Monday, June 26, 2017

MELS BOWLING FOR BURGERS


I grew up in Redwood City, CA for the first 12yrs of my life.  I recall celebrating my friends' birthday parties at Mels Bowl. I also recall being a horrible bowler.  Like most sports I participated in, I wasn't very good. I sucked, to put it bluntly.  Being left-handed made it more difficult to learn from others. At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Regardless, of my lack of ability, I somehow always managed to have fun when I played.  It must be some sort of masochistic tendency I have. So, it was much to my dismay when I read a while back that the bowling alley where I first learned to bowl-badly was no longer standing. Without further adieu, and any more "gutter" talk lets segue into today's topic:  The demise of Mels Bowling and the struggle to preserve a nostalgic piece of history.
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 Mels bowling, formally located at 2580 El Camino Real in Redwood City had been a landmark since 1960.  In 1969 Mel Weiss sold the business and it was renamed "AMF Redwood Lanes" but the Mels sign was never changed and it remained an iconic marker for Redwood City before it finally closed down May 8, 2011. Despite the name change, up until its closing the bowling alley continued to be referred to as "Mels Bowl." The building was demolished in 2012 to make room for a 4-story apartment complex.
Goodwin Steinberg (1920-2010) was a master architect who designed the bowling alley which was constructed between 1959 and 1960.  The Boicelli family had owned the property for over 100 years before it was leased to Mel Weiss who established and operated the bowling alley for about 10 years.

There were many who wanted to preserve the bowling alley.  As a result, the city council studied a submitted environmental impact report and considered Redwood City's Historic Resource Advisory Committee's recommendations to keep the bowling alley.   When it was all over and the dust had cleared the building was considered to typify post-war bowling alley architecture but it did not stand out as significant in terms of architectural style.  The Mel's bowling sign, however did appear to be significant locally and at the state level as a good example of mid-century Googie sign. The tall freestanding mid-century Googie sign was considered to have integrity in Redwood City.  The sign made the listing on the California Register of Historical Resources (CRHR). Good news!  The beautiful sign would not be destroyed.  The challenge became finding a more appropriate location for the sign...

Stretched out over a two and half acre lot, the rectangular building looked fairly ordinary and did not stand out in architectural style.

 

Because the inside had been updated, the lanes themselves did not conjure up nostalgia by any means.

 
The free-standing, vertically oriented neon sign was located at the front of the lot at 2580 El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA in a typical mid-century appealing decorative style.  Opened: 1960 Closed: 2011.
 
The sign found a new home at the Redwood City Car Wash, 215 El Camino about 2 miles down the road from it's original location.  Photo:  http://www.roadarch.com/signs/ca15.html

  
Although a bowling alley and a car wash couldn't be more different types of businesses, the wording on the sign has slowly evolved as the towering structure was refurbished.   Photo:  Bonnie Eslinger/Daily News

So who is this Mel guy? You may ask.  He is Mel Weiss who owned three other bowling alleys designed by Goodwin Steinberg: Mels Palm Bowl in San Jose (built in 1957), Mels Southshore in Alameda (1960) and Saratoga Lanes in San Jose (1959).

Mel Weiss is better known as the co-founder of the famous Mels Drive-in chain.  He and Harold Dobbs built their first car hop eatery in San Francisco in 1947 and launched a large chain of similarly named Mels Drive-in restaurants in San Francisco and other large northern California cities.

 
The first Mels drive-in to be built was located at 140 S. Van Ness San Francisco, CA. The grand opening was December 23, 1947.

The drive-in chain's popularity held sway for a little over 20 years before it started to lose its appeal due to the competition of quickly emerging fast food restaurants such as McDonalds, Jack in the Box, Burger King and others.  Ironically, by 1976, the first Mels built was the last to be demolished.


The 140 S. Van Ness Ave. location had a huge parking lot in front for drive-in service and another parking lot in the back for Mels Grille Room which provided a little fancier experience with valet parking, candlelight dinners and a cocktail bar.  This drive-in is probably the most famous Mels location as it was featured in the nostalgic George Lucas classic, American Graffiti (1973).  

Mel Weiss' son, Steven Weiss grew up parking cars at Mels and later managing one of the chain's locations.  With the business still in his blood, Steven Weiss and partner Donald Wagstaff opened a popular reproduction of Mels in 1985. There are now four in San Francisco and three in the Los Angles area with another location to open soon in Santa Monica.

 
A plaque has been set up to honor the nostalgic sign.
  

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 Bibliography:
  • California Signs page 15. Roadside Architecture.com website: http://www.roadarch.com/signs/ca15.html
  • Clifford, Jim.  Mels Bowl, a Trip Down Memory Lane. July 8, 2011.  Redwood City Patch website.  https://patch.com/california/redwoodcity-woodside/mels-bowl-a-trip-down-memory-lane.
  • David, Heather. Mels Bowl Redwood City.  [Photo].  Flicker.com
  • Mels Bowl. Draft Historic Resource Evaluation April 15, 2011. Appendix E
  • Mels Bowl Sign. [Photo] Waymarking.com website:  http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM2YHB_Mels_Bowl_Sign_Redwood_City_Ca
  • Tale of two Signs. August 30, 2013. Walking Redwood City website: https://walkingredwoodcity.com/2013/08/
 
 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

PAINTING GRAFFITI: A Conversation with Don Orlandi



Don Orlandi is a famous name to those who are diehard fans of the 1973 nostalgic film American Graffiti. Don painted and assisted in the bodywork of the vehicles driven by the lead actors. Little did he know at the time that these vehicles for George Lucas’ low-budget car film would become some of the most popular, copied and desired cars of all automotive history, particularly, the yellow ‘32 coupe. 

Orlandi grew up in Sonoma, CA and had always had a strong interest in cars. His first job was sweeping the floors for Barsotti's Body and Fender in San Rafael. He was always trying to get the employees to teach him how to paint. Pretty soon he had the shop guys teaching him how to do body work. They were always willing to help a young kid learn the business. Don picked it up very quickly, soaking up the techniques like a sponge.  While attending high school in 1970 his father and Dennis Close started Close and Orlandi Body Shop. Don immediately began working in the new shop part time.  After graduating from Mount Tamalpias High School in 1971, Don attended Marin Junior College studying Auto Shop for two years while continuing to work in his dad’s shop painting cars. During his time as a student at community college he had  aspirations of becoming a teacher and sharing his knowledge with others however, in order to get a teaching degree he would need to take several more years of school and that cost money. It was not to be. He had moved into an apartment with his fiancé and was soon working full time to support a small family,   

His attitude, flexibility and willingness to attempt to do whatever it would take to complete body repairs caused the Orlandi's shop to earn a positive reputation throughout the Northern Bay Area of San Francisco. Before long Don was asked to help prepare some older cars for a low-budget movie that was being filmed locally, called American Graffiti.  Knowing nothing about the film, he agreed to the task and wound up painting a total of nine cars including a '53 Mercury, a '58 Impala and a '32 yellow deuce coupe. A few years later he painted over fourteen cars for the sequel, More American Graffiti, including an El Camino, a Dodge Wagon a moving van, cop cars, two Chevrolet trucks and several dragster bodies. 

Last May, we met up at his shop, Past & Perfect where we sat in two vintage barber chairs to converse. Speaking in a friendly deep voice that is both resonant and clear, Don discussed his early years as a car painter. 

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Don surrounded by memorabilia in his shop. Photo: Bob Canning, Argus-Courier Staff
 
KIP: Let's go back a bit. Were you working on celebrity cars before Graffiti?  

DON:  Yes, before and after. Through the 1970s we were working on many famous people’s cars. Some were already famous while others had yet to become well known.  For example, David Crosby of Crosby Stills and Nash had this Ferrari that he kept wrecking. He came to us and we’d repair it for him.  Another musician, Carlos Santana was a customer. He was driving an old 1950’s Bentley. It had suicide doors on it.  He drove it in to his garage and had the car door open and it practically ripped off the door and side panel. So we had to fix that and then he also wanted me to put a TV set in the back seat.  
Santana early '70s
 At the time he spoke broken English and it was difficult to understand what he said.  Of course now, he speaks perfect English, [laughs]. As time went on celebrities spread the word, about where to go and what to do, and of course Henry was feeding us business too which increased our patronage.  We even had the jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi (probably most famous for composing music for The Peanuts cartoons). So it became normal to see those kinds of people around.  

 KIP:  So you were keeping busy working on celebrities’ cars. How did you react to all this?  Were you star struck?   

DON:  I don’t think I really knew the impact.  That was the funny part. At the time it didn’t mean much because many had not heard of these entertainers because they hadn’t become internationally known yet. Many had yet to reach international stardom.  Carlos Santana in 1971 wasn’t much-yet.  David Crosby was making money, I kind of knew who he was, and I recognized him.  Yet, the fame and fortune hadn’t quite peaked with those guys.  Then George Lucas comes in with this scruffy beard, you look at this guy and think, and “You’re making a movie?” I was raising a family in my early twenties and so that was the most important thing in my life.  I didn’t have time to pay attention to celebrities or trends. 
Disney artist, Milt Kahl was thrilled with Orlandi's work on his Panther
I became the go-to guy in the area because I could do things fast, I was good at it and inexpensive. One time a very distinguished older gentleman came in to the shop with a Panther (an English car built out of parts from a Jaguar) and personally asked for me to help him with his car. He said, “I got word around town that you’re the guy that can help me. All I need is someone to spot paint the fenders…but everybody else wants to repaint the car to match the body work and everyone wants $10,000 to fix it,” he said. I told him to leave it with me for a week and I’ll fix just what you want.  Seven days later he returned and was thrilled with the results.  I had sanded down just the edges, sprayed the edges and blended them in so they looked perfect. Rather than clear coat the fenders. My dad charged him a minimal amount. He was so pleased he took my wife and I out to some really fancy place to dinner in Sausalito.  He was retired and I didn’t learn his occupation until later when he started telling me about himself.  Turns out he was Milt Kahl one of the early animators at the Disney Studios. He was fascinating and such a sweet guy.  I later learned he worked on many Disney features at a time when animators were highly regarded and treated as royalty. He drew Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland, just to name a few.   

KIP: How did you become involved with preparing the cars for American Graffiti?   

DON:  We became involved in the movie through Henry and Jackie Travers who lived in Sonoma, CA. Henry Travers, was the Transportation Manger for Graffiti.  

KIP: I know Travers had a lot to do with transporting the cars to the film locations and keeping them running, he also drove the yellow coupe in the climactic drag race scene in the film.  Did you know Henry Travers, before the pre-production of American Graffiti?  

DON: About year after my dad had opened his shop, Henry introduced himself to us and he began bringing us his personal vehicles to repair. For example, he had an old van and some stuff he needed to be fixed so they would come to my dad.  Our families quickly became good friends: My mom, dad, Henry and Jackie Travers.  So that’s how we began the association. Henry was also a friend with my dad’s first partner, in the body shop business, Dennis Close. My dad and Dennis Close were both owners of the shop in the early days, which was called, Close-Orlandi Body & Fender; located in San Rafael. Henry used to race hardtops; “Super Modifieds,” they called them at the time, and Dennis Close also raced.  So that was a three-way connection: Dennis Close, Henry Travers, and my family, The Orlandis. We developed both a personal and professional relationship that lasted for years.  
"Close" cover before striking
KIP: So then it was Travers that recommend Lucas and company to you?   

DON: When the movie thing came up, Henry told Lucas, “I’ve got just the guy!” Referring to me, of course.  He brought us everything.  So it was really cool that we got to meet George Lucas, and we got to meet all the actors who were on the verge of stardom. Nobody knew who he or she was at the time. As time progressed I slowly watched them grow and become zillionaires.  

KIP:  Although you didn’t know the other actors, you probably recognized Ron Howard?
 
Ron Howard driving a T-bucket roadster in the Mels Drive-in parking lot.

DON: Yeah, it was fun, and I met “Opie” [laughs]. It was cool. But I never thought to take photos or get autographs of all the actors in the film. I just didn’t think of stuff like that at the time. Of course, we didn’t have cell phones with cameras back then.  So, I didn’t think twice about it.     

KIP: So, did you paint all the main cars driven by the actors?  

DON: Yes. Most of them. All the good ones [laughs]. 

KIP: Tell me about the ’32 ford coupe or what is now known as “Milner’s coupe.”

DON: I didn’t paint the deuce coupe originally.  It came to us yellow. So when I was originally going to repaint it I started off with something that I was spraying in the shop but I wound up spraying it with something I had on the bench.  

KIP: According to a Rod & Custom article from August 1991, the color was a modified shade of Corvette Yellow, which was a Daytona, Yellow.  While other sources have described the color as a Canary Yellow lacquer.   

DON: They may call it Canary Yellow but that’s not the correct name of the color. It started off as a GM color but it has other colors mixed in. There’s no formal name for it.  It’s Don’s creation. People always used to ask me, “What’s the color, what’s the color?”  I guess I’m the only one who knows [Laughs].  But knowing that information and having $2.00 in my pocket won’t buy me a cup of coffee. But, its’ my secret.  

KIP:  [Laughs]
 
Transportation Manager, Henry Travers (white t-shirt) positioning cars into the parking spaces at Mels.

DON: Anyway, I painted it yellow.  The door jams were black and I painted them yellow. The seats and interior were already painted black. It was rough.  Nothing fancy. I kept thinking I want to take this thing out and jump on it.  So, I jumped the battery while it was parked in the shop. I warmed it up; drove around the block and the radiator blew up.  The top seam of the radiator blew apart. So, I had to call Henry Travers and tell him he better get it fixed before they start filming. So it was soldered up. That’s the kind of car it was.  

KIP: It was more about the appearance rather than the performance.  

DON: Correct.  Then during filming they banged it up so much, I had to retouch it over many times. They’d chaffed the fenders too.  

KIP: Weren’t they hanging from the side of the cars with cameras?

DON: Yes and they’d put big gouges in the quarter panels and all that stuff.  It was up to me to try to fix it in time for each evening’s filming.   Besides that I had eight hours of work to do for the family’s body shop.  So my dad would say, ‘ Here’s what you do make up a gallon of paint, we’ll fix the damper really quick and put a coat of paint on the whole car rather than try to blend it in. 
 
Lucas directs the action while hanging from the side of the coupe
 
KIP:  So you’d repaint the entire car?  

DON: That’s right.  There wasn’t much to the body.  It took a few minutes to take a scratch pad or Scotch Brite and just scour the whole thing.  You just dip it in a bucket of water and scrub it like your washing a car and then the paint will stick to it.  There’s no wax involved or none of that stuff.  For the paint job we just threw paper over the engine, put some wheel covers on it, made sure the frame was taped off.    

KIP: How long did this process take place?

DON: It only took us about an hour each night to get the coupe ready. We’d spray it in an hour and it’d be dry in nothing flat. I would drive it around a bit and then park it in front of the shop and it would sit out there in the sunlight and let it dry.   That’s the way we did it.

KIP: Did you paint the Edsel driven by Cindy Williams?  

DON: Yes. We painted it green and white.  

KIP: Anything specific you remember about that car?

DON: I think it was a 1958 Edsel Corsair. I believe we just repainted it and there was some dent work. But I recall it was fairly Cherry.  It was a great car.

KIP: What about the ’58 Impala?

DON: We took the door handles off and did a couple things to it. It had power windows and a keyless entry.  I think it was Ron Howard who slammed the driver's side door shut and it cracked the glass. So, rather than fix the glass the window was just left down during filming. We painted it white and I put the red trim accents on it. The red trim was the exact same color as the ‘Pharaoh’s Mercury which came right off the bench. I had a can of Maroon paint and mixed a few other colors into the paint.


KIP:  The late great Glenn Shimmin who built an exact replica of the Merc referred to the color, I think, as  "Cimarron."

DON:  It may have had some in it [laughs]. I mixed a can of metallic maroonish color with a can of BMW maroon.

 
KIP:  I think I know the answer to my next question but I’ll ask anyway, what would you say was the most difficult Graffiti car you worked on?

DON: The Merc. There was a crew of five guys. One of ‘em was retired and he probably did more chop tops than anybody.  He was sort of a crusty old man who would bring in quart of whisky at night. He’d be telling us what to do by pointing at the various parts of the car.  [Imitating a drunk person] “Cut right here, and cut right over here. So, we did. We followed his instructions.  We did most of the work. Two of our crew were really good car body guys.  We used a lot of Bondo. We just took a 5 gallon bucket, turned it over, took the lid off of it, poured the hardener in there and stirred it up with a paint stirrer on a big drill until it turned the right shade of paint then they just took the bucket and started trailing. The whole car was just a bucket of Bondo.

KIP: They should have nicknamed it "The Bondo Mobile."

The side-rear glass & wing windows were removed and the door windows were left down during filming

DON: It was chopped in a cheap way. The doors were simple, we chopped the top 3 inches down and the door windows would still roll up.  The front glass was a split window that was easy to replace. But the back glass was huge and had to go somewhere. There was nobody at the time that could cut that big a curve of glass. Nobody was going to cut it.  So, they couldn’t quite figure it out. Then one of the guys came up with the idea to just put the package shelf down into the trunk area. So they did. They just moved it. They welded it in and then they put silver tape on the glass to tape off the body. Then they Bondoed right up to the glass. I was a very experienced apprentice and I could paint cars.  Those guys were the experience body men. I was the one there scratching my head thinking, “Are you kidding me?”  My job was as soon as the Bondo dried to paint the car. As soon as they were done I was standing there with a primer gun to just bury the car in primer. Because just about every square inch of it was Bondo. Then they kept coming up with ideas such as frenching the headlights and putting a 65 Chevelle bumper in the front. They’d weld it in there, Bondo it and immediately I’d have to primer it so it could dry and I could have it ready for the next night so I could sand it and get it ready for paint.  The whole turnaround for this thing was just a couple of days. So we were hauling ass. 

KIP: A couple of days?  Wow that’s impressive.

On display at Universal Studios

 DON: So once we had finished with the painting project we had to figure out how we were going to put a headliner in it. We took it to an upholstery shop uptown. The owner always had a stubby cigar in his mouth. And he was really obnoxious and said, “What the hell you want me to do with this, damn thing? I can’t put dingle balls in it!” My dad said, “Just do something…” So he put the bows the other way and figured how to tie them up so they would stay. He told us that was the best he could do. Instead of full carpeting I think he just put down some mats to cover the floors. I don’t remember if he made seat covers.

The Pharaoh's Merc parked on the street after musician, Brian Setzer owned it. circa mid-1980s.
 
KIP: A great movie car.

DON: It was perfect for the movies. We were building an image not a show car.  It looks good from 30 feet. Let’s leave it like that. It looked good under the neon lights and camera. It was fine.  They loved it. The Mercury was the perfect example of turning shit into ice cream [laughs]. The challenge is always nice and I always appreciated the challenge. Don’t tell me I can’t because I can. I’ve always had that kind of attitude. I loved it. 

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The Mercury was the perfect example 
of turning shit into ice cream.
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Linda Christinsen (sporting bell bottom pants) & Harrison Ford leaning on the '55 Chevy


KIP: I’d heard Travers painted two of the three ’55 Chevy that were used for the film?

DON: I think there were a total of three ’55 Chevys used in the film, I believe: a camera car, a stunt-roll car and a non-running junk yard Chevy used as the “burn car.” I’m not sure who originally painted the camera car and the stunt car for the roll over scene. The only Chevy I remember painting was the car that was rolled over and set fire at the end of the race. It was a non-running, salvage yard '55, 2-door hardtop. We painted the ‘55 ebony black. No specific color it was out of the can.  I believe it was towed to the filming location on Frates Road [Paradise Road]. I don’t remember much except it was kind of a junk car. I think it was a 6 cylinder and we painted the wheels silver.  “Okie chrome” we called it.


KIP: So the wheels on the ’55 junkyard Chevy were spray painted silver in order to resemble the reverse chrome on the main car used throughout the film?

DON: Right, so it would look like the real one.  I think Henry Travers painted one car with spray cans on location. Although I’m not sure as to the veracity to that story.
 
KIP: It was a long time ago.

DON: Once filming was completed Henry Travers said that for somewhere between $1,500-$2,000 I could own all cars.  I said really? I could just picture the expression on my dad’s face if I had of brought home five cars. He probably would have shot me.  So, that never happened. 

KIP: It’s hard to believe how cheap the asking price was when they first went up for sale.

DON:  I had no idea how popular the film would be and how expensive they would eventually become.  Plus, I never would have kept them like Rick Figari who has owned the ’32 coupe for a long time or Mike Famalette who only recently sold his ’58 white Impala.  I would have needed money to build a fence for my family. However, if I owned the coupe it would be right there parked in front of my shop. I’d drive it everyday.
 
KIP: I imagine that would be good advertising.



DON: I imagine I’d be fending off people everyday wanting to buy it. Who knows, I might sell it for a couple million dollars and move to some tropical island somewhere.

KIP: Well, "hindsight is easy," as my dad used to say.
  
DON: Little did I know the impact of what George was putting together. But I slowly became more interested when I went down to my old high school and watched them film the sock hop at Tamalpias High.  I was class of 1971 at Tamalpias High and a year later I was back at the boys gym of my former school watching them film the sock hop.  I stood in the back.  I didn’t want to be in the film. I was too chicken.  We all knew Kathleen Quinlin, who played Peg, because she too was a Tamalpias graduate, class of 1971.  Looking back on it, it was a pretty special time to be in business. So it brought a lot to me. But it took me twenty years to realize how important it was to meet all these people and watch them grow and become zillionaires and do wonderful movies.
Cindy Williams, Kathleen Quinlin, George Lucas in the bathroom

KIP: She’s a beautiful actress.

DON: Yes, she’s still pretty. I just joined her Facebook sight and mentioned we went to school together but she never responded.  I guess I wasn’t popular enough [laughs]. Looking back I realize what an incredible opportunity it was to meet so many famous people.  I think it took me about twenty years before I understood the impact and honor it was to meet and work for so many famous and talented people. 


KIP: Once Graffiti came out in August of 1973 did you ever go to the movies to watch the film? 

DON: I think I’ve seen it 200 times.

KIP: Are you exaggerating a little bit?

Don: No. I’ve seen it in three different theaters including the San Rafael theater downtown and the drive-in theater in San Rafael.  No kidding.  Our body shop was across the freeway from the San Rafael Drive-in. If we stood up on top of the large garbage dumpster we could see what movie was playing. 

KIP: How often did Graffiti play at the drive-in?

DON:  Graffiti played for about two weeks at the San Rafael drive-in.  I had a Ford truck and I would take my girlfriend to the drive-in quite frequently. Mainly because there wasn’t much to do on Friday nights when we weren’t working so we’d go see American Graffiti. She had as much fun watching it as I did. 

The old San Rafael Drive-in at 280 Smith Ranch Rd. was across the highway from Orlandi's shop
 
DON: There were two movie theaters, and the drive-in. One theater was called the El Camino; the other was called the San Rafael. We saw Graffiti at both theaters and at the drive-in, so we were pretty excited; not only about seeing the cars we prepared but also after awhile we knew all the dialogue, we could sing all the songs. We were just having a good time laughing with it.  That would be our Friday night entertainment or date.
 

KIP: What was you’re involvement in the sequel, More American Graffiti?

 DON: I did a ton of stuff for them on that film. But nobody ever saw the film.  I went to the show and there were like 30 people in the theater [Laughs]. It was like nothing. But to make it brief, a few of the things I painted were:  Paul Le Mat’s ’58 Chevy Pick-up with a camper shell on the back and his yellow dragster with flames. I also painted two other dragsters, one of which competed against Milner, it had a weird looking flame system on it. And, I painted the 38-foot Hunt Brother’s trailer with the eagle on the side, which Bekins moving company had loaned to the crew.  The only slight difficulty I had was with the The Bekin's van. Bekins wanted their van back in the same condition as they had loaned it out. At the time the technology wasn’t available to easily remove paint.  So I wound up thinning out a booth coating, which made it possible to peel off, the paint design I created once filming was completed.  It was more work to peel off rather then paint on-but; I at least I didn’t have to repaint Bekins on the side.

The Bekins moving van painted with the Hunt Bros insignia
 
KIP: did you paint any other vehicles in the sequel?

DON:  Yes. In one of the stories where Candy Clark is wearing a big tall hat, they’re driving around San Francisco in a modified phone truck. We painted that vehicle with a psychedelic design and added a dome or skylight to it.  So we had a lot of fun and creative stuff to do.  It was a joy to be part of the process. It was never boring or monotonous. Creating the colors and making small modifications was such fun to do. I loved the challenge. They’d come in and say, “This is what we want. Can you do it?” I’d say, “okay.” So their art department and I became creative working partners. I loved doing anything different. 


Working with Lucas was really one of the best parts in my career.  I loved being creative and I hate just doing simple work.  There were many times when I’d wish Lucas and the gang would come into the shop and give me something stimulating, inventive and different to do.  I’ve been in this business for thirty-six years.  The first half was great and the second half of my career – not so much.  I hated the business when it stopped being creative. But, the career has helped raise my family and put my kids through school. So, it did what it was supposed to do.
 
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I’d wish Lucas and the gang would come 
into the shop and give me something stimulating, inventive and different to do!
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Anna Bjorn & Paul Le Mat sitting on the bumper of the coupe

KIP: Did you have any other involvement with George Lucas besides American Graffiti?
David Prowse, the original Darth Vadar   Source: News Corp Australia

DON: Yes we did. We had a good relationship with the art department. When George Lucas was in pre-production for Star Wars he would just tell them to go over to see us and see what we could do with certain things such as Darth Vader’s mask, helmet, and chest plate. 
They said we need it shiny and black but we’re not sure what to do with the color scheme.  I said, ‘Well how ‘bout you leave it up to my imagination and I’ll come up with something.’ They agreed but reminded me it’s got to be black and it’s got to be dark. So, I painted everything black, and then I put these charcoal inlays on them.  I also did the original prototype for the white Storm Troopers costumes.  Once they learned what everything was suppose to look like and the costume was developed then they went into production with it and made the stuff for real.

KIP: I presumed you were paid a decent wage for your work.

DON: It’s funny, when I worked on the Star Wars costumes I did it on my own time and didn’t even think about taking money for it.  I was just happy to paint.  When they asked me how much do we owe you I said, I don’t need any money but I tell you what, "It looks like this movie is going to be another Lucas hit so why don’t you give me autographed copies of all the stars." Thinking these actors would become stars and I would have something to give my kids. The movie wrapped and I forgot about my request.  But after the movie came out I received an 8x10 envelope with autographed pictures of all the characters. But instead of it being signed by Harrison Ford “Hans Solo, and “Princes Lea” signed it 

KIP: So they signed the pictures with the names of their characters and not their real names?

DON: I thought that was kind of dumb. I’d rather of had the star’s names because now they’re stars! Anyway, I didn’t quibble about it.  I just gave them to my son and he still has them. 

Original Star Wars "stars"
 

KIP: Did you work with Lucas' art department on anything else?

DON: I helped Lucas’ art department with a few more things before they got smart and built their own art department.  The last thing I helped them with was a little bit of air brushing and painting for them on the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I painted the ship that caught on fire. It was supposed to look like it was black. I helped them come up with a design and they finished it.
 
KIP: What do you think of today’s crop of “hotrods?”

DON: There’s not much creativity to it. Owners don’t brag about how they made or what they did to their car but rather how much money they spent. It’s a stupid philosophy. But, they’re all cookie cutter these days. If you need a chassis all you have to do is open a catalog book and there it is-there’s your chassis. If you want a body-there’s the body.

A nice shot of Orlandi's versatile style. Here we see Mlner's coupe, dragster & campervan

KIP: So they don’t appear to put much thought into looking a little different or being unique.

 DON: To me that’s not much fun.

 KIP: What cars have you had that you personalized as you were growing up?

 DON: I had my share of hot rods. Nothing that would compare to today’s stuff. Let’s see, I had a ’62 SS Impala, a little red Ford pick-up both I painted my color and I put my motor into it.  I always wanted my cars to stand out a little bit. I always did mine a little bit different.  For example, everybody that had a ’58 or ’59 Ford pick-up and I had a ‘60 and everybody had his or hers white or black but mine was red.  I didn’t want to go with what everybody else was doing.

Orlandi shared this rare pic of Milner's coupe in front of Orlandi's shop after getting a touch-up for the 1978 sequel.

KIP: Do you still enjoy the challenge of doing something different?  

DON: Now I’m getting too old to say, “I can.” because I’m running out of time.

KIP: I think you still have a few good years left.
Don sporting a vintage bottle of Old Harper

DON: I got a few years left, yeah. But I gave up my body for the business so that my knees hurt, my legs hurt, my back hurts. I’ve battled a few diseases and blown up like a balloon because of the steroids and stuff I had to take but once I get past a few issues maybe I can trim myself down a bit once I get off the medications. But I gave it up.  I mean we didn’t wear masks when we were painting cars. I’d be just standing there spraying a car with a cigarette dangling from my mouth. So you learn, but I didn’t think I’d live to be sixty. When you’re in your twenties and thirties you never think about age. Then when you hit forty you start thinking, wow, sixty, that’s not too far away. And then when you get to be fifty oh my god, and my dad is seventy something. Then when I hit sixty and look at my dad who is eighty-four, I think holy crap! So you know how much abuse you get.
 
KIP: Sounds like it was pretty hard on your body.

DON: Yes. It’s a lot of abuse. I’d crawl around on my knees and used the upper part of my body the knees and my arms and elbows. I ‘ve probably sucked in a 100 gallons of Bondo and sucked in a hundred gallons of thinner and another 100 gallons of paint. So you don’t realize it at the time how your body breaks down, as you get older and older. 


KIP: Nowadays car-painting laws regulate the type of ingredients that can be in the car paint and the method in which the paint is applied have changed since you first started in the business.

DON: Yeah, I’d probably get arrested for working the way I did. So, I paid for it but I loved it. Especially the first half of my career when there were more challenges. But after that it became just like putting a bandage on cars that would come in the shop. Very routine, very monotonous.  And, it seems like the customer is never happy. I just got tired of dealing with people’s problems.

Car-painting laws are much more stringent than they used to be. Photo: http://www.autotrainingcentre.com

KIP: Any advice for those aspiring to follow in your footsteps?

DON: Advice?  We don’t seem to teach the trades anymore. Trades aren’t the same.  Nobody wants to get dirty. I’d recommend learning by taking something completely apart and put it back the way it was.  That’s how you start.  Don’t be afraid to do it.  Just do it and see what happens. If you can do it, you can work on cars.  But do it without a book or instructions. 



 
Today Orlandi is the proprietor of Past & Perfect where people can find all sorts of interesting items from our American history including antique slot machines, arcade games and all coin operated memorabilia. In addition,  they specialize in repairing and restoring jukeboxes and arcade games.  Most repairs and restorations take place in the store.

Past & Perfect
400 Western Ave 
Petaluma, CA 94952
(707) 981-4101


This page is exclusive content. No unauthorized reprinting, republishing or other use without prior authorization or proper referencing. © 2016-2017 by Mark Groesbeck. 

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