Hollywood Heavy Hitters Hang on Gate 6 Road
Tuesday, September 4, 2014
Nearly 50 years ago, Hollywood stars Jimmy Stewart, Glynis Johns, Ed Wynn and even teen-idol Fabian came to Sausalito to film a light comedy in the houseboat community along Gate 6 Road.
The CinemaScope movie – titled Dear Brigitte because it involved the infatuation of an 8-year-old child prodigy with the sexy French actress, Brigitte Bardot – was based on a the book, Erasmus – With Freckles. It was written by San Francisco-born author John Haase.
Haase had placed much of the action in Sausalito’s colorful floating home neighborhood. In the book, the houseboat was named “The Tiburon” and Haase described it as a retired, permanently moored ferryboat that “had been carelessly beached. This caused it to list permanently six degrees to port.” As a result, “the craft was as mobile as a pyramid,” he wrote.
Haase made the location seem tremendously exotic, telling of the area’s “wonderful harbor noises.”
“The putt-putt of a diesel, a distant steamer’s whistle, the vessels backing against the wooden docks, the slap-slap of the gentle waves against a moored sailboat, a concertina, a winch being turned, a ship’s bell, a bell buoy, a distant foghorn,” Haase wrote.
He also addressed the houseboat community’s visual qualities.
“One could find a spot on top of the pilothouse and merely watch the bay around the ferry,” he wrote. “There was always a sailboat race or a weary tramp steamer coming through the Golden Gate.”
Haase seemed to think the bridge was visible from the houseboat community. Well, he couldn’t get everything right.
Officials at Twentieth Century Fox saw the colorful locale as a plus as they looked for a new vehicle for their star, Jimmy Stewart, in the wake of such successes as Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation and Take Her, She’s Mine.
The Bay Area had been good for Stewart before when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was filmed throughout San Francisco. Thus, shooting on location in Sausalito would give the star a chance to revisit the site of a success.
Glynis Johns was paired with Stewart as his on-screen wife. Johns was just becoming a familiar face to audiences with the release of Mary Poppins a few months prior.
Comedic actor Ed Wynn, another veteran of Mary Poppins, took the role of a neighbor who narrates the story for the movie audience. During the filming of the Sausalito scenes, Wynn became something of a favorite of the local population as he mingled with the crowds that came out to see the filming.
Playing Stewart’s son, the 8-year-old mathematics prodigy with a fixation on the Parisian sex kitten, was Bill Mumy. Despite his young age, Mumy already had a lengthy career in television with recurring roles on such shows as The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet.
Fabian’s role, the boyfriend of Stewart’s character’s daughter, was more a creation of the screenwriters, Hal Kanter and Nunnally Johnson, than of Haase. And this wasn’t the only change to the film from the novel.
The movie portrayed the professor’s family as the only residents on the houseboat. However, Haase’s novel described the layout of the “S.S. Tiburon” as family quarters on “A Deck,” while the “B Deck” was occupied by “wandering poets (and) poetry students.”
Other, smaller details were also changed in the process of turning the novel into a screenplay.
A key scene where the 8-year-old child detects an error in a bank’s statement of accounts took place in the Sausalito branch of the Bank of America. Whether or not it was that bank’s desire not to be portrayed as having sloppy statements, it became “Bayshore National Bank” in the film.
Bardot, who had a single scene in the movie, didn’t travel to California for the filming. Her scene was shot in Paris.
Fox sent a team including set decorator Steven Potter to scout locations. Potter recalled the locale as beautiful with great weather.
“We just had rain once” Potter said, noting “the people in the town were so very friendly.”
The scouting team picked a spot at the curve of Gate 6 Road, which gave views of Richardson’s Bay, houseboats and the Issaquah and Charles Van Damme ferries.
The “home” of Stewart’s “Professor Leaf” was shown as a side-wheeled vessel with twin smokestacks.
Potter said not all of the construction of the details for the set was strong enough for the safety of the actors. “The railings were falling off,” he said.
Following the design mandates of Artistic Director Joseph Martin Smith, Potter created a distinctly Victorian look for the houseboat. The exterior featured filigreed touches and the interior sets had red velvet wall coverings.
Most of the filming of interior scenes, however, was done on the sound stages of the former Hal Roach Studios in Southern California. Only the exterior scenes were shot along Gate Six Road.
While the company was filming those scenes, Potter’s wife came up for a weekend visit and the couple joined “Mr. Stewart” for dinner at The Trident restaurant on Bridgeway. This was during the time that the Trident was owned and operated by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber.