Where was American Graffiti filmed?
American, Retro, NatureScapes
Americana/Anywhere America, Classic Car
About American Graffiti
Inspired by writer and director George Lucas’ upbringing and teenage years in California, American Graffiti is a classic coming-of-age movie about a group of ragtag friends, trying to figure out what comes next.
Set over the course of one night, we see Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) meeting up with their friends for one last night before they head back East for college in the morning. Over the course of the night, we see drag races, gangs, wild goose chases, and the boys trying to figure out whether they should actually leave for college or not in the morning.
Interestingly enough, it was really difficult for this movie to get made. Production executives and studio heads didn’t think that anyone would be interested in a one night-based film set in 60’s suburban California. Add in the fact that all the actors were pretty much unknown back then – we know it’s hard to imagine no one knowing who Harrison Ford is, but there was a time – and it wasn’t the most tempting pitch that they’d ever heard.
Eventually, Lucas’ love letter to his childhood was made and it became a hit that’s beloved by many. It’s a nostalgic comedy that has a solid heart and reminds many of us of what it’s like to be young and taking that next step into adulthood.
Not only was it financially successful and a fan-favorite by the end of it all, but it also launched the careers of some of the biggest actors and directors of all time. If you tried to pitch a film with this cast now, it would be a huge blockbuster hit, but back then it was a small indie film that was released on the film festival circuit before general release. Who’d have thought it!
American Graffiti Locations
Although set in Modesto, California, where Lucas actually grew up, this is not where American Graffiti was filmed. There were actually a lot of issues with the production of American Graffiti pretty early on.
The American Graffiti production team had agreed to shoot the movie in San Rafael, California, which at the time, looked as if it hadn’t changed at all since the sixties. However, on the second day of shooting, production had to close down as the filming caused too much disruption in town.
Instead, the majority of the American Graffiti filming locations can be found in Petaluma, California. Even now, it has instantly recognizable features that were in the movie. The town absolutely loves the film and even hosts an annual classic car festival in American Graffiti’s honor. It’s a huge 180 switch from the attitudes of San Rafael!
Meeting at Mel’s Drive-In scene in American Graffiti
Mel’s Drive-in on Geary
At the beginning of the movie, we see John (Paul Le Mat) and Curt talking as they wait for Steve and Toad (Charles Martin Smith) to arrive and their evening to begin. After seeing a car full of local girls drive into Mel’s drive-in, Curt laments at the lack of good-looking single girls in town.
He says to John, “Where is the dazzling beauty I’ve been searching for all my life?”
Little does he know that he’ll soon be chasing a beautiful mystery woman around town.
Mel's Drive-in is one of the most iconic filming locations in the entire film and used to be found at 140 South Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, California. Unfortunately, this drive-in, complete with its roller skating waitresses has been closed down for a while. In fact, the site has been demolished.
That being said, Mel’s Drive-in is part of a chain, so if you want the same vibe but not quite in the same place, there is one that’s still open and operational at 3355 Geary Boulevard.
To get to the open Mel’s Drive-in on Geary, you can take the number 38 bus as it stops just outside.
Curt meets The Wolfman scene in American Graffiti
KRE-AM Transmitter Site
After seeing the mystery blonde woman (Suzanne Somers) in a white T-bird, Curt becomes obsessed with finding her before he leaves for college. In his pursuit, he heads to a local radio station, run by The Wolfman (Wolfman Jack), and is listened to by every young person with a car stereo, with a dedication and a request to meet.
When he gets there, an employee (actually the Wolfman himself), tells him that the Wolfman isn’t there. A desperate Curt asks where he is, to which the employee cryptically replies, “The Wolfman is everywhere”.
The Wolfman’s studio is actually the historic KRE-AM Transmitter Site, Berkeley, California. It was opened in 1937 and is legendary in the local radio scene. It’s still running now and it’s unclear whether you can still go and have a look around inside, but you can visit the exterior of the site nonetheless.
You’re going to want to drive to this American Graffiti filming location as it’s a fair walk from any public transport, but there is a parking lot next to the transmitter site.
Drag race scene in American Graffiti
2079 Frates Road, Petaluma
In one of the final scenes of the movie, we see Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) get his wish – to drag race against the king of the valley, John. However, he’s not alone in the car, he’s picked up Laurie (Cindy Williams) on the way. Laurie is Steve’s girlfriend although they’re in a rough patch right now with him leaving for college.
When John asks if Laurie is going with him during the race, Bob replies, “Yeah she’s going with me, take care of yourself man”.
The race doesn’t take long as Bob’s tire blows out and there’s an impressive crash. Luckily Bob and Laurie are fine and Steve agrees not to leave her.
This iconic American Graffiti scene takes place at 2079 Frates Road, Petaluma, California. It’s on the outskirts of town, so you’re going to have to drive to this particular American Graffiti filming location, but for a drag race location, you’ll need a car, right? Of course, this is a public road and speed limits are in place…
Must be your mama’s car scene in American Graffiti
Petaluma Boulevard North
Unfortunately, Toad picks up flirty Debbie (Candy Clark) and John is left with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who turns out to be 12 and adept at blackmail.
While they’re cruising, John notices he’s been tailed so he pulls up alongside the car. It’s Bob and he’s been looking for John all night, spoiling for a race. But the smack talk starts now.
Bob says, “You’re supposed to be the fastest thing in the valley, but that can’t be your car. Must be your mama’s car.” Fighting words.
The main drag can be seen throughout the movie and is actually Petaluma Boulevard North, on D Street and Washington Street. This is one of the main streets in Petaluma and home to some great boutiques, bars and restaurants.
You can either drive here or get one of the many buses that stop outside Penry Park. This American Graffiti filming location is only one street back from the river, so you can enjoy a nice walk around this area too.
The ticket scene in American Graffiti
While cruising along the strip with Carol in the car, a police car signals for John to pull over for a ticket. Despite seemingly doing nothing wrong, John knows it’s Holstein (Jim Bohan), a cop who has it out for him.
Holstein: “Happy birthday Milner”
Jim: “Thank you, A**hole”
Once he gets the ticket, he tells Carol to file it under C.S for Chicken Sh**, and it turns out he has a whole stack of tickets in his glove compartment.
This scene was actually one of the first ones to be shot as it’s still in San Rafael, on Fourth Street. Much like the main drag in Petaluma that’s used for this road in subsequent scenes and shots, there is a lot to do on Fourth Street including cafes, bars and shops.
You can drive along this road just like John and Carol, or you can take one of the many buses that stop along this road and wander around the area.
Curt gets picked up by the Pharaohs scene in American Graffiti
Old Opera House
In his continuous pursuit to find the mystery blonde woman, Curt gets picked up by the Pharaohs, a notorious, if a little haphazard, gang in the area. They tell him that the blonde is a prostitute, which Curt refuses to believe and is subsequently coerced into hanging out with them and helping to chain an axle of a police car.
While the gang is pouring into the car to head out, two of the Pharaohs, Carlos (Manuel Padilla Jr.) and Ants (Beau Gentry), are moaning about seating arrangements.
“I called shotgun”
“Before we picked you up”
You can’t call shotgun for the entire night?!”
The location where the Pharaohs pick up Curt is just outside the Old Opera House at 149 Kentucky Street in Petaluma. It’s just around the corner from the main drag so you can easily hit up a couple of American Graffiti filming locations in one day.
The opera house is now a collectibles shop and the whole of Kentucky Street is home to little independent stores and bars. Perfect for whiling away a couple of hours in between filming location stops!
You can of course drive here, or get off the same bus around the corner that you would for the main strip location. These core Petaluma filming locations are really not that far away from each other, so you can walk around and pretend that you’re actually in Modesto!
It’s hard to summarize the impact that American Graffiti had on modern cinema. Not only did it give a platform for rising superstars Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford to get their big breaks, but it also gave a template for what a nostalgic teen movie could be.
Even huge teen smash successes like Grease actually came out after this film by five years. The school gymnasium dance scene, the drag race, the gangs of leather jacket-wearing high schoolers with the gang’s name on the back – all of this was done first by American Graffiti and arguably done much, much better.
Whether you’re watching American Graffiti for the first time or the fiftieth, it never seems to get old. We all know people like Toad who tried to get served and couldn’t no matter how hard they tried to blag it. We know people like Curt who get obsessive over a mystery girl and think their lives are never going to be the same. We all know couples like Laurie and Steve who are going to stay together regardless of circumstances. That’s what makes the film great and makes it stand the test of time.
Add in the epilogue where we found out where all the main characters are now and it gives a stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky vibe that the rest of the film gave us. These kids didn’t know what they were in for and real life came down hard for them. It’s a poetic ending to a great film.