Thursday, March 25, 2021

'Godfather' film memoir: celebrating 50 years, the making of a classic

The Church of San Nicolò in Savoca was the filming location of some of the iconic scenes in "The Godfather." We joined fans of the film to visit the village and climb to the church, remembering the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia and other scenes shot a half-century ago.

The village of Savoca, Italy, owes its recent prosperity to
the legendary film, "The Godfather," shot there 50 years ago.


PHOTOS By BRUCE KELLER  and courtesy Paramount Studios

A SMALL VILLAGE in Sicily owes its popularity to a film made there 50 years ago. That's when principal photography on "The Godfather" began. The film is now considered legendary, a landmark motion picture, and I hold happy memories of attending its  premier and visiting the film's on-location setting.


The film premiered in 1972, with a gala charity
event followed by several other showings.

I was invited -- along with movie reviewers from all 50 states and many foreign countries -- to Loew's State Theater, New York, March 25, 1972. It was a gala event, a star-studded evening. I'd been to Italy twice already, but had not visited Savoca. Forty-five years later, Bruce Keller and I did.  We spent a day in Savoca, where much of the film was shot in 1971. 

 DIRECTOR Francis Ford Coppola scouted Sicily to find the perfect "borghi."  He fell in love with the historic village of Savoca because it captured his imagination; he could picture the Mario Puzo story unfolding there. His vision would come true, as Savoca became the centerpiece for his masterful film.

Marlon Brando in the leading role takes direction from
Francis Ford Coppola in a studio shot, March, 1971.
What attracts most visitors here is the chance to retrace the locations of the film.  All manner of "Godfather" memorabilia awaits -- t-shirts, shot glasses, posters.  The bar-cafe where other scenes were shot is the much visited Bar Vitelli, and we stopped there at day's end to enjoy a cocktail.
THE CASTING of Brando was controversial because the studio was considering Anthony Quinn and Ernest Borgnine for the role of Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone, chief of the organized crime family.
But Coppola was insistent: his first and only choice was Marlon Brando.
Writer Puzo agreed and the inflexible stand of the pair caused a stir at Paramount. But after much debate, Brando it was!

Director Francis Ford Coppola's Italian
 heritage was a plus for Paramount's decision.
THEN AL PACINO was hired to play the part of the young Michael Corleone. We heard tales of his time in the village, while reminiscing at Bar Vitelli.  It's at the entrance to town, where young Michael meets the cafe owner, the father of of his future wife.
Our cocktail there was our reward for making it up the steep slopes to the Church of San Nicolò where the wedding between Michael and
Keller and Cookie relax at
the end of their Savoca tour.

Apollonia took place. Most of the principal photography took place a half-century ago, from March 29, 1971, to August 6, 1971. A whiz-bang total of 77 days of shooting -- fewer than the 83 planned days -- brought the picture in under budget.

The success of "The Godfather" has also meant success
in tourism for the village of Savoca. Here, an artful tribute. 

AS WE CLIMBED, we joined other tourists and locals on the streets -- shopping, dining, browsing, selling "Godfather" memorabilia and limoncello. Taking breaks on the  cactus lined hill, we admired citrus trees, olive groves and vineyards below. We wanted to explore this small medieval town on foot but we'd underestimated the climb's steepness.

The narrow streets, flanked by historic buildings, are like those of all southern Europe -- meandering, full of history and intriguing shops. Below, we caught views that reach as far as the Gulf of Taormina. We also rested often, enjoying the visual treats.

The famous wedding
scene from the film.
Paramount promoted "The Godfather" as the first Italian mob drama made by Italians, but we found from our bartender that some of his American relatives were skeptical. "Italian-Americans were always portrayed as criminals in the movies," Giuseppe said, "and my people were tired of the stereotypes."
We did some homework. There was controversy. Joseph Colombo, of the crime family that bore his name, formed The Italian-American Civil Rights League in 1969 demanding the words “mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” be pulled from the script and that all the money the movie made at its premier be donated to a fund to build a new hospital. This came to be.
 THE CHOICE of the leading man wasn't the only cause for debate. Studio production chief, Robert Evans, approached several directors—including Sergio Leone and Costa Gavras— before hiring the relatively
Cactus lines the walk to the church in Savoca
where "The Godfather" scenes were filmed.
unknown Coppola, who was only 31 years old. As an Italian American, Coppola wanted to to make the film an authentic representation of the culture and times. He wanted to do justice to family loyalty and the complex relationships within the Corleone family, rather than focusing on the crime aspect. He worked with Puzo on the screenplay and persuaded Paramount to increase the film's meager $2.5 million budget.
Coppola persuaded Paramount to up the ante to $7 million.  The film made $287 million, was nominated for 11 Oscars, won three and will long be remembered for Nino Rota's haunting score.

Actor, poet, teacher Bruce Meyers was born April 1, 1943.
He acted in more than 50 performances and taught at MSU-
Billings for 25 years before his death in 1992.
We segue from the movies to theater as we celebrate the life of Bruce Kemp Meyers, born April 1, 1943.  He would be 78 years old this week, so we celebrate his talents and note his remarkable legacy as actor, teacher, poet, friend. We'll also update readers on the Bruce Meyers scholarship fund at Montana State University-Billings where Meyers taught for 25 years.  Each year, it honors an English major and it is possible to contribute to this worthy endeavor. Tune in for fun memories of a talented man. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a fresh look at the arts, travel, nature, family and more:


Friday, March 19, 2021

Blooms, art vie for attention in the desert near Borrego Springs

Ricardo Breceda's whimsical sculptures include desert wildlife and this fetching dragon,
 whose tail intriguingly goes under the road and emerges on the other side of the highway.


A daughter's infatuation with movie creatures
inspired sculptor Ricardo Breceda's success.

Recent March rains have brought out the blooms on cacti.

Head east and slightly north of San Diego
to find a bonanza of art and flowers. 
These remarkable art pieces—sometimes whimsical, sometimes haunting—are  one of a kind works. Some of Breceda's creatures are ambitious fantasies. They bring a smile. We can almost see Breceda winking as he playfully places his serpent on both sides of the road -- suggesting in a clever arc that the critter's tail dips under the playa, emerging on the other side. Other pieces realistically represent now extinct creatures.

Our search is for blooms bursting from cacti. As we walk, drive or bike, we listen to bird song as sweet as the morning air and happily happen upon a bonus of unusual sculpture.

 WE QUICKLY discover that nature's bounty isn't the desert's only attraction. Dozens of art pieces by Durango, Mexico, native and California transplant Breceda draw us in, too. His free-ranging artwork runs the gamut from prehistoric mammals to historical characters, dinosaurs, western figures and  native wildlife.   

Beneath the desert hillside, surrounded by cholla, an
elephant by Ricardo Breceda awaits inspection. 
Once you find Borrego Springs Road, you're on a path to nature's wonders -- plus delightful sculpture of elephants, sabre-tooth cats, ancient camels, raptors and big horn sheep coming down from the mountains to graze. Several imaginative human figures complement the artist's wide ranging critter kingdom. One, of an early priest who settled in the area, is a bit of a walk, well worth it if you're in a car rather than on foot or or bike.

KNOWN AS the "Accidental artist," Breceda began creating his metal animal kingdom when his daughter Lianna, then six, requested a dinosaur for Christmas, after being captivated by the film "Jurassic Park III."

At the time, Breceda was selling cowboy boots for a living, so he traded a pair of those for a welding machine. (One could say his boots were made for sculpting!) After a few weeks of labor, he unveiled his first sculpture, a 20-foot tall tyrannosaurus rex. The hobby grew into a passion as he created one after another life-like creations, becoming in short order a sought after sculptor and designer.              
A bounty of blooms can be found in Anza Borrego desert
if one is willing to spend time and patience.

 GOOD FORTUNE continued to visit him when he met Dennis Avery, of well known label maker  Avery Dennison Corporation. Avery owned Galleta Meadows Estates and nurtured a vision of a giant free-standing gallery on his property. The dream flourished and now includes more than 130 pieces which pepper the landscape, including the remarkably fetching 350 foot sea serpent featured in this article's top photo by our team's own travel-nature fan and artistic visionary, Bruce Keller.    
One of Ricardo Breceda's wonderfully crafted
bighorn sheep awaits roadside viewing in the Anza Borrego desert.

BOTH ART MADE by man and that of the natural world delight and surprise drivers near Borrego Springs. We look for them, along with the blooms and always take in the Anza Borrego State Park Visitor Center, where this time of year, you'll find poppies, visalia, and brittlebush blooming. North of Borrego Springs proper, along Henderson Canyon Road, Canyon Road is where you'll want to be for flowers fields of delicate purples and golds, and unique sculpture not found anywhere else. We recommend taking your time for this treasure hunt.   Bring plenty of water and a protein bar to keep you hydrated and nourished on your adventure.  
Bruce Keller and Christene"Cookie" Meyers
take bikes to the desert in search of art, blooms.
BRECEDA'S ART brings life to the desert, which is otherwise not as colorful as it has been some years. Lack of consistent moisture has resulted in fewer blooms than usual, but the recent March rains have brought the cactus and wildflowers out. It just takes a bit more looking than in the "super bloom" years when one can see bursts of color even from the car. The ocotillo are just beginning to bud out and the wild flowers are showing color. Meanwhile, enjoy the sculpture, which is to be savored along with the colors nature provides.

A DRIVE, HIKE or bike ride through the Anza Borrego desert is a feast for the eyes and balm for the soul. You've stumbled upon an amazing outdoor "museum," as you discover not only nature's bounty, but the eye catching sculpture of Ricardo Breceda, artfully spread throughout the park. 
Flowers complement the sculpture for a pleasing mix as we embark upon our treasure hunt. 

 Spotlight on desert sculptor


A miner's faithful companion is loaded with gear.
Some of the sculptures may be seen from the road.
Others require a bit of a short walk to view up close.

WE RECOMMEND a few days in the desert. You'll return to your world refreshed and invigorated at the sights and sounds. And if you wonder, as we did, what the name "Anza Borrego" means, here you go: the park takes its moniker from the 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the word borrego, Spanish for sheep.
Looking for a place to stay, steps away from the action? The Palms at Indian Head and La Casa del Zorro are our two favorites, very different from one another and each with its charms and much to recommend.

Director Francis Ford Coppola is immortalized in a sculpture
in Savoca, Italy, which he has visited multiple times since
the filming of "The Godfather," nearly a half-century ago.
UP NEXT: Next week marks the 49th anniversary of the premier of "The Godfather," a movie that people still talk about and watch again and again.  It raked in the big bucks at the box office in 1972, winning Oscars for its stars and director Francis Ford Coppola.  It also made a star of the quiet little village of Savoca in Sicily. Come with us to  celebrate what many consider one of the best films of all time -- and the sleepy village which became a star in its own right. Please share the link:

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Head for bawdy, brilliant drag shows at Oscar's in Palm Springs

Big hair, tights and roller skates for artist Marina Mac, who brought
the house down with a high-stepping performance on Oscar's balcony.


Actor Anita Rose applies makeup to host a sold-out show.

KEEPING A small business afloat during a pandemic is no small challenge. 
But Dan Gore, owner and manager of Oscar's in Palm Springs, has survived a year that put many restaurants and bistros under.
It's flourishing now -- perhaps not economically, but certainly in spirit, because Gore believes in the power of performance and the human spirit to transcend and triumph.
"The pandemic has given us  opportunity to reflect on life and both personal and business goals," he muses. 

AFTER lockdown curtailed indoor activities and closed down his popular eatery and theater, Gore and company revived the vital connection with his cabaret's loyal following. Using the patio as its main venue, the format allows for distancing, fresh air and fun times. 

Emcee Anita Rose has a witty, fun and free-wheeling style -- and several
fetching costume changes -- to keep Oscar's shows lively.
Loyal locals and supportive tourists are the lifeblood of Oscar's, known for its gender-bending productions, excellent menu, reliable kitchen, and its fresh, funny stable of talent.
WE WERE THRILLED to be in the audience at a recent sold-out "Bitchiest Brunch" revival Sunday matinee with emcee Anita Rose flamboyant, accomplished and endearing.  Drag is a long-standing tradition in theater and at Oscar's and Rose adeptly sets the tone with good-natured, let's have fun banter.
Bruce Keller and Christene "Cookie" Meyers
are happy to be once again at a live show.

"I felt it was important to keep this going," Gore said. "Entertainment is one of the most essential elements of human life -- a chance for the entertainer to become someone else."  In turn, he reflects, "a good show allows the audience to escape reality for a couple hours, to leave depressing thoughts or physical ailments behind, to fantasize."
Oscar's drag queens fulfill that in spades -- to the delight of packed houses. The result brings a smile to Gore's face. An entertainer, producer and director for three decades, he said he hasn't necessarily been financially rewarded by staying the course, "but there's no greater reward than bringing smiles to the faces of our show audiences. The spiritual value for audiences and performers alike is infinite."   
Mimosa Man are on tap at Oscar's Saturday;
the cabaret's menu offers tasty dining and 
beverages which can be served during the show
Rosemary -- audacious,
funny, pretty in pink.
  OSCAR'S IS presenting a variety of spirited live entertainment as we recover from the pandemic performance drought.
Oscar's owner Dan Gore is
optimistic about Oscar's future
 and devoted to live performance.

Such  delights as a male exotic revue, Latin drag show and wickedly entertaining Sunday "bitchiest brunch" with roller skating acts and big hair await those of us who have been performance-starved. All the action is outside with distanced tables, and includes: Mondays, Las Chicas Calientes drag show; Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 pm. the Kal David Trio blues band; Saturday, Mimosa Men; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Bitchiest Brunch. Sunday's popular T-Dance Disco Party resumes as Covid restrictions lift.
Our hunt for live entertainment always includes a stop at this lively cabaret when we're anywhere near Palm Springs. Oscar's on its own is even reason enough for a visit. 
For reservations (recommended) or information:; 760 325-1188.

The intriguing sculpture of artist Ricardo Breceda await
pleasure seekers in California's Anza Borrego desert.

UP NEXT: The desert calls us and we  answer, in southern California's beautiful nature-driven life away from big cities. Sculpture, flowers, and fun places to hike and picnic await. Come along, remembering to explore, learn and live and catch us each week for a fresh spin on travel, the arts, nature, family and more. Share links with like minded people:

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Desert hotel offers boutique hideaway, mid-Century modern retreat

It's 5 p.m. and the sun is setting over the pool at The Palms at Indian Head. Diners are beginning
to gather at distanced tables on the welcoming patio for gourmet fare at Coyote Steakhouse. 

The inviting lobby, reception and bar area reflect the desert's
soothing colors and inviting shapes. You'll hear recordings
of Frank Sinatra or on weekends, excellent live piano music.


STEP BACK in time at the Palms at Indian Head and imagine Clark Gable, Lon Chaney, Will Rogers, Bing Crosby and Marilyn Monroe lounging by the pool. It's 1950. Crosby is relaxing after a round of golf. Monroe orders her favorite champagne -- "make it a double," she winks at the poolside waiter.
Gable yawns and dives into the Olympic size pool, to do laps in its 25-yard lanes. Marlon Brando wanders off by himself, engrossed in a detective novel. Raymond Burr studies a script over a beer.
EVERYONE is relaxed and laid back at the 20-acre resort, built in 1947.
Mature trees and landscaping welcome the eye and offer
habitat for rabbits and other desert critters.
Thanks to an enterprising couple with a love of nature and an impeccable artistic vision, you can relax here, too.  Seventy-plus years after the property was conceived, owners David Leibert and Cindy Wood are patiently restoring it to its glory days -- with their own spin and some architectural changes. (The original bungalows -- lost to fire --are mostly replaced by a charming boutique hotel over the lobby and lounge.)
The two were inspired by the beautiful trees on the property -- California's famous fan palms, Mexican palms and date producing palms near the pool. Thus the name, which also reflects the inn's location -- at the base of Indian Head Mountain,  a stately summit in the gorgeous San Ysidro Mountains.
A delightful opener -- ahi tartare with
 wasabi --  is artfully presented. (One
wonton tasted by the hungry writer.)

THE OWNERS have worked hard to make the place welcoming, with a wonderful restaurant, The Coyote Steakhouse, chirping birds and desert pleasures as the property's main draws.  A lovely gallery offers artfully presented desert landscapes, appealing pottery and imaginative paintings. On weekends, gifted pianist Joe Ross offers a range of beautifully played classics, '50s and '60s pop and occasional Scott Joplin ragtime. A genius at mixing and segue, he plays his inventive medleys with hypnotic force in a repertoire ranging from French impressionists to Frank Sinatra.  
Framed by a soon-to-bloom
ocotillo on a Palms bike ride.

at the Steakhouse is superbly chosen, with entrees including steaks, chops, seafood and chicken  -- all artfully prepared.  An early-bird special -- a true bargain at $21 -- includes a generous three courses. We began with the tasty ahi tartare and ended with cheesecake, delighted with our leisurely served meal.
The property rests on land once occupied by the Cahuilla Indians and the mountain profile of a reclining Indian frames the property and inspires a closer look during a stroll at dawn or dusk. 

Gifted pianist Joe Ross plays weekends at the
Palms, here with musician Cookie enjoying.

Borrego is less known than its nearby neighbor Palm Springs, but it is only three hours from Hollywood.  As Palm Springs was "discovered," Borrego became a quieter get-away for privacy-seeking stars, who could ride horseback, swim, drink, dine and play tennis between movie shoots, escape publicity and return to the studios in a few hours. 

THE BUILDING that now houses most of the rooms was constructed in 1958 in the famous California "Mid-Century Modern" style -- with Mondrian influences. The architect is unknown but David and Cindy narrowed the field to Joseph Eickler, Cliff May and Albert Frey, all known for their flair in the style of the day.

IN THE DAY it was called Hoberg's Desert Resort, and guests reveled in the star-studded night sky. We did the same last week, after hiking and biking the 20-acre retreat and exploring nearby Palm Canyon.

We parked our bikes outside the Palms' gallery, which offers
a nicely displayed and tasteful mix of paintings and sculpture.
What we loved most about our four peaceful days at the resort was the quiet, laid back calm the place offers. We truly soaked up the ambience, with the inn's amiable "Girl Friday" Marcy always on call for ice or directions.

Keller and Cookie enjoyed 
dinner at the inn's delightful
restaurant, Coyote Steakhouse.

I TOOK a swim in the once largest privately owned pool in San Diego county. The owners plan to solar heat the pool, but it's currently "natural" and it will wake you up, guaranteed, even after a glass of champagne! Marcy said that the place is packed in the summer, as guests enjoy the cooling waters when desert temperatures soar!

Don't miss a meal at the Red Ocotillo, the owners' other enterprise, just off Christmas Circle with a fabulous all-day menu, popular with locals and tourists alike.;

The glorious pinks of desert cactus await as spring arrives.

UP NEXT: While we're in the desert, we'll take in the blooms. If you don't associate desert landscape with blossoms, you're in for a treat. Depending on the winter moisture, there are plenty of blooms on cactus and flowers to greet the plant lover. So we're off on our bikes to continue our exploration of Borrego Springs, a quieter, more laid back alternative to Palm Springs, and a welcoming place to recharge. Remember to explore, learn and live, and join us weekly for a fresh spin on nature, travel, the arts, family and more: Please share the links and tell like minded friends.