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'Route 66' recrosses Arch Bridge on film

by: PHOTO BY RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Oregon City native Paul Johnston sits on the spot on Washington Street where star actor George Maharis sat 50 years previously in filming Route 66.“Welcome to Oregon City: Population, 7,966.”

Not anymore, it’s actually 31,859, according to the latest census. But that’s the sign that flashed across millions of American TV sets in the opening credits of the prime-time show a half-century ago.

Oregon City will revisit a “video time capsule” of what local life was like 50 years ago with reruns of a “Route 66” episode filmed here in 1962.

The Arch Bridge celebration on Oct. 15 is close to the 50th anniversary of the episode’s original Nov. 2, 1962, broadcast. About 10.7 million people, based on the ratings, saw the episode, so more Americans probably knew of Oregon City in 1962 than in 2012.

It was when the old Arch Bridge got its 15 minutes of fame.

The episode opens with the TV show’s heroes driving across the bridge and seeing that population sign.

Martin Milner as Tod Stiles and George Maharis as Buzz Murdock played two young men who found trouble across America in their Corvette sports car on CBS from 1960 to 1964.

Séance in old house

A lot has changed in Oregon City in the meantime.

Paul Johnston, who grew up in OC, remembers being on the bluff in the vicinity of the Municipal Elevator, with film work crews on the bridge and on Main Street. Johnston also delivered newspapers for the now-defunct Oregon City Enterprise-Courier, which had about 10 big headlines during the progress of the filming.

“Back then, a 9-year-old could walk around Oregon City without any adult supervision,” Johnston said. “The area around South End road just had a bunch of filbert orchards and a drive-in movie theater, but now it’s all houses.”

The production was so true to life that the bus driver announces they get off at “916 Washington St.,” and that was the actual address where most of the action took place, although the paper mill and elevator also have starring roles.

In the episode, Todd and Buzz board at the historic house in Oregon City with a dysfunctional family guest starring Nina Foch, who had starred with Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris,” which was awarded the Best Picture Oscar in 1951.

A séance takes place inside the house when the wife was trying to make money as a medium, and Margaretta Ramsey, Portland Players star of “Rain,” was cast as the girl trying to make sense of it all.

The E-C headline previewing that decision was, “Local thespians vie for Route 66 roles.” The E-C also ran an entire page on the filming of the episode, showing a photo spread.

The episode is still capturing the imagination of Oregon City residents, even if they don’t remember the original.

“We showed his cut-down version of the episode at River Heritage Day in a tent, and it was pretty popular, even if hard to see because of all of the ambient light,” said Sandy Carter, director of the Willamette Fall Heritage Foundation, who also remembers the episode in the Portland area. She attended a Lents slow-pitch game that the cast played, and her “big thrill” was brushing elbows with Milner in the crush of the crowd.

The “Route 66” production company liked to hold a softball game in each of their filming locations, where they would play a local team. The E-C on June 30, 1962, estimated that 3,000 people showed up to watch that game, and printed a picture of a smiling Milner wearing a baseball cap, a pen in his mouth, being mobbed by young women seeking an autograph.

The previous week, “Route 66” had been in Astoria filming an episode, and they were supposed to film in Portland the next week, but they needed a particular type of local actor for the script they had written and were unable to find one.

Having missed the original broadcast, Johnston, 59, always considered the episode a “mysterious part” of his life. So he’s been researching the history behind the episode and hopes to make his discoveries available to the public at an upcoming event to be scheduled.

Fast facts

The Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition celebrates the Historic Oregon City-West Linn Arch Bridge Reopening with a three-day festival Oct. 12 to 14.

Friday, Oct. 12: An Evening of Arts and Culture.

Saturday, Oct. 13: Family Fun Day.

Sunday, Oct. 14: Get Active Day.

ODOT opens the bridge to traffic Monday, Oct. 15.

Visit willamettefallsfestival.com for more information.



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