Media Life: Auburn not about to forget “Phenomenon” movie shoot

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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As reunions go, Auburn’s version of one for “Phenomenon” on Wednesday night was, well, phenomenal. There were plenty of grace notes that made for a special time both for those who were there for the filming in 1995 and those who have arrived since then and wondered perhaps what all the hullabaloo was about. The idea of a reunion had been hovering around for several years. The 10th anniversary passed three years ago with a three-part series by Media Life but no reunion. Old Town business owner Linda Robinson spearheaded Wednesday’s reunion, working since mid-summer to put together a low-key but fun night that would be part-reunion for extras and part commemoration, with a plaque placed on the street where John Travolta’s George Malley character was “struck” by a white light and fell to the ground. The idea was to cap the evening off with an outdoor showing of the film, rekindling memories of a time when Disney took over Auburn. Much of the movie was filmed in Old Town and nearby locations during an unusually warm fall in 1995. Robinson’s efforts to place a commemorative bronze button on the street had some challenges. Travolta’s fall was smack dab in the middle of Sacramento Street, a couple of feet off where the double-yellow line now sits. It’s not the greatest place to put a plaque and Robinson eventually found a safer spot on a less-traveled stretch of asphalt at the side of the Station A post office. It’s not such a bad location when you consider that it’s closer to the site of the movie-set, auto repair shop erected on the street for the Auburn shoot. ANXIOUS MOMENTS Robinson had a few anxious moments leading up to Wednesday’s reunion when she went to pick up the circular plaque and discovered that a foul-up had left the button unordered. Auburn Trophies came to the rescue and made a rush order with another company. A city of Auburn crew was able to open up the road surface and install the plaque hours before the reunion. Tony Genaro, who had a major supporting role in the 1996 film, was perhaps the reigning star of the event – traveling from Los Angeles for the day. Before the “unveiling,” Genaro and extras joined Robinson at the front of the crowd, with some of them sharing their experiences. Joe Nicosia appeared in quite a few scenes, including footage shot on the second floor of the Placer County Courthouse with Robert Duvall. In another scene, he had a speaking role, greeting Forest Whitaker’s character at the door of the George Malley birthday party in the Elkhorn bar. The scenes were shot at the now-closed Shanghai Bar, which is now the Auburn Ale House. The Ale House got into the spirit of the event by brewing a tasty “PhenomenAle” in honor of the reunion. Nicosia recalled that he earned a Screen Actors Guild card for his speaking role and soon after the film was released in July 1997, started to receive residuals. He received a steady stream of $500 checks and still receives money 13 years later – although they’re down to about $20 these days. Then it was time for the unveiling. With a phone signal from Robinson – a murmur went through the crowd that she was contacting Travolta for delivery of a personal message by phone – the Auburn Native Sons of the Golden West shone a spotlight from the roof of their Commercial Street building. The spotlight was more than just a theatrical touch. Parlor 59 had allowed a “Phenomenon” crew to shine a spotlight from the roof during the key scene 13 years ago, when Malley is struck by the mysterious “light.” SEEING THE LIGHT This time though, the “light” hit the plaque. The words on the plaque – “Phenomenon Every thing is on its way to somewhere 1995” – were suggested by Auburn’s Gail Nunes, who was also a “Phenomenon” extra. “It kind of struck me that it could be appropriate,” Nunes said in an e-mail. “A lot of the people reading it would be tourists and they are on their way to somewhere as we all are. Pretty much all things, that in itself is a phenomenon.” Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at