Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Winona Country Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago this month I boarded a plane from Heathrow to San Francisco to explore some of the places I had written about in my biography of Winona Ryder, to discover if the real life locations that I had described in my book came close to what I had written. Obviously Petaluma was going to prove to be the one that really put that to the test, as the town, about 35 miles north of San Francisco, played one of the biggest supporting roles in the book, simply because it was where Winona had spent most of her formative years growing up, attending school and making her first movies during her summer holidays. The idea of this blog post is to recount my trip and take a look back at some of the places I visited, the people I met and to focus on what really happened to a commemoration idea for Winona’s connection to the town.

Once over the Golden Gate Bridge, Petaluma was about an hour’s journey from San Francisco Airport, although on the day I arrived, there had been an accident on Highway 101, so the detoured route took a little longer. I knew though when I had arrived in Petaluma as the airport transporter bus pulled into its final stop by Kenilworth Junior High, the school that was notorious for where Winona was beaten up by a group of fellow students.

The entire trip was made possible by two sets of friends, who offered to share putting up with me and show me around all the places I wanted to see. Chris Samson, then the managing editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, who was such a huge contributor to my research for the book, really co-ordinated the whole thing and the accommodation that I would share with him and his late wife Edy, and with their friends Peter and Patty Zimmerman. It meant I got to stay on both the East and West sides of town, as well as being very well looked after and catered for. The odd thing is that I had only met Patty about a month before my departure when she visited her mother in the village next to mine in the UK. Even though I’d had dozens of international phone conversations with Chris, I had never met him or Edy or Peter, so it was as much a gamble for them as for me to have someone they had never met (me) as a house guest. It was incredibly kind for them to take the risk that we would all get along for the duration of my stay. Luckily we did, and we all remain good friends to this day.

I must mention Edy here as she played a major role during my stay. She was a very active member of the Petaluma community, mostly with public access television as a producer of programmes and host of a community affairs shows, in which she very much enjoyed giving exposure to artists such as painters, musicians and writers, including myself, for which the obvious connection to Petaluma was Winona. Edy had also met and filmed Winona during the searches for kidnapped child Polly Klaas in 1993. On my last day in Petaluma, Edy had fallen ill with crippling stomach cramps and pains, but by the evening seemed fine again. A few months after I returned home to England, Edy had fallen ill again, and for the next year was in and out of hospital, which very sadly ended in May 2003, when she died of cancer. She was two years younger than me and was a wonderfully spirited, joyful and loving woman. She was also the best guide anyone could possibly ask for to tour around Winona’s Petaluma, and in fact, Winona and Johnny’s Petaluma. Edy showed me all the places they used to hang out together, like the second hand clothes store they shopped at on Kentucky Street, which I think is a coffee place now, and the place they were thinking of buying up and turning into a hotel.

One of the first places I visited was the Polly Klaas Foundation where Winona lent her support to the search for Polly in October 1993, and where I would meet Polly’s mother, Eve Nichol, who had come to town to coffee with me at Halle’s. I also met with Abby Minot at McNears, next door to the Mystic Theatre, where some scenes for American Graffiti had been filmed in 1973, and where on one occasion during my stay, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell had been spotted. Abby though was a photo stylist who worked alongside San Francisco photographer John Marriott. Between them they were responsible for taking the very first studio shots of Winona and her sister Sunyata between 1984 and 1987. I also went to the house where Winona grew up, spent time at Kenilworth Junior High where Winona was notoriously gay bashed for looking like a boy in 7th Grade, and Petaluma Junior High, which she also attended. I also visited Dillon Beach where Winona says she almost drowned when she was just 12 years old, and we went sight seeing at Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed.

Apart from meeting Eve and Abby, I also met Mary Frazier and her daughter Jenny. Mary had been my contact at the Polly Klaas Foundation when I was writing the book, and had checked all that I had written for accuracy. Her daughter Jenny used to hang out with Winona’s younger brother and decided to join us for lunch. There were so many Petalumans I was introduced to that had a connection to Winona, one way or another. One was the actress who played the lead Heather in the stage version of Winona’s 1988 film Heathers, that was staged at the Phoenix Theatre, which was another place I visited during my first weekend. It was a sort of popular hangout for teens who I was told either had nowhere else to go or didn’t want to go home to abusive and absent parents, or just wanted a comfortable place at which they could spend time away from the watchful eyes of the police.

I also did the tourist bit in San Francisco, travelled by ferry from Larkspur past San Quentin, and visited some more Winona sights, including Haight-Ashbury, where she had spent another part of her childhood attending Yen School, and where her mother would later run a free clinic for those suffering with AIDS. I also took in Mount Sutro, Coit Tower, Pier 39, North Beach and even hopped aboard a moving cable car.

Back in Petaluma, I found the comic book store where Winona was reported to have stolen a comic from, hung out in the Apple Box at the Great Petaluma Mill, appeared on Edy’s Talk of the Town show with jazz singer Carla Normand and artist Douglass Truth, got asked for autographs at Kenilworth, was chatted up by a beauty from Memphis who we thought was on the run from her husband, went to a bunker party where I did an acoustic version of Elvis’s Suspicious Minds with Chris Samson and Chip McAuley, and dropped into the Chateau Souverain Winery in Alexander Valley. I also visited many of the Polly memorials at Petaluma Junior High, and took a trip to Cloverdale to see the Children’s Tree that had been planted in Polly’s memory, not far from where she was found two months after she had been kidnapped from her home. The tree was surrounded by stones with the names of missing children, and one in particular, which I wrote about in my book, was for a boy called Steven Stayner, who had been in captivity for eight years, and when he finally escaped and walked into a police station, he coudn’t even remember his own name. We also took a trip to Elk on the very picturesque Mendocino Coast where we met and lunched with a fabulous couple whose son had been good friends with Winona during the years she spent being raised on a nearby commune. We also visited Ukiah on the way back from Elk where we came across, quite by accident, the cinema where Winona says she went to see the first Alien film in 1979 when she was just eight years old.

In between the Cloverdale and Elk trip, I headed off to Hollywood to stay with Chris’s late brother, Rich for three days, not including the two days of there and back travelling. I went from Oakland on Amtrak which, with a train to coach change, got me to Union Station in Los Angeles at around nine in the evening. It was here that I met Rich for the journey, by road, in his beautiful Gran Tarino, to his home on Hampton Avenue in West Hollywood.

Again, I visited most of the places that I had mentioned in my book and some that I hadn’t. One of the first stops was to the E! Entertainment Network to reacquaint myself with the crew I first met and worked with when I was filming the Winona Ryder E! True Hollywood Story in London. Other places that Rich chaperoned me to included Universal Studios, City Walk, Fred Segal, Winona’s favourite clothing store and eatery, the Chateau Marmont where she consummated her relationship with Johnny Depp about six months after they had clapped eyes on each other at the premiere of Winona’s Great Balls of Fire, and where, some time later, Kylie Minogue and Oliver Martinez would do much the same. We also took in another of Winona and Johnny’s haunts, Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, as well as Book Soup on Sunset Strip, where Winona usually buys most of her books from, and Saks Fifth Avenue, where Winona had been arrested for allegedly shoplifting in December 2001, just five months before I got there. It was interesting to hear from Hollywood insiders how the store had become a tourist attraction of sorts since Winona had been arrested, with tourists asking the inevitable questions such as "Where was Winona Ryder standing when she was arrested?" We were joined on some of our sightseeing by Jake Davis, a writer in Hollywood, whom I had met briefly in Petaluma, and who, in an amazing coincidence, walked into the Petaluma Argus-Courier a few days before I headed south, looking for background info for a story on Winona’s Petaluma.

We also went to Johnny Depp’s Viper Room, a trip round the Hollywood homes of the stars, Sunset Strip Tattoo where Johnny famously had his "Winona Forever" tattoo done, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Santa Monica, and I even got to go to a party in the Hollywood Hills on my last evening before heading back to Petaluma for another week prior to returning home to England.

It was in those last few days in Petaluma that I hooked up again with Chip McAuley, then a reporter for the Petaluma Argus-Courier, to discuss the idea of dedicating some kind of Petaluma commemoration to Winona, which was to include either a proclamation from the City of Petaluma, a commemorative plaque, or a film festival named after her. We had lots of ideas, but the most popular it seemed was to include a dedication plaque to Winona in the foyer at the then under-renovation Polly Hannah Klass Performing Arts Centre. We also kicked around some other ideas such as renaming one of the streets "Winona Ryder Alley" in the Jack Kerouac tradition, or "Winona Ryder Boulevard", but none came to fruition. Despite the favourable support the project gathered in the months after my visit, including interest from US Weekly, all the ideas where abandoned when Winona’s publicist rejected all that was proposed. And without Winona’s blessing, there seemed to be little point. It was a shame but we put a lot of it down to Winona’s bitter-sweet relationship with the town, which had basically stemmed from her adolescent traumas at school.

And that was my sabbatical tour of Winona country ten years ago, when I went to play and to retrace some of the locales where Winona made her magic and what I wrote about in my book, which to this day remains my favourite book out of all the books I have written during the last 20 years. Thanks to everyone who made my trip so much fun. The whole thing was a really wonderful way for me to find out and discover if I had got my descriptions of things accurate and correct and whether it was anything like I had imagined. I think it was, but with a few surprises!

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