Hollywood Comes To Auburn

seenonscreen3Off we go…

Placer County is no stranger to the film business. Not to brag, but Hollywood has loved our scenery since the silent era. Charlie Chaplin, of course, filmed The Gold Rush in Truckee. Nike, when much wiser and more daring heads prevailed in the PR department, used Foresthill Bridge for the bungee-jumping scene in their “Move” commercial. Almost Famous was partially filmed in Lincoln. The steps of the Auburn courthouse are camera fodder for countless commercials and other bits.


Few productions, however, are more personal to my hometown of Auburn, California than the 1996 film, Phenomenon. It’s not a great film, but it’s an enjoyable, goodhearted one, and us longtime Auburnites proudly claim it as our movie. We didn’t make all of it, of course, but it feels like ours.

George Malley (John Travolta) of Harmon, California is an average guy. He can’t figure out how to keep a rabbit out of his garden, He owns an autoshop and struggles to learn Spanish and chess. George has good friends all over town, though, including Doc (Robert Duvall) and Nate (Forest Whitaker), and when George’s birthday rolls around, the whole town not only shows up for his party at the Elkhorn Bar, but Doc puts a “Happy Birthday, George,” sign in his window right before mooning him.


While at the party George steps outside for a bit of air when he suddenly sees a bright flash of light in the sky that’s so big it knocks him off his feet. When he goes back inside, though, no one else has seen or heard the flash, and they’re mystified when George can suddenly play a great game of chess.

Things get even more interesting the next day at the autoshop, because all of a sudden George speaks Spanish fluently. When he goes home at night, he can’t sleep, but on the bright side, he reads unceasingly and figures out why the rabbit got into the garden (He was fenced in).


Other than a new inability to sleep and an insatiable appetite for books, life goes on pretty normally for George. He’s in love with a single mom named Lace (Kyra Sedgewick) who lives on a farm outside of town with her two kids, Al (David Gallagher) and Glory (Ashley Buccille) and makes chairs that she sells around town. She doesn’t know it, but George has been buying her chairs so she’ll keep coming back, and since no one can use that many chairs, he keeps offloading them on other people.

Luce was burned pretty badly by her first husband, so she’s hard to get close to, but George is persistent in an oddly sweet way. He bonds with Al and Glory, Lace’s kids, and among other nice moments, they share an apple out in the yard and George tells them that the apple they’ve eaten will always be part of them. “Everything is on its way to somewhere,” he says.


Actually, I take it back: Life is anything but normal for George. He’s suddenly super busy. He’s figuring out new ways to harness and store solar energy, he’s invented a new fertilizer that can grow torpedo-sized zucchinis and tomatoes like curling pucks, he can learn any language in minutes, and he’s telekinetic. He can not only manipulate objects with his mind, but he can feel energy waves and predict earthquakes.

As time goes on, people who have known George all his life are suddenly suspicious and don’t know how to act around him. When he helps find a sick Portuguese boy, people look at him as if he’s a warlock or a saint or something. At a talk he gives at the library fair, a guy brings his son to him and asks George to heal him.


The FBI is suspicious, too, especially after George intercepts code from the Air Force and accidentally cancels a training exercise, and George is put through a battery of tests. Not everyone is hostile, though. A kindly professor from Berkeley, Doctor Ringold (Jeffrey DeMunn) is simply curious and wants to know how in the world George was able to predict that earthquake without equipment.

There’s an excellent explanation for how and why George has these new abilities. At first he’s convinced he got zapped by aliens, but after he sees another flash in the sky, other answers become clear, and George will have some choices to make. So will Lace, who, in spite of herself, begins to trust George and fall in love with him.

Phenomenon made respectably healthy returns at the box office, grossing $16M in its opening weekend with $104M in overall returns, with word of mouth making a big difference in the film’s success. As Gus Thompson of the Auburn Journal put it, the film was “a romantic fantasy with plenty of Auburn and a plot that older audiences lapped up but critics tossed off as too corny.”

There is definitely plenty of Auburn in the film. The bulk of the town scenes were shot in Old Town. George’s autoshop was built on the street in between what was a store called Catterfly and a block in the middle of Old Town that includes the oldest continually operating post office in the United States, a clothing boutique, and a restaurant called Cafe Delicias. Fake branches were put in the shop’s back windows to hide the statue of Claude Chana up the street. Sacramento Street, which is one of the main routes to get into Old Town, is prominently featured, as are the interior and exterior of the former Shanghai Bar. Serendipity, a lovely store I’ve shopped at since I was twelve, can be seen in the movie, as is Edelweiss, a restaurant in the Gold Country Plaza that’s been a fixture in Auburn for decades. Tsuda Grocery, which used to sit on the same block as Edelweiss, is also seen, as is the neon sign for the California Club across the street.

Old Town wasn’t the only part of Auburn to make it into Phenomenon. The Auburn Courthouse, which is the focal point of the town, is clearly visible during key scenes, and the second floor hallway stands in for the hallway of the hospital. Robert Duvall is even seen climbing the stairs I mentioned before. The top floor of the White House, which is directly across the street from the Courthouse, was the law office of attorney Patrick Little at the time and also a shooting location. Across town, Machado’s Orchard was used in the scene when everyone is looking for the lost Portuguese boy.

As long as the movie stays within Auburn, er, Harmon, things are great. For Lace and George’s houses, though, for some reason the crew of Phenomenon decided to go to Petaluma, which has rolling hills and lots of oak trees. Auburn, meanwhile, either gets more mountainous and forest-y as one heads farther northeast, or flat prairie marshland to the southwest towards Rocklin and Roseville, with heavily-wooded and rural Newcastle, Penryn and Loomis in between. It’s very cool because the mountains are really majestic going north, and coming off the Hill the vista can be so clear Sacramento, Lake Folsom and sometimes even Mount Diablo can be seen from I-80. Ergo, it’s kind of jarring when Phenomenon suddenly switches to Petaluma. No offense to Petaluma, but Auburn and Petaluma look nothing alike. There are plenty of farms in Auburn and the surrounding area, so the transition was pretty needless.

But I digress.

When the film company arrived in Auburn, they made themselves right at home and the town wanted in on the action. John Travolta visited Edelweiss and took pictures with the owner, which still hang in the restaurant today. Robert Duvall was a big fan of Machado’s pies, which were, of course, conveniently sold close by the orchard scenes.

Meanwhile, Auburnites wanted to see what was going on. Filming started in October, with work on the Old Town scenes beginning on November 9, 1995 (my nineteenth birthday, by the way). As many people as possible turned out to watch the filming, including my aunt Shirley and uncle Bo, who looked on one day from the sidewalk in front of the California Club as an extra rode a bicycle down Sacramento Street about twenty times. Edelweiss was a popular place to see the filming as well because it put people right in the middle of the action.

Auburnites did more than watch, though. Locals were used as extras, and just in case anyone’s wondering, the birthday moon from the beginning of the movie doesn’t feature Robert Duvall’s hiney, but that of Pollock Pines realtor Larry Varanelli, who was paid handsomely for his day of trou dropping.

Phenomenon premiered in July of 1996, and Auburn was one of the places where the film made its debut. It was a big event, with Tony Genaro, who plays Tito in the film, in attendance. The soundtrack album turned out to be a big hit with audiences as well, including such quintessential 1990s songs as “Every Day Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow and the newly-minted “Change the World” by Eric Clapton, written specifically for the film.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Phenomenon was made. A lot of the stores are different and some of the people who witnessed the spectacle are gone in one way or another, but others are still around. Catterfly is long departed, with an art gallery in its place. The Shanghai Bar was gutted and restored in 2005 by former owner Richard Yue before being sold and is now the Auburn Alehouse, the interior completely changed since the filming. Tsuda Grocery closed many years ago and is now used as an event space by the Auburn Alehouse, but Edelweiss is going strong, as is Serendipity.

The Courthouse is still an active government building, but since 9-11 the door that Robert Duvall enters during the hospital scene is generally kept locked and alarmed for security purposes. Patrick Little’s law office has moved two blocks away from the White House, and Latitudes, the restaurant that was on the bottom floor during the filming, is now the Tap and Vine. Machado’s Orchard was recently sold and is currently being refurbished, but is scheduled to reopen on May 15, 2023.

While it’s been almost three decades since Phenomenon came to Auburn, the town still remembers that time fondly. In 2009, a plaque was placed on the exact spot where George Malley fell that reads, “Phenomenon: Everything Is On Its Way To Somewhere, 1995.”

This is a replacement plaque, as the original was stolen in 2013.

There are more places to go this weekend at the Seen On the Screen Blogathon, which can be found here. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you enjoy all the great entries from our great bloggers. See you on Monday for a wee wrapup…

Phenomenon is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

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9 thoughts on “Hollywood Comes To Auburn

  1. I haven’t seen phenomenon in years, but I remember enjoying it.

    I am a little jealous your Town gets to claim a movie or two or three or more!

    There is a scene in about Schmidt, starring Jack nicholson, where the character stops in my town, but alas, Nicholson did not visit. The scene was shot elsewhere in nebraska.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. From your affectionate and detailed description, I feel like I know Auburn! I saw Phenomenon many years ago and it has stayed with me. John Travolta is at his best in it, and Robert Duval is also very good. And the reactions of the townspeople to the “new” man in their midst seem very genuine. It reminds me of another very moving drama, Charly with Cliff Robertson.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Auburn looks like a beautiful town. After reading your post and examining your photos, I did a quick online search, and I think I have to take my next vacation there.

    I remember the movie Phenomenon. It actually made me cry.

    Liked by 1 person

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