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George Lucas making rare appearance in Modesto parade
A scene from American Graffiti.

MODESTO – John Sanders knew the odds were tall when he sent George Lucas an invitation to serve as grand marshal for the American Graffiti Car Show and Festival.

Lucas is used to having lines of people wrap around city blocks to see his featured films.

Not him.

The award-winning filmmaker has created movie franchises that have spanned decades and broken box-office records – think: Stars Wars and Indiana Jones – but when it comes to public appearances, even in his hometown of Modesto?

Well, more times than not, Lucas would rather be somewhere remote, like Tatooine, a fictional desert planet featured in his Star Wars movies.

“I don’t pretend to know him, but I’ve talked to him. He’s absolutely a behind-the-scenes person,” said Sanders, general chairman for the American Graffiti Festival. “He doesn’t want the spotlight. He doesn’t like the spotlight.”

In keeping with that theme, consider this a once-in-a-blue-moon booking.

Lucas, the pride of Modesto and a Downey High graduate, is coming home to the Central Valley to serve as the downtown parade’s grand marshal on Friday, June 7.

The 15th annual event also celebrates the 40th anniversary of Lucas’ original success, “American Graffiti,” a nostalgic look at teenage life and the cruising community in Modesto in the early 1960s.

The festivities will stretch on through the weekend with a car show, live entertainment and more than 100 vendors at Modesto Junior College’s West Campus, but the party will go on without its guest of honor.

Lucas is making only one appearance – a two-loop tour around a 1.1-mile circuit in downtown Modesto – and then he’s gone again to projects and parts of the world unknown.

Sanders is OK with that.

Lucas has a reputation as being somewhat of a recluse, and has been chastised by many in Modesto for staying away from community events that have honored him.

(Lucas was criticized for not attending the unveiling of a “Graffiti” statue in 1997 at Five Points in downtown Modesto, though he let organizers know in advance that he wouldn’t be able to attend.)

So when the call finally came from Lucas’ camp and the voice on the other asked Sanders if he was sitting down, he quickly grabbed a chair.

“He’s coming,” said Lucas’ assistant.

“In a word: Huge,” Sanders said of the buzz surrounding Lucas’ RSVP. “Obviously, George Lucas is the catalyst for me being able to use that word.”

“It was quite amazing. “Sadly, in the past he’s gotten a bad rap.”

Lucas will ride in a 1946 Mercury convertible, owned by one of the festival’s longtime entrants. Sanders will drive him.

“The whole premise was so the citizens of Modesto could honor him,” Sanders said. “We’re not having him sign autographs or having him take pictures. That’s not going to happen here.

“The people in the valley that enjoy cars and cruising certainly know who George Lucas is. Those people in the 1960s and 70’s came to Modesto to cruise because we were the hub.”

Modesto’s favorite son

Though he doesn’t trumpet Modesto often, Lucas takes great pride in his hometown.

 “I am a Modestan,” Lucas was quoted as saying in a 2002 article published by The Modesto Bee. “It’s where I grew up, and it’s been a great influence in my life. (It’s where) I spent the first 20 years of my life, and everything I knew (then) was from that town.”

His early years were shaped by a love affair with racing and comic books.  Lucas attended John Muir Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High and Downey High.

He is often described as a mediocre student during those years, whose focus and direction were shaped by a near-fatal car accident.

Lucas would attend Modesto Junior College and eventually attend film school at the University of Southern California.

His timing was impeccable.

Lucas would develop friendships with some of the industry’s more fascinating and brilliant minds – Stephen Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola to name a few. He and Spielberg would eventually collaborate on Indiana Jones, and Coppola produced and helped champion “American Graffiti.”

The low-budget film would be Lucas’ first professional success, and it would help launch the young careers for many of today’s aging stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, MacKenzie Phillips and Suzanne Somers.

Ron Howard also starred in the film.

Considering its humble origins and by-the-penny production budget – the movie was filmed in 28 nights – “American Graffiti” is regarded as one of the highest grossing films of all time. The movie, which was filmed in Petaluma, has made well over $200 million.

On Friday, June 7, its stock in the Central Valley will surge again with the return of its native son.

The parade is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

“All the stars have lined up right,” Sanders said.

Blue moon, indeed.


209 staff reporter