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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This summer we're featuring a series of stories about movies where the location is a big part of the story. Today it's the small town where "American Graffiti" was set. George Lucas's 1973 classic was the story of two friends about to leave their hometown after high school. And it's a familiar place for NPR's Larry Abramson.

(Soundbite of song, "Rock Around the Clock")

Mr. BILL HALEY (Singer): (Singing) One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock, rock. Five...

LARRY ABRAMSON: Watch the opening scenes of "American Graffiti" and you'll catch glimpses of my hometown, San Rafael, California, as it flits past the windshields of the classic cars that serve as the real set of this movie.

As the film opens, Steve, played by Ron Howard, and Curt, Richard Dreyfuss, are whiling away their last night home before leaving for college back East. Curt is plagued by doubts, and Steve has to speak a little courage to him.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

Mr. RON HOWARD (Actor): (as Steve): We're finally getting out of this turkey town and now you want to crawl back into your cell, right? Do you want to end up like John? You just can't stay 17 forever. You've got to get that in your head.

Mr. RICHARD DREYFUSS (Actor): (as Curt) I need - I just need some time.

ABRAMSON: What is it about this turkey town that makes it so confining?�We never really learn that. We just know that this place, a composite of San Rafael and a bunch of other Bay Area burgs, is nowhere.�It's a cultural backwater that drowns anyone who stays here past high school. Like the character John Milner, the town's ruling drag racer.�Just out of high school, he's already beset by nostalgia for a mythic past.��

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

Mr. PAUL LE MAT (Actor): (as John Miler) The whole strip is shrinking. You know, I remember about five years ago taking a couple of hours, a tank full of gas just to make one circuit.

ABRAMSON: Our heroes spend a restless night driving up and back, hooking up, looking for love, searching for some excitement. They have to keep moving to get to that special place that they never find.

It's a familiar feeling to me and the guy I used to drive around with in high school, Rob Pollock.

So here we are in a Friday night in San Rafael and there's nobody out.

Mr. ROB POLLOCK: Nothing.

ABRAMSON: Sit's over.

Mr. POLLOCK: It's over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Rob and I recently got together - it was the first time in about 25 years - for a memorial cruise up Fourth Street, to remember our endless wild-goose chases after that elusive party.

Mr. POLLOCK: Sometimes you get a definite address and sometimes it was sort of this vague thing. So a lot of the night was spent driving, trying to find a party.

ABRAMSON: By the time Rob and I could drive, cruising was already in decline. Muscle cars drink a lot of gas and it's tough to cruise in your mom's Toyota.

When "American Graffiti" came out in our senior year, the movie actually reintroduced cruising like an extinct plant returned to its native habitat.

Mr. POLLOCK: And Fourth Street was huge. It would take you an hour to crawl through Fourth Street because it was so bumper-to-bumper you couldn't make it through the light, there were so many cars.

ABRAMSON: "American Graffiti" had that effect in a lot of places, like Petaluma, California, where most of the film was actually made.

(Soundbite of car engine)

ABRAMSON: Petaluma is now the staging ground for an annual tribute to the film, full of classic beauties like this red 55 Chevy pickup. It belongs to John Furrer, who helps organize the event. Furrer likes to give tours of the spots where key scenes were filmed, like the final race on Paradise Road.

Mr. JOHN FURRER: You get this(ph) little knoll, where - it's actually where the 55 Chevy went off the road. You guys ready?

(Soundbite of squealing tires)

ABRAMSON: That race ends in a crash that humbles both racers and helps convince the character of Steve to put off college and stay with his hometown girl.

John Furrer knows that feeling. Like the main characters, Furrer felt pressure to leave town and go to college. But after two weeks, he turned around and came back.

Mr. FURRER: I wasn't ready to leave home. No. I was kind of like Ron Howard in the movie, where he wanted to, he was ready to, he thought he could do everything, but yet there were too many things holding him back. And that's kind of what happened with me.

ABRAMSON: Furrer married, settled down in Petaluma, and appears happy as a clam here. The character of Curt needs a major shove before he follows his destiny to leave this joint.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOLFMAN JACK (Disc Jockey): Wolfman's top 40 is Box 1300 Chula Vista.

ABRAMSON: Curt seeks out legendary DJ Wolfman Jack in the hopes of getting a message to the mysterious blond he's spotted. Instead, the man whose alter ego booms from every car radio in town gives Curt some advice.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

Mr. JACK: If the Wolfman was here, he'd say get your (bleep) in gear.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACK: There's a great big beautiful world out there.

ABRAMSON: Curt follows that call and gets on a plane.

This movie, most movies, portray this as the courageous choice: get out of town. But as we're reminded in the film's final scene, leaving your home town doesn't change everything.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Graffiti")

Unidentified Actor: (as character) You probably think you're a big shot going off like this. But you're still a punk.

ABRAMSON: That is one undeniable fact I'm reminded of when I go back. No matter how far away you roam, your first step on home territory turns you back into that sniveling punk you were in high school.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodnight Sweetheart")

THE SPANIELS (R&B doo-wop group): (Singing) Goodnight sweetheart, well, it's time to go...

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you hear Larry on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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