Sonoma County Goes to the Movies
And the movies come to Sonoma County! With its spectacular scenery, historic architecture and year-round mild weather, Sonoma County has been a favorite backdrop for movie directors for nearly 100 years. In fact, some of Hollywood’s most iconic scenes were filmed in Sonoma County, primarily in public places that you can see in person any day of the week.
What follows is a very partial list of movies made in Sonoma County, with a short description of the locations where scenes were shot.
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Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven liked Santa Rosa as an all-American backdrop for their special brands of horror and suspense.
Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” in 1943, starred Santa Rosa as much as it did Joseph Cotten and Theresa Wright. It’s about evil coming to a small town, with McDonald Avenue providing the quiet, leafy neighborhood and downtown — the old downtown, with the courthouse in Courthouse Square, the original stone library and the cop directing traffic at Fourth and Mendocino — providing the bustle of the town center. Not only is is considered one of Hitchcock’s best efforts, it’s a great look at the Santa Rosa that many residents still pine for.
Craven planned for Santa Rosa to be more prominently featured in his wildly popular“Scream” (1996), but the Santa Rosa Board of Education turned down his request to shoot scenes for the bloody slasher film at Santa Rosa High School. He still shot at some locations around the county, and included a poke at the school board in the movie’s end credits: "No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board.”
Francis Ford Coppola had better luck with the bureaucrats, prominently featuring the gorgeous architecture of Santa Rosa High School in “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986). Stars Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage could be spotted out and about around Sonoma County for weeks as the film was being made. Other locations included the iron-front buildings of downtown Petaluma and that city’s D Street neighborhood.
McDonald Avenue — and the McDonald Mansion specifically — was home to the much loved “Pollyanna” in 1960, starring Hayley Mills and Jane Wyman.
The city’s main drag, Petaluma Boulevard, got more screen time than any of the many stars of “American Graffiti,” George Lucas’s classic tribute to hot cars and hormonal teen-agers. Made in 1973 and set in the early ‘60s, the movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (which went instead to “The Sting”) and is listed on virtually every list of the top 100 movies ever made. Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Suzanne Somers spent much of the film cruising the Boulevard in souped-up cars, looking for love and eluding the cops, wrapped in a gauze of nostalgia and teen-age angst. On the first block of Petaluma Boulevard North, in a lot next to the Mystic Theater, Richard Dreyfuss pulled off one of film’s most memorable stunts and a cop car lost its back end.
Petaluma also provided an all-American backdrop for scenes in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Pleasantville” (1998, with Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire), “Inventing the Abbotts” (1997, with Jennifer Connelly and Joaquin Phoenix) and Robin Williams’s 1997 remake of the Disney film “Flubber.” It wasn’t a movie, but it’s worth noting that “Morning in America,” the classic political commercial that helped Ronald Reagan to a second term as U.S. President, was filmed in Petaluma in 1984.
“The Happy Land,” a 1943 movie about the losses of war, prominently featured the Healdsburg Plaza along with Natalie Wood, Don Ameche and Harry Morgan. Craven also filmed portions of “Scream” in town. A few miles outside of town on Westside Road, Hop Kiln Winery played a part in “The Magic of Lassie” (1978).
The Sonoma County Airport was the scene of one of the craziest stunts of a stunt-filled “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” an epic comedy made in 1963. In a film that included Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Phil Silvers, Mickey Rooney and Jonathan Winters, one of the most memorable scenes took place in — and out — of a unique airplane hangar that still stands on the west side of Laughlin Road. The World War II-era structure, known as a Butler Building, is a large metal canopy open at both ends. Stunt pilot Frank Tallman flew a single-engine plane right through the place in one of the movie’s many chase scenes.
“The Animal,” (2001) is best forgotten. But Rob Schneider did make some scenes around City Hall and the Plaza. “A Walk in the Clouds” (1995) and “Valley of the Moon” (1914) used the beauty of the Sonoma Valley as a gorgeous backdrop.
“Mumford,” Lawrence Kasdan’s 1999 romantic comedy about a small-town psychologist, touched all corners of the county. Ted Danson, Martin Short, Hope Davis and Alfre Woodard made scenes at the Astro Motel on Santa Rosa Avenue, Rita's New China Restaurant in the St. Francis Shopping Center, and the First Presbyterian Church on Pacific Ave. all in Santa Rosa; Analy High School and the Old Main Street Saloon in Sebastopol; Smothers Brothers Winery Tasting Room in Kenwood; Adobe Drug Store in Sonoma; the grounds of the Sonoma Developmental Center in Glen Ellen; around the Plaza in Healdsburg; several sites in downtown Petaluma and on a bridge over the Russian River in Guerneville.
The Sonoma Coast always passes its screen tests, and filmmakers love to point their cameras at its rugged, beautiful vistas. Perhaps its most famous role was in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963). The thriller features Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor spending a quiet weekend in Bodega Bay when suddenly the area’s many birds (primarily gulls and crows) turn violently on any humans in their path. Memorable scenes were shot in the town of Bodega, where the old schoolhouse (now a private residence) and St. Teresa’s Roman Catholic Church still stand.
The same two buildings are seen in the opening credits of Fred Astaire and Petula Clark’s 1968 musical “Finian’s Rainbow.”
Up the coast a ways, Schoolhouse Beach welcomed Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr. during a scene in the 1997 slasher film “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Farther north, at Goat Rock Beach, Steven Spielberg shot scenes for “The Goonies” (1985).
And not far upstream on the Russian River, the original “Braveheart” (1923) featured Tyrone Power Sr. as a football-star Indian sent off to law school by his tribe. Along the river near Monte Rio, the producers built an Indian village along the banks.