete pair of 1950’s style pumps and vintage light standards.
The station, known locally as “Dry Creek Station”, still wore its name painted in fading black letters on a cocks comb sign on top of the building. It sat well back from the road and the large driveway was paved with gravel, except for the area adjacent to the pumps and directly in front of the station itself. We had passed this same location on previous day trips and the last time we visited, it was being used as a period curio/souvenir shop. This was no longer the case.
As we approached we could see that something was going on. As we passed by it became apparent that it was being used as a film set, with all the cameras, lighting and support equipment, which is part and parcel of such an operation. After driving past we became curious and decided to go back and watch for a while, to see if we could recognize any of the actors. We intentionally parked far enough away that we would not to be a distraction or annoyance.
Indeed we spotted a couple of familiar faces, but were unable to put names to them. We just knew that we had seen them before, either on television or in a movie. Ten minutes or so passed and we were considering getting back on the road, when someone separated from the group and began walking quickly and deliberately in our direction. Uh oh, perhaps we were being a nuisance after all. We waited patiently, expecting to be told to scram.
Much to our surprise that was not it at all. We were thrilled to be asked if our car could be used as part of the set. Of course we said yes. As it turned out they had arranged for another 50s period classic car to be there, but the owner had found it necessary to cancel at the last minute. Ok, right place, right time! What a way to start our trip! We brought the car closer and parked it as instructed, directly in front of the service station office, smack in the center of the carefully arranged set. After a while we were requested to lower the top and were happy to oblige.
It was thrilling to be included in such a group, as a part of it instead of as sightseers or gawker’s. Living in Southern California, this was not the first movie set we’d seen, but this was different, as we found ourselves an actual part of the production crew. We were assigned our own chairs under big umbrellas and when a movie production catering truck showed up for lunch, to feed the actor’s and the production company, we were included as part of the gang.
As for well-known actors, we were not to be disappointed. As it turned out the movie being filmed was of the type, which are shown at film festivals. Normally low budget productions, but with established veteran actors and actresses often contributing their time and services, with the idea of assisting up and coming professionals to be recognized by the film industry. Every year a few of these movies break out to become acclaimed main stream productions.
In our case, one well established actor was present and one up and coming Actress, whom we’ve since seen in several movie roles.
Actor Greg Lewis got his start in show business as a harmonica player at age 15, when he performed with Jerry Murad’s Harmonica group “The Harmonicats”. He later worked as half of a two man comedy team. Then, he came to Hollywood to become an actor. With over 78 credits and can be seen in many television and Movie productions, beginning in1975, when he played as supporting cast on the hit TV sitcom “Laverne and Shirley”. He subsequently acted in many of the most successful TV series plus movies like K-Pax (2001) with Kevin Spacey, Frankie and Johnny (1991), and The Princess Diaries (2001) to name a few. He’s one of those memorable character actors who’s name you may not recall, but who’s face everyone recognizes immediately.
Co-star, actress Amy Wheaton was just getting her start and has since acted in several feature movies. She is also the sister of Wil Wheaton who was a regular cast member on the TV series “Startrek the next Generation”, as ensign Wesley Crusher. He currently appears as a regular on the hit TV show Big Bang Theory and MC of his own show, th