Nothing’s been in Ed Canevari’s wallet as long as the photograph, now about 75 years old, of himself and Natalie Wood.
Canevari, the lifelong Santa Rosan who for decades operated the Lewis Road deli and ravioli palace that still bears his name, is not and never was a starstruck fan of Wood. They were friends.
Canevari, who’ll turn 80 on Thursday, was 4 when the future Hollywood A-list actress moved with her Russian-American family into a home on Humboldt Street, near Lewis Road. Her name then was Natasha Gurdin.
“She lived across the street from me,” said the compact and emphatic Canevari. “We played together. We were good friends.”
In 1943, the year the pals turned 5, Canevari watched Wood perform her first movie role: She dropped an ice cream cone on a Santa Rosa sidewalk as an extra in “Happy Land,” which starred Don Ameche and Frances Dee.
Wood and Canevari remained friends through their teens, even though her family moved to Southern California in 1946 after Irving Pichel, who directed “Happy Land,” offered her a role as Orson Welles’ adopted daughter in “Tomorrow is Forever.”
One year later, Wood melted hearts as little Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
For a number of years after the move to Southern California, Wood and her parents and siblings returned to Sonoma County each summer to relax alongside the Russian River at Camp Rose, just outside Healdsburg. Canevari said he’s always remembered how terrified his friend was of the water.
“She wouldn’t go to the river’s edge,” he said.
As teenagers, Canevari and Wood spent time together at Camp Rose, and a couple of times Canevari traveled to the southland to see Wood and her family. Wood didn’t get a big head or dump him as a friend as she became a star, he said.
At 17, she lit up the screen alongside James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Before age 25, she earned four Academy Award nominations.
She and Canevari both were 19 when she invited him to Scottsdale, Arizona, in late 1957. She was to be married, to actor Robert Wagner, then 27.
Canevari said with a shake of his head, “I can’t remember to this day why I couldn’t go.”
With Wood’s marriage and the upswing in her career that came with her 1961 leading roles with Warren Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass” and with Richard Beymer in “West Side Story,” the friendship of the former Santa Rosa kids came to show itself mostly in occasional notes and in Christmas cards.
The greatest shock of Canevari’s life came with a phone call in 1981 just after Thanksgiving. Wood’s older sister, Olga, told Canevari that Wood had drowned off Catalina Island.
News stories reported that Natalie Wood had somehow gone into the water from her and Wagner’s moored, 60-foot yacht, Splendour. The couple had spent the holiday on the boat with actor Christopher Walken, who’d been working with Wood in the science fiction film, “Brainstorm.”
Authorities described Wood’s death as an accident. Canevari recalls speaking by phone with Wood’s mother, Maria Gurdin, and telling her, “I don’t believe it.”
He’s never believed it. Canevari is heartened that Los Angeles County authorities have announced that they now view Wood’s death as suspicious and regard Wagner, who turned 88 on Saturday, as a person of interest.