When Hollywood Landed In Carson Valley: An Oral History Of ‘The Wizard’
Editor’s Note: This story originially published on June 12, 2015
by Joey Crandall, firstname.lastname@example.org • 24 min read
I don’t really remember how I got there. My best guess is that Aaron Sanchez’s mom drove us all down there. A whole van full of us.
It was June of 1989.
“The Wonder Years” was the reigning Emmy Award Winner for best comedy series and 12-year-old Fred Savage was on the cover of the latest TV Guide.
A 20-year-old Christian Slater was just two months out of his appearance in “Heathers,” Jenny Lewis was still a good 10 years away from launching her music career and Beau Bridges was, well, Beau Bridges.
And they were all in Carson Valley to shoot a movie – something about a kidnapping, and a road trip. And a big video game contest.
It made perfect sense at the time.
I don’t remember how I got there, but I remember how Esmeralda Avenue looked. There were cameras and trailers all over the place. A lift truck was off to the side. There was scaffolding, maybe.
The C.O.D. Garage looked different than it normally did.
They held us all, a big crowd of us, off at a distance — toward the west side of the garage.
There were whispers behind us.
“Did you hear? Johanna Sergott’s sister met Fred Savage!”
Autograph, picture, handshake. The whole deal. Girls around us squealed with delight. I guess it was pretty cool.
Around the corner of the Minden Inn, all made up to look like a small-town diner – Selma’s – came a flash of red hair. Jenny Lewis was ushered quickly up the steps and inside.
“That’s the girl … the actress, you know?”
“She was just in the movie about the Girls Scouts … you know, in Beverly Hills?”
Hushed approval rippled through the crowd.
Quite a bit more craning of necks, squinting to see inside “Selma’s” windows, hoping to claim we saw something amazing.
It was hot, the air was stale and nothing happened. It may have been an hour. It felt like an hour, but I was 9 years old, so it just as easily could have been 15 minutes.
I didn’t see “The Wizard” when it was in the theaters. Frankly, I haven’t talked to anyone around here who did.
But I remember distinctly watching it on VHS tape, in my grandparents’ living room the following summer.
There was Eddy Street. And the bed & breakfast. Several minutes passed and then the C.O.D., the red-head and the fictitious “Selma’s.”
About 20 minutes in, there was Beau Bridges, throwing a shovel like a javelin into the middle of Esmeralda Avenue.
I remember smiling at that. That was my home. It was in a movie.
And I watched it happen.
“The Wizard” wasn’t the first movie filmed in Carson Valley. Nor was it the last. You’ll often hear talk of “Chicken Every Sunday” or “Charley Varrick” with Walter Matthau. “Misery” was filmed in Genoa and 2012’s “The Motel Life” with Dakota Fanning was filmed in part at the JT Basque Bar & Dining Room in Gardnerville.
What made “The Wizard” unique was a basic confluence of timing, interest and availability.
Fred Savage, at the time, was the lead actor on television’s biggest show. The movie, as it turned out, was essentially a 96-minute commercial for the world’s most popular video gaming system (The moral of the story: “Nintendo brings families together!”). Valley schools had just let out for the summer and Carson Valley Days had just passed.
If you were a kid in Carson Valley at the time, you likely wound up at one of the filming locations at least once. And if you didn’t, you knew someone who did. There just wasn’t anything else going on.
The movie became a landmark of the collective 80s-90s Gardnerville childhood. You showed it to your friends while you were away at college. And you showed it to your co-workers after that.
“There it is, right there. That’s where I grew up. And that’s how it looked when I grew up there.”
Compared against our similar experiences, these statements were probably met with little interest — a curious raise of the eyebrow at best.
“Uh, that’s cool.”
But it was important to us, wasn’t it?
Late in 2014, I started casually asking around, “Hey, what were you up to when they made ‘The Wizard’ 25 years ago?”
The answers intrigued me. They were as unique as they were uniform. After getting over the shock of the 25-year time span, tidbits of information and anecdote came to the surface.
Over time, a narrative began to develop – bringing with it more questions. How did the production crew end up here? Why Gardnerville? How many people around here have Fred Savage’s autograph? How many pictures with the stars are hiding in photo albums and shoeboxes around the Valley?
What follows is a collection of the answers we managed to find.
Then-Gov. Richard Bryan created the Nevada State Film Commission in the mid-80s and Robin Holabird became the film commissioner in Northern Nevada (a position which she’d hold for 21 years) around 1987.
“It was really a fascinating job,” Holabird said. “There were some hassles and stress, like any job, and it was definitely work at times. But overall, it was fascinating. One day rarely looked like the next.”
Aside from its wide open spaces, Nevada had something else going for it.
“Gambling, at the time, was not as prolific across the country,” Holabird said. “There was Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Reno and Tahoe. And that was pretty much it.
“A lot of stories we ended up bringing here had a plot point where characters either needed to win a lot of money, or lose a lot of money. Where else would you go to do that?”
The script for ‘The Wizard’ – a movie about a young boy (played by Luke Edwards) with an unnamed, but serious mental illness who is kidnapped by his older brother (Savage) and taken on an impromptu road trip, during which Edwards’ character discovers an innate ability to win video games – came across the Nevada State Film Commission’s desk in early 1989.
“In the Southern Nevada Office, they referred to the movie as ‘Rain Boy,’ which the writer (David Chisholm) took great offense to,” Holabird said, “We joked around for a time that that’s why it ended up in Northern Nevada.
“When the reviews came out, the ‘Rain Boy’ phrase came back a couple times. It definitely had similar elements to Rain Man, which was also a Nevada movie that involves a lot of road travel in the story, someone needing to win a lot of money. In any case, ‘Rain Man’ and ‘The Wizard’ shared a lot of traits, including plot qualities that made Nevada a desirable shooting location.”
But the script called for Utah.
The Wizard opens on a wide shot of a lonely highway as Edwards’ character, Jimmy Woods, slowly emerges over the vapored horizon – the entire scene pulsing with the rhythm of BoDean’s “You don’t Get Much.”
“The script opened at Arches National Park in Utah,” Holabird said. “That’s what the writer truly, truly wanted. But that area of Utah was not as flexible for the rest of the road trip.
“Given the budget of the movie, finding a location for most of their shots in one region made more sense here.
“They liked the look of Pyramid Highway (outside of Sparks). It suited the producers’ tastes. Once they settled on having that opening shot on the Pyramid Highway, they started scouting different locations around the Reno area that would fit in.
“They used the Peppermill in Reno, the drive-in theater in Fallon. There were some scenes at Lake Tahoe and we needed some desert scenery. And, of course, we had a couple locations set up in Gardnerville and Minden. We had everything in a relatively small radius that they would need for the film. Gardnerville and Fallon could pass for middle America pretty well, and there was an overall nice diversity of looks available to us.”
Crews started filming June 12, 1989 at the then-Reid Mansion Bed & Breakfast on Ezell Street in Gardnerville. They moved on to Esmeralda with both the Minden Inn and the C.O.D. Garage and filmed additional scenes on Genoa Lane and other Carson Valley roads.
“They stayed at the Carson Valley Inn when they were shooting in the Gardnerville area and the Grand Sierra Resort, or whatever it was called then, when they were shooting in Reno,” Holabird said. “It was nice. It gave the local hotels business. The production company liked that.”
“We shot a large portion of scenes at the C.O.D. Garage,” Holabird said. “They were excited to have the crews there. They were trying to get us to find a copy of “Chicken Every Sunday,” which had also been shot there. We never did find a copy.”
By the time filming reached Esmeralda, word had spread around town and the scene had become quite the attraction.
“I remember hearing it from my friend, Darren,” said Evan Jones, who was 11 years old at the time. “He’d actually met Fred Savage very briefly when he was in the arcade at CVI and he’d heard about them shooting.
“We decided to ride our bikes out to check it out. It was surprisingly boring. They had to keep you so far away and they were filming inside at the time. There was nothing to see. I guess you kind of romanticize what a Hollywood film set would be like, but there just came a point where you start thinking, ‘this is really slow.’
“We had missed all the outdoor shoots, where the guy had attacked the other guy’s car, busted out the lights. The car was still out there, and that was kind of cool.”
Some dissatisfied with the view from down Esmeralda found other options to get closer to the action.
“I had people coming through the back of the store to watch through our display windows,” said Roxanne Stangle, owner of Tumblewind Antiques & Collectibles just a couple doors down from the Minden Inn. “People would just park out back and come through the back door. The crews had said they didn’t care if we were standing out in front a little, as long as they weren’t shooting out there.
“It was just an exciting time for a small town. When they were doing a couple of the action scenes with the cars, we had a number of people standing in my big windows.”
Other locals found a more direct route on set.
“I was taking some acting classes at a strip mall in Reno, ones that just taught the fundamentals and things like that,” said Tom Kerley, who had just finished the eighth grade at Carson Valley Middle School. “It was pretty off and on. I did some community theater at the CVIC Hall when I was younger.
“The guy teaching my acting classes had been in contact with a casting agent. I guess when a film is being made in the area, the people who do all the casting will contact local agencies and try to find local people to fill small parts. Extras, small speaking parts – parts that don’t impact the film so much.”
Kerley went to Reno for a script-reading and found out shortly after that he’d received a part.
Between landing the part and the start of filming, Kerley’s parents bought him a dirt bike, which he promptly crashed. The accident fractured his wrist.
“They put a Velcro cast on my arm – it was about a week before filming was supposed to start,” Kerley said. “It was kind of a big deal. My parents thought they would find someone else for the part. It turned out fine though.”
Kerley had to report at 6 a.m., the day of filming for his scene – he had a brief scripted interchange with the creepy bounty hunter looking for the main characters – which was scheduled to begin in the afternoon.
“You had to be there, they didn’t want to be waiting on you,” he said. “I remember just kind of wandering around aimlessly. There were these modified RVs, like dressing trailers, and one had my name on it. I hung out in there, came out for lunch and that was pretty much it.
“Hanging out around the set, all the actors had lunch together. It was very open. Almost surprising how unsecured it was, but it was the 80s, maybe it’s different now. It was very social, nothing like, ‘You can’t talk to the stars,’ or anything like that.”
He finally wound up in front of the cameras around 7 p.m.
“I’d been there for 13 hours, and we did maybe six takes,” Kerley said. “The actual acting part of it was probably less than 30 minutes.”
Many years later, Kerley happened to tell to his then fiance, Melissa (mentioned above), about his brief brush with stardom.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Melissa Kerley said. “It was such a big thing at the time for anyone growing up around here. We had to watch it together then, of course. We watched it with our kids. It was such a fun time for our town when they filmed the movie. Lo and behold, I end up a guy who was in the movie. It was just one of those crazy things.”
The Kerleys have been married for seven years and now live in Medford, Ore.
The C.O.D. Garage kept up its day-to-day operations during the filming.
“We just tried to work around what they were doing,” said Robb Hellwinkel, who worked for his father and uncle at the garage. “They turned our garage into a bus station.
“They rebuilt our canopy out front, we were a Union 76 dealer, but they made it into a Sinclair establishment with the green dinosaur.”
Most of the scenes shot in the garage were in the front office, which is now the main floor of the C.O.D. Casino. The cashier’s window and desk, along with much of the old office, have been preserved in the museum at the back of the casino, though.
“There is a scene, where if you look over the clerk’s shoulder, there is the Miller’s Market calendar hanging on the wall,” Hellwinkel said. “The cash register, the old Regulator clock, it’s all in there. But at that time, Miller’s Market was still open. Jimmy Miller was running it. He was excited that his calendar was in the movie.”
The surprising thing to me, was you maybe see Minden and Gardnerville for 15 minutes of the actual film,” Hellwinkel said. “But for that 15 minutes, it was an all-day event, every day. For just a 60-second shot, it would take hours.
“The amount of time they had to spend filming was really an eye-opener. I couldn’t believe it.”
Hellwinkel was also impressed with the actors.
“They were just normal, down-to-earth guys,” he said. “They didn’t act like they were too big for the town. They hung out and talked with you. It was pretty neat.”
Holabird said her role was to address the needs of the location as well as the crew’s.
“The way it worked up here, I usually dropped in on the set several times a week just to see how things were going,” Holabird said. “ We didn’t have cell phones of course, so you’d drop by and ask if they needed anything. I’d also check with the property owners, asking if everything was going OK,. if they were happy. You wanted everyone to be getting what they needed out of the process.
“Issues would come up during filming. One scene, the kids are directing an adult about how to play craps. That’s actually not legal, you can’t have kids on the floor in a casino. Management at the Peppermill was concerned. The CEO was named Phil Bryan. He said ‘I need a sign-off from the gaming commission that it is OK to shoot this scene here with the kids.’ So, Alan Bible was the head of the gaming commission at the time, I had to go to him and get a written letter saying it was no problem.”
“Since ‘The Wizard’, that particular movie started the interest and exposure to the C.O.D. Garage,” Hellwinkel said. “From that point forward, thanks to the Nevada State Film Commission, we had a lot of interest. There were film scouts coming through to take a look at the place.
“There were more than one of the directors and crew that said if we were closer to Los Angeles, they’d be renting it out on a regular basis.
“Porsche North America came up to do a photo shoot here. Kawasaki Motorcycles did a shoot here. There was a sporting goods company.
“Something they loved was the natural light in here. We had a skylight just above our wash bay. It was perfect lighting for photo shoots and movie filming. They just loved it.”
“There were definitely onlookers,” Holabird said. “Fred Savage at the time had just been on the cover of TV Guide, so people were bringing copies by and getting him to sign them. He was very good with his fans, very level-headed and friendly.
“The movie, looking back, really did have a lot of star power. Fred Savage was a real popular star, Christian Slater was on his way up, but he was only maybe 20 years old at the time. Beau Bridges, of course, was a well-respected actor.
“But the kids, they were a nice group of kids. The Savages were a real close family, Fred’s little sister, and brother Ben, who went on to star in ‘Boy Meets World’ were here. Fred’s mom was on the set with him almost every day. They were just a real healthy family, which seeing child stars over the years, honestly just wasn’t always the case.”
Holabird even went rafting on the Carson River with the cast and crew during their stay in Carson Valley.
“The production company thought, ‘We’re here for an extended time, let’s get out and enjoy the Sierra and do something fun.’ Fred got in trouble with his mom, he came over to my raft with a big bucket of water and splashed it on me. His mom was upset about that, but it was all in fun.”
Peck had similar impressions of the Savage family.
“Fred and his mom, and sister, and Ben, who went on to star in his own show, they were all there,” she said. “My impression, I’ll never forget, I loved his mom. They were the coolest people. I think he ended up graduating from Stanford . He never seemed like the child stars who get completely messed up. I attribute a lot of that to his mom. She insisted on him living normally. He had to go to school, he was polite.
“I’ve always remembered what he was like, especially with all the attention surrounding him.”
Good times! I'm happy Carson Valley remembers our shoot there as fondly as I do. https://t.co/EFg0bfPXwp
— Fred Savage (@thefredsavage) June 16, 2015
26 YEARS LATER
The movie itself debuted at No. 5 in the box office during the second week of December 1989 and opened to negative reviews across the board.
“I remember we went to see it at Meadowdale Theater in Gardnerville,” Kerley said. “People were clapping whenever they’d see someone they knew or a scene that had been filmed here. It was exciting.”
Despite the reviews, the movie developed something of a cult following over the years and served as a launching point for many of its key players.
Director Todd Holland went on to an Emmy-award winning career directing both The Larry Sanders Show and Malcolm in the Middle.
Producer Ken Topolsky was already producing “The Wonder Years” and continued to produce the show through its six seasons.
“I used to bump into Ken from time to time over the years,” Holabird said. “I took a picture of Ken and Fred together that he kept on his desk for years.”
Lewis starred in several more films and TV shows, but later became the lead singer of the band “Rilo Kiley” before launching a successful career as a solo music artist. Edwards starred in both “Newsies” and “Little Big League.”
A young Tobey Maguire, of “Spiderman” fame, has an uncredited role as an extra in the film.
Slater, of course, went on to become a Hollywood blockbuster star, appearing in everything from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” to “The West Wing.” Bridges, already well into his acting career at the time of filming for “The Wizard” has piled up 192 acting credits over the years.
The film also marked the unveiling of the wildly-popular Super Mario Bros. 3 video game and the Power Glove, which during its brief screen time can be very clearly seen not working properly – which unfortunately was a sign of things to come for the ill-fated, but still irrevocably cool, product.
The film’s antagonist, Lucas Barton, has become a viral internet meme sensation in recent years with his signature, “I love the Power Glove … It’s so bad” proclamation.
“The movie had some staying power,” Holabird said. “I read several years back that one of the athletes at the University of Nevada from Poland said a part of the reason she came to Reno was she’d seen the city in ‘The Wizard’ and wanted to come here.
“That’s part of the power of movies,” Holabird said. “You just don’t know what will really stick with someone.”
Peck said there’s just something different about a movie made where you live.
“I remember the film ‘Harold and Maude,’” Peck said. “I was standing on the street behind some saw horses when they were doing the wedding scene. It was filmed in all my old stomping grounds in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I don’t know, when you were there when they filmed it, it takes on a special significance to you.”
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