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LeBARON: 'The Birds' holds a special place for local Hitchcock fans

Published: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 4:17 p.m.

The Alfred Hitchcock biopic that came and went in the local theaters over the holidays — and didn't get great reviews — was all about the filming of “Psycho.”

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Alfred Hitchcock poses for a magazine photo in 1962,with real seagulls on leashes and a mechanical crow. The scene is the Tides Wharf parking lot in Bodega Bay. The “seagull handler” is famous Hollywood animal trainer Ray Berwick.

John Bressie

That grim paean to mother-son relationships, released in 1960, is seen as the game-changer in the career of the ponderous Brit who dominated the scary screens before the film noir genre became risen zombies, and post-apocalypse teenage angst.

There's no doubt that “Psycho” put its director in the eye of the movie-going public, but in this little corner of the world, the subject of “Hitch,” as the film was titled, looms large for two other cinematic triumphs.

There is “Shadow of a Doubt,” one of his best films — the one he called his favorite — which was filmed in Santa Rosa in 1942. And the other, which is about to enjoy a 50th anniversary of its release, is (drum roll) “The Birds.”

In both stories, the towns Hitchcock chose for filming were also the settings. Santa Rosa and Bodega Bay played themselves in the movies, you might say.

“Shadow of a Doubt” has become a real period piece, cherished by Santa Rosa born-and-raiseds for its footage of the town at the start of World War II.

But “The Birds” has become something of a local icon.

Storekeepers and restaurateurs in Bodega and Bodega Bay will attest that a television showing of the bloody tale of birds gone creepy is guaranteed to bring an uptick in weekend visitors.

Their primary destination is the Tides, although the Tides Wharf, then owned by the Zankich family, was a much different place when the film crews arrived in '62.

There was a relatively upscale seafood restaurant right on Highway 1 known locally as the “High Tides.” So there had to be a “Low Tides,” of course, and that was a well-used fishermen's hangout on the water.

Carlo Galazzo, the manager of today's Tides, says the gift shop sells flocks of CD's and souvenir photographs. German tourists, says Carlo, lead the pack of Birds fans, with the British close behind.

A Sonoma County organization that takes visitors from foreign countries around the area also can testify to European interest. In fact, even Count Dracula may take a back seat. One guide I know said that she had a gentleman visitor from Transylvania who wanted nothing more than to see where “The Birds” was filmed.

Expect more Bird-watchers as news of the 50th gets around.

Santa Rosa photographer John Bressie was an extra in the scene where the service station blows up. Bressie, who was 25 at the time, living at his family's home in Salmon Creek, not only got extra's wages for being part of the crowd for a few days but also rented his car to the film crew for $20.

“As part of the crowd, we were told to run this way and that,” he remembers. They were providing panic in a dummy scene in the parking lot. The mock setting was between the motel and the High Tides (both long gone). The actual explosion and fire would be achieved in Hollywood.

A professional photographer then as now, Bressie, who has taught photography at Santa Rosa Junior College for 30 years or more, carried his 2¼ twin lens reflex with him and made photos during the waits between shooting — from whatever position he'd been placed in.

He was surprised, he says, that no one told him he couldn't. “I kept expecting that someone would take my camera away from me. But there were so many people shooting both stills and film that nobody paid any attention.”

The result is a Bressie photo file that shows not only Hitchcock and actors Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor and Jessica Tandy, but many of the birds, both real and mechanical, that were the stars of the show.

Bodega, too, gets it share of Bird tourism. People come to see the old Potter school and the road that the children run along — through the magic of cinema — directly into Diekmann's first store (also long gone), a dozen miles away. The general store in Bodega has a mini-museum of Birds photos and Tippi sometimes visits both there and the Tides to sign autographs.

Bressie, whose greeting cards showing his photos are steady sellers at Lorenzo DeSantis's Landmark Gallery in Bodega, has seen the movie many times, but has never been able to find himself in the film — even with a video that can be stopped for scrutiny. He can, however, see his '51 Chevy, a metallic green two-door.

Hardly anybody got excited over Hitchcock filming in '62 — nothing like the fuss over Joseph Cotton et al with “Shadow” 20 years earlier.

John LeBaron, the man I live with, was a photographer for the Press Democrat in '62. He remembers being there for the false explosion scene but doesn't remember exactly what he shot; pointing out that the PD didn't pay a lot of attention. Who knew it would capture such fancies.

Indeed, “The Birds” has taken on a life of its own in this past half-century, although critics are, well, critical.

Almost no one who wears the mantle of film expert thinks it's one of Hitch's best.

Not that the fans care. They just keep coming, asking if the killer seagulls are safe, where the ranch house was (answer: across the bay on the old Gaffney Ranch where UC has housing now), and where to pay for their souvenirs.

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