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'The American Graffiti spirit will not die here' | Why Graffiti Summer is still alive in Modesto

Even if cars have to stay in the garage, the stories behind Graffiti Summer have to be told. Modesto’s Graffiti summer is alive this year, despite the coronavirus.

MODESTO, Calif. — The classic cars and rock 'n' roll that defined the Graffiti Summer of Modesto had to be redefined after a virus wiped out their long-held traditions.

American Graffiti is a movie by George Lucas that chronicled his experiences growing up in Modesto. It’s a movie many people tout as a masterpiece and one that unmistakably captured a genuine snapshot of 1950s and 1960s Modesto. 

“I think that desire for authenticity rings true about Modesto, because what happened here really did exist,” said Chris Murphy, publisher for Modestoview magazine. “We didn’t cook up some image about our community. It’s really who we are.”

RELATED: George Lucas’ Modesto masterpiece | How American Graffiti got the city ‘right’

The rock music and classic cars that were synonymous with the era are reflected in American Graffiti Festival and parade every year in Modesto. However, the coronavirus forced some hard decisions about its future this year.

“We were fighting like crazy to keep it going,” Murphy said. “Everyone was waiting to see what else could happen… no one (event organizers) wanted to cancel the first event. What happened then, is once the first one started going, then all the others started dropping. It was crazy.”

The festival was canceled, social distancing kept people at home, and the Modesto State Theatre, which reigns in the first week of Graffiti summer with an American Graffiti showing, shut its doors as part of the virus shutdowns.

RELATED: How the movie-going experience might change in a post-coronavirus world

Despite setbacks, local news outlets, radio stations, and more started to rally the Graffiti culture celebrations into a comeback. 

Local news outlet Modesto News stepped up to produce a documentary-style virtual cruise, combining local interviews with 10 years of filming the annual parade.

For Mick Rubalcava, Modesto News publisher, this was the year that justified all the years of filming. He said that, even if the Graffiti parade physically didn't happen this year, the culture was still celebrated.

“The parade and the Graffiti weekend is just to celebrate our Graffiti culture; it’s not where Graffiti ends,” said Rubalcava.

Rubalcava said the culture is part of everyone born and raised in Modesto; for some, it was natural to get in the car, drive no particular place, and cruise on the weekends. He even says that classic cars and cruising was how his mother met her first husband.

“When we do it here, it’s about celebrating the culture…,” Rubalcava said. “Celebrating the movie American Graffiti is celebrating Modesto. It’s one in the same.”

For Murphy, that culture is the reason why people can still “hear Graffiti Summer everywhere,” with classic cars revving up, cruising through the city, and lined up along the Street.

“The American Graffiti spirit will not die here,” Murphy said. “They’re still making it happen wherever they can.”

RELATED: 'A way of life' | Modesto classic car lovers pay tribute to American Graffiti

He and other community members rallied that culture forward in true socially distanced fashion by taking over the radio station, the airwaves, social media, and even the State Theatre.

Murphy and ModestoView started #CurbsideClassics, highlighting the classic cars of the era and encouraging the car aficionados to show off their hot rods. 

At the State Theatre, he and panel of cinematographers and writers dissected American Graffiti via Zoom conference with other fans of the film. They detailed the features that excelled and how the movie got the the culture and the city right.

On the airwaves, they also partnered with a local radio station to dedicate a weekend to Graffiti era music.

“If we can’t all hang out, then we at least have to make sure that all these stories keep on being told,” said Murphy.

As more businesses reopen, the State Theatre announced its reopening, along with a big screen return for American Graffiti on June 20.

However, some disappointments were inevitable. The Walk of Fame induction honoring the “Legends of the Cruise” couldn’t happen this year due to the pandemic, and the early preview of Graffiti USA Classic Car Museum was postponed.

Murphy, along with Modesto Mayor Ted Brandevold and former Chamber of Commerce CEO Cecil Russell, planned to show the first phase of their long-awaited American Graffiti museum. The goal was to essentially build 1950s/1960s Modesto within the very walls of the museum.

RELATED: Modesto's new American Graffiti museum will ‘build an actual city inside these buildings’

“If there is only one silver lining the COVID issue, it’s the fact that we have a whole year now to prep the museum for Graffiti summer 2021,” Murphy said.

It's an idea that'll hold the many stories spurred about by the classic film that captured a critical point in time - one where both the times and the people were changing. 

Patti McCarthy, Assistant Professor of Film at Whittier College, said the film captures a moment of change from the innocence of the 1950s to the disillusionment of the 1960s.

“I think the historical significance… was that people wanted to recapture and remember that pre-'60s innocence and be able to recapture that themselves,” McCarthy said.

In essence, the future Graffiti museum captures one of the main themes of the film. Even if you can't stay home forever (or in a certain period), you can still remember what home (or that period) was like.

While there's no definitive explanation of Graffiti culture, according to McCarthy, she said "graffiti" culture was about a lived and shared experience, celebrating the freedom of being alive, and being part of a community that loves you for who you are. That culture is also something that "leaves a trace." 

"It’s a rebellious type of moment," said McCarthy. "It’s a unique expression of individuality, and it’s got this carpe diem quality, but it’s temporary and it’s fleeting. It has to change.”

Given the current situation with the coronavirus, that retreat might be an understandably welcome one.

“People need this now more than ever," Murphy said. "At any time, especially right now, people are looking for escapism.”

It just happens that with American Graffiti, Modesto gets to escape within their own culture.

“That’s what makes the Graffiti story so special around here," Murphy said. "You can be excited about your own community. You’re not getting your inspiration from somewhere else.”

“Graffiti summer is alive this year, even in the current situation we’re in,” he added.

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WATCH ALSO: 'A way of life' | Modesto classic car lovers pay tribute to American Graffiti