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Take a trip back in time with Flashback

By Staff | Aug 31, 2016

Once upon a time a young director named George Lucas made a film that chronicled Sixties youth through its cruisin” and race car culture and Rock Around the Clock soundtrack that included music from “The Beach Boys,” “Buddy Holly” and “The Platters.”

His low-budget “American Graffiti” paved the way for numerous stars that would become household words, inspired the television series, “Happy Days,” and gave Lucas a profit-making reputation, which later got him a “Star Wars” financing green light.

The film opens at Mel’s drive-in where a couple of high school grads, Steve and Curt (Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss), spend one final night cruising with their friends before the start of college. Steve lets a geeky “Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) borrow his 1958 Chevy Impala to go off with John Milner (Paul Le Mat) to the strip. The others attend the back-to-school hop.

Harrison Ford plays a handsome arrogant racer; Cindy (“Laverne & Shirley”) Williams is Steve’s head cheerleader Laurie, Disc Jockey is the real Wolfman Jack; Suzanne (“Three’s Company”) Somers portrays a mysterious blonde in a T-Bird; and Mackenzie (“One Day at a Time) Phillips is a little twerp named Carol. Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather) produced; he regretted not having financed the film himself which would have meant a cool $30 million profit (about $160 million when adjusted for inflation).

Howard would go on to play Richie Cunningham in the Happy Days TV series; a hybrid of the John Milner character would debut as biker/drop out Fonzie (Henry Winkler).

At the time of its release, “American Graffiti” debuted in a slow roll out, meaning a theater here and one there. I saw it at the Mid Town Cinemas in Ashland, Kentucky, which would be the first of numerous big screen and outdoor screen viewings. Multiple viewings had to come on the big screen. No “on demand,” DVDs, streaming or instant pay. My love for the movie and insider connections eventually allowed me to acquire what then generally only happened in Hollywood – a prized 16mm sound print of the film suitable for living room screening.

Ironically, though years later, its cult status resulted in small private viewing requests which expanded the social status of a college film reviewing geek. A KEE-Jay (WKEE Radio) added me to a private midnight tour of the Keith Albee for a living room viewing. Later, an astute (but engaged) female dorm president passed word of mouth as a nice guy safe date, which resulted in screening in exchange for accompanying me to a monthly dinner/stage First Nighter review.

Like “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever,” the musical soundtrack propelled the story (“At the Hop,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Love Potion #9” among others), which increased the sleeper hit likelihood that viewers would come back and come back and come back to see it again. Securing rights led to a hold out – RCA – which meant that none of Elvis Presley’s tunes were featured.

Lucas’ coming-of-age film did not stir controversy as James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and it did not exploit sex, violence or vulgar language. That caused Universal to release it, rather than American International known for R-rated beach blanket teen flicks.

You can once again see “American Graffiti” on the big screen with an audience Sept 4 and 7 as part of the Flashback Series from Marquee Cinemas. Showings are at 2 and 7 p.m.

The Flashback series is similar to the Turner Classic Movie sponsored series, except the film choices are 70s and 80s, not 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Upcoming will be Molly Ringwald’s “Sixteen Candles” (Sept. 11 and 14) and Michael Keaton as “Batman” (Oct. 2 and 5). Previous showings have included “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Top Gun,” and “Grease.”