Sunday, November 7, 2010

Behind the Scenes of "The Birds" in Bodega

I recently spoke with former Bodega resident Merritt Clifton, editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE magazine, and he had some fascinating stories to share about his time growing up in this area. I roared with laughter over his tales about being an extra in the famous Hitchcock movie, "The Birds." Merritt’s a gifted writer so I’m posting everything in his own words. Take it away Merritt:

I started school at Potter School in Bodega in 1958, and attended it most of the time until it was closed & moved temporarily into the fire hall at the beginning of 1962.

My father was the last principal of Potter School. My younger brother & I were among the four Potter students who were selected to be extras in The Birds.

The meeting hall that formed the top floor of the schoolhouse was converted into the interior of the house where the bird attacks were supposed to have occurred. The exterior shell of the house was set up on the baseball diamond beside Potter School.

The running scenes were filmed at Bodega Bay. The film was edited so as to move Potter School from Bodega to the location of the much less picturesque Grange Hall in Bodega Bay.

Although I was actually in only the classroom and running scenes, I was on the set for the filming of almost every scene involving bird attacks--which was accomplished in just four days of actual shooting time. (The set-up took much longer.)

Suzanne Pleshette was a natural teacher, off set as well as on, and spent a lot of time with the extras just because she liked children. She had an authoritative presence, but in a quite warm & gentle way.

Tippi Hedren was a constantly frightened nervous wreck--and the least visibly interested in animals, of anyone involved, other than Rod Taylor, who was terribly ill and spent most of the time when on the set in his chair, exhausted and apparently in pain. Some of the crew might have played mean tricks on Tippi, as she was not well-liked. Hitchcock and Pleshette were looking out for her, though Hitchcock also scolded her at times, more harshly than he ever scolded anyone else. Once she stuck her hand in a bird cage, was nipped by one of the normally quite well-behaved mynahs, and Hitchcock went ballistic.

The only live birds used by deliberate intent were several very highly trained mynahs, who were quite carefully handled at all times. Alfred Hitchcock was extremely strict about what was done with them. Presumably there was an American Humane Association set rep present, but even if there wasn't, neither Hitchcock nor Suzanne Pleshette would have put up with any animal abuse.

Hitchcock was very pro-animal anyway, liked to have the young extras following him around, and took many opportunities to explain things, including his intention of improving human treatment of birds. He asked if any of us had BB guns (none did), and vigorously denounced boys who shot birds with BB guns for fun.

Most of the birds used were:

a) Mechanical crows, dozens of them, that clipped to a person's clothing or hair like a bow tie.

b) Papier mache birds -- by the hundreds. The crew left some behind. My father gathered some of them up for souvenirs, and still has them.

c) Masonite silhouettes. There were hundreds of these, too. They were still visible, nailed to fences and rooftops, until many years later. They disappeared, I believe, during the hippie influx into the region of 1968-1973.

d) Wild volunteers. Birds frequently visited Potter School anyway, including gulls from Bodega Bay and all sorts of birds who fed along the banks of nearby Salmon Creek, but the bogus birds had the effect of decoys, bringing thousands of additional wild birds into the vicinity to see what was going on.

At that point, I had attended Potter School for three years, but had never before seen so many wild birds, there or anywhere. Hitchcock kept interrupting his own staged scenes to make sure the wild birds were captured on camera.

The other Potter school children who were in The Birds were my younger brother Ted Clifton; Debby Chenowyth, a gorgeous blonde whose father owned the sawmill just northeast of Bodega, & had two glamorous older sisters; and Vickie Lynn Nichols, a very hefty girl whose younger brother, Jerry Wayne Nichols, inherited & for some years operated the family dairy farm just west of Bodega, about halfway between Potter School and the Watson Valley schoolhouse.

There are only a couple of kids I can identify: me, twice; my brother Ted, who is the little guy at the extreme left of the classroom photo; and Vicky Lynn Nichols, who is running more or less beside me.

The running scenes were organized in two different ways: with all the Hollywood kids in front, and with all the Hollywood kids in back. Us locals were just to fill out the crowd.

The Hollywood kids were all an obnoxiously bratty lot, in my recollection. Bodega was a very warm, friendly little place where everyone knew everyone else & almost everyone was related, at least by marriage, so at first we were very taken aback by the sheer nastiness we encounted from the Hollywood kids. Even Debby, to them, was trash, several socio-economic levels below them, & they did not let her forget it.

But they were playing ball in our park. What the Hollywood kids learned in a hurry was that while they were all cut-throat rivals of each other for parts & hopes of future stardom, we were a team, including all the kids who were not part of the filming. Mess with one Bodega kid & you were messing with all.

Some of the Hollywood kids also may have seen that Alfred Hitchcock & Suzanne Pleshette, in particular, were warming up to us in a way that they didn't with the Hollywood brats.

Meanwhile back at the ranch -- well, in front of the Mantua Ranch, which included the hillside behind the school in this scene, that's me in front and my brother Ted right behind me, almost dead center in this scene, with Veronica Cartwright to the left, Morgan Brittany in front of me, and Tippi Hedren to the right, with another lad directly beside me. I believe the third girl from the left in the row of five, ending with Suzanne Pleshette, was Debbie Chenowyth. The girl directly beside Suzanne Pleshette may be Vicky Lynn Nichols. I can't identify the four blurred kids in front, except that they were all from Hollywood.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Stay tuned for my next post in which Merritt recounts how they threw one of the Hollywood child stars into the creek behind Potter Schoolhouse!


Merritt Clifton said...

One more quick correction -- the Nichols farm was about halfway from Potter School to the old Watson one-room school house going east from Bodega, not west.

Merritt Clifton said...

I neglected to mention in the e-mail that became this first installment that it was Tippi Hedren who 20 years later founded the ROAR Foundation and Shambala Preserve for rescued exotic pets & former animal actors in Acton, California, and was the author of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, to regulate interstate commerce in exotic and dangerous cats, which was introduced into Congress by the late Tom Lantos, and became law in December 2003.

That's the irony of the matter -- that Tippi, who seemed least interested in animals at the time of the filming, went on to devote most of her life to animals.

I visited Shambala about 12 years ago. Tippi didn't remember me at all, but really hadn't changed much.

Also, my brother Ted pointed out to me that there was a fifth Potter School student who was an extra in "The Birds" -- Little Mikey Piazzi, younger brother of Shirley Piazzi, whose mother was president of the Potter school board. Mikey & Shirley were cousins of Michael Piazzi, who was among the participants in the infamous creek episode. Michael was considered a very handsome lad, & when word got around that some of us from Potter were to be selected as extras, we all thought Michael would be the first & perhaps only boy chosen. Instead, he was passed over, but took it in stride, and was a staunch ally in our responses to the hectoring from the Hollywood brats.

Anonymous said...

For the record, there were a total of six locals who were chosen to be extras in The Birds, if you count them off as listed above, including "little Mikey" Piazzi. I would not have remembered which of us it was, but I did remember the number, and I especially remembered little Mikey, who fell down on one of the runs down the hill. He was picked up by Tippi Hedren, who, because of his diminutive size, was able to carry him the rest of the way to the bottom of the hill. We locals all hoped that unscripted performance would make it to the final cut, but it did not.

Ted L. Clifton

Elizabeth said...

Great story about the actual filming of 'The Birds'! During the filming. the crew hung out the only local watering hole, the Casino Bar in Bodega, just across the creek from the old Bodega Firehouse. Long time bar owner Evelyn Casini, was gifted two of the original papermache birds as souvenirs after the filming was finished. They are still in the Casino Bar, perch high above the pool tables.

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