Herb Benham

Monday, Aug 18 2014 09:27 PM

HERB BENHAM: We had the best of times Sunday in Taft

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By Herb Benham

I wanted to say goodbye, so we drove to Taft on Sunday to see the 3 p.m. showing of the “The Best of Times.” Goodbye to Robin Williams, who, along with Kurt Russell, starred in the film set in Taft. Williams made many friends there during the monthlong shoot in the mid-’80s.

“The Best of Times” was rarely mentioned during the actor’s life, and critics weren’t going to make an exception after it ended. Maybe you had to be from the valley — Bakersfield, Fresno — or have lived in a place where high school football owns Friday night.

The film is funny, sweet, tender and full of wisdom. It comes served with a bucketful of laughter.

We’d driven to Taft from Santa Barbara via Ojai. We played the temperature game — 74 degrees in Santa Barbara and 102 when we reached Taft. I’m fond of Taft, and no place looks good in comparison to Santa Barbara, but talk about opposites. It was like landing on the moon and discovering there were wooden derricks, the West Kern Oil Museum and Jo’s Restaurant.

Landscape aside, we drove to Center Street and parked 50 feet from the Fox Theatre. Try that in Santa Barbara. I like a place with easy parking and where you don’t have to worry whether it’s Tuesday between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. and street cleaning day. 

We walked into the theater ready to pay. No charge. The movie was free and it was showing in the newish theater, the one built close to 20 years ago that has air conditioning.

We sat next to Gary Morris, who has lived in Derby Acres for more than 60 years. Morris had been head of maintenance for the school district and was a photographer on the side. He remembered Williams — he said was always cracking jokes.

The theater was aglow with good cheer. While the lights were on, friends waved to friends and picked up conversations where they had left them the last time. Taft is friendly and you don’t have to be from Taft to be the beneficiary of its goodwill.

The seats were comfortable, the room was cool and my legs could have been twice as long and still not knocked up against the row in front of us.

Had this been a plane, I would have felt like I had stumbled into first class and would have wondered where the fresh-baked cookies were.

I bought the combo — a medium popcorn and a lemonade — and a large box of Junior Mints, all for about $6. Cheap, good parking, leg room — take that, Santa Barbara.

The movie started and the crowd laughed at every Taft reference, good or bad. Near the end, when Williams catches the ball, wins the game for Taft and says to his wife, “I was so lucky,” and she says, “You weren’t lucky; you were due,” the theater went quiet and several people wiped away tears.

The audience clapped when the credits rolled.

On the way out, we met Les Clark, the executive vice president of the Independent Oil Producers’ Agency, and he talked about how he had been asked to be an extra in the film.

“They wanted me to be one of the guys coming out of the massage parlor,” said Clark, who recalled that around that time, an upstanding Taft citizen had been picked up for some regrettable behavior on Union Avenue in Bakersfield.

“I turned down the part because I didn’t think it would look good.”

Sue snapped pictures of the Fox and the movie title on the marquee, and sent them to the children. Then we walked around the block, in front of the Westside Health Care District, where Russell and Williams had put their hands in wet cement and signed their names. Williams had written “You’re in good hands with Jack Dundee” (his character). Fans had decorated the sidewalk, leaving candles, silk flowers and messages. 

We paid our respects and drove home. Williams’ memory is in good hands in Taft.

Contact Californian columnist Herb Benham at 395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His work appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own..

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