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Bill Lynch: When Hollywood called on Sonoma

While doing research for Annie McCausland, the archivist for the Sonoma Valley Historical Society recently, I ran across an interesting story about Ferde Grofé Jr., who was a well-known and successful filmmaker, producer and director in the 1960s through 1980s.

He came to Sonoma in 1954 and started a semi-professional theater group he called Sonoma Players. If the name Grofé sounds familiar, it is because his father was a well-known early 20th century composer whose most famous work is the Grand Canyon Suite. He also earned Academy Award nominations for the musical scores of many movies of the time.

I found several articles about the Ferde Grofé Jr. and his Sonoma Players in the Sonoma Index-Tribune from 1954 and 1955.

He was married to a Petaluma woman in 1954, which is how he discovered our town. He said the Sonoma Community Center was the best location for his semi-professional theater group. Their first play, “Night Must Fall,” opened on May 28, 1954.

He worked closely with Sonoman Dan Ruggles and others, and became active in the community, eventually directing the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival pageant in 1955.

He was also working part time with a pioneer UHF TV station, KSAN, Channel 32, at the time, and began writing a script for a television film about Sonoma Valley. He and KSAN also had an agreement with the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce that it would get a copy of the film when it was completed.

Shooting actually began on the Sonoma film in 1955, during which Grofé and his troupe continued to put on plays at the Community Center.

It was in my search for that film about Sonoma, that I stumbled on his email address, and decided to contact him directly. Much to my surprise he responded almost immediately, expressing delight that I had brought back very fond memories of his time here in our town. The bad news was that KSAN ran out of money before they could complete the Sonoma movie. No footage remains.

Toward the end of 1955 the call of the movie business took him away from our Valley. He wrote, produced and directed his first low-budget independent film, financed by his friend, Petaluma chicken farmer Hy Silver.

The movie “Papago” was shot in Arizona, and opened to good reviews at the Bruin Theatre in Westwood (West LA).

Ferde was then hired by producer/director Sam Katzman, who was known at the time as Hollywood’s “King of the B movies.” Katzman’s most well-know film of those years was “Rock Around the Clock,” featuring Bill Haley and the Comets. By the early 1960s, Ferde Grofé Jr. was making his own movies, all shot on shoestring budgets.

He says he was educated at the “guerrilla school of filmmaking.” In fact, several were shot in the Philippines in and around Manila, which he said was wild and very much like Havana, Cuba during the Mafia days before Castro.

With a Google search of his work I found many film titles including, “The Proud and Damned, a western starting Chuck Connors and Cesar Romero, “Guerrillas in Pink Lace,” starring George Montgomery, Joan Shawlee and Valerie Varda, and “The Day of the Wolves,” starring Richard Egan and Martha Hyer. He made many more movies with George Montgomery including “Samar” and “The Steel Claw.”

Toward the end of his film career he also produced several documentaries including one in 2007 about Vietnam.

While Ferde and I have never met, we have now exchanged numerous emails sharing recollections of old Sonoma acquaintances. In his 80s, and living in Union, Washington, near Olympia, he seems to be going strong, now working on audio productions.

He sent me a fascinating 168-page memoir covering some of his more harrowing adventures making movies in the Philippines. I told him he should get it published.

I also sent his filmography and other information to Kevin McNeely, executive director of the Sonoma Valley International Film Festival, suggesting Ferde might make an interesting guest, perhaps talking about what it was like making one of his low-budget movies with George Montgomery in the Philippine jungle so long ago.

Meanwhile I’m going to try to find some of his old movies on Netflix, make some popcorn and return to those “thrilling days of yesteryear.”