Hollywood Comes to Ferndale

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on February 24, 2002

Film cameras roll to the call of “Action!” but the brightly painted three-block Victorian-style Main Street setting is no Hollywood lot. Hollywood, in this instance, has come to northern California, into the heart of redwood country. It’s not the first time the town of Ferndale (pop.1, 382) has played host to the silver-screen crowd, nor will it be the last.

Ferndale, a friendly mix of cowboys, loggers, dairy farmers, artists, businessmen, mothers, dads, kids, and horses, turns out to catch the action each time a new production cranks up, whether it’s on Main Street, in the picturesque cemetery, or around the barns, fields, or farmhouses. Residents often sign on as extras. When a Dr Pepper commercial was filmed on Main Street in the late 1970s, many locals were hired to dance and sing, “I’m a Pepper. You’re a Pepper.” Even some of the town dogs were “Peppers.”

Most recently, construction crews worked in Ferndale last year for several months, building the facade of The Majestic Theatre, a gazebo, a diner, and other town dressings for The Majestic, a film about a blacklisted screenwriter, played by Jim Carrey.

“They improved the town,” says photographer Carrie Grant. “Everyone was sad to see them go.”

So intertwined was the construction crew with the locals that at project’s end the crew rented the town hall, hired a band, set up a bar, and invited the town for a potluck celebration. “The whole town showed up,” says Joe Koches, owner of The Blacksmith Shop.

Ferndale native Jack Mays, an artist who on an ordinary day sits on a portable chair sketching town scenes, sketched away as crews filmed outside The Majestic Theatre.

“Jack told me that from now on he’s always going to include our theater in his drawings of Ferndale,” says Jim Behnke, executive producer of The Majestic. Everyone in the production, including Carrey, signed the finished art, which Mays donated to an auction benefiting Ferndale’s Repertory Theatre.

It may be old hat now but there was a time when Ferndale folk didn’t know a gaffer from a grip. When Salem’s Lot, a miniseries about vampire invasion based on a Stephen King novel, was filmed in Ferndale in 1978, film production was new to most townspeople. Annette Meitner, 15 at the time, lived in the house whose exterior was used as the vampire home. “All those people from Hollywood really freaked me out,” she says, “then I discovered they spill spaghetti on their shirts just like everyone else.”

Hollywood loves Ferndale because, among other things, it is “the best-preserved Victorian village in California,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The stores, galleries, and specialty shops on Main Street are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The entire village is a California Historic Landmark.

And townspeople do more than watch movies being made. Mays, the artist, was the catalyst 35 years ago in what has become a wacky Ferndale tradition—the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race. Mays had challenged metal sculptor Hobart Brown to create a contraption to race down Main Street, and Brown encouraged others to join in. Entries had to be artistic and human powered—no feet could touch the ground. Mays arrived in a 9-foot-high semi-Sherman tank with cannons that shot water and Styrofoam balls. Brown raced him in a five-wheeled pentacycle, which collapsed as another racer passed in a papier-mâché turtle that laid red and blue polka dot eggs. Some 10,000 people showed up to watch.

Brown later expanded the event to a three-day, 20-mile, cross-country competition—from Arcata to Ferndale—along city streets, across sand dunes, over Humboldt Bay, and through the mud flats to the finish line in Ferndale. Wearing caveman garb, tuxedos, and other costumes, as many as 99 racers have shown up in contraptions for the Memorial Day weekend event. Prizes are minimal, so few care who wins.

“People do it for the glory,” says Brown.

Naturally, the event has been caught on camera. Not by Hollywood this time, but by hundreds of national and international television crews, including Good Morning America and the BBC.

Some places just can’t avoid the bright lights.