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Film on Kern rivalry still hit XX years later

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Today's column is one of the few places in the paper you'll find only fleeting mention of that garishly overproduced spectacle: Super Bowl XL.

Instead, we'll be devoting our attention to an underappreciated football game that was never actually played -- but is celebrated just the same in the finer taverns and coffee shops of Kern County's westside oilpatch.

"The Best of Times," which tells the story of the Taft-versus-Bakersfield high-school football rivalry (but is actually about men, women, love, marriage and rusty car parts), opened in theaters 20 years ago this week.

It is one of the greatest films ever made.

At least that's what they used to suggest over at the White Elephant, the Taft restaurant that closed down about five years ago.

"Great movie, and some truth to it," says Ken Knost, who owned the White Elephant and frequently fed the film's crew and actors. That includes star Kurt Russell, whose friend Goldie Hawn used to sit around the place knitting; and fellow star Robin Williams, who did four hours straight of impromptu standup one night, keeping the place in stitches till 1 a.m.

"The movie still comes up quite a bit," says Charmayne Brooks, executive director of the Taft Chamber of Commerce. "People just love that movie."

It still holds a soft spot in Ron Shelton's heart, too -- even if he has mixed feelings about Taft.

"I asked my father once, 'When did you move out of Taft, dad?' " says Shelton, who wrote the screenplay en route to greater fame. "He said, 'The day I was old enough to drive.' "

Yes, Shelton is a Taft boy -- indirectly. He was born in Whittier and reared in Santa Barbara but his father was born and raised in Taft. And his grandfather, who came out from West Texas to work the Taft-area oilfields in about 1915 or so, lived out his life there.

"We're probably the only people in history who lived in Santa Barbara and vacationed in Taft," Shelton says. "We thought everybody lived someplace like Santa Barbara, right there on the coast.

"We'd go over and ride around in my grandfather's pickup truck and look for rattlesnakes and run around on that oilfield moonscape."

And hear about the football rivalry between the underdogs from Taft and big-city boys from Bakersfield.

"I remember my dad telling stories every year about how this was the year they'd beat Bakersfield," Shelton says. "And every year they got slaughtered."

Like any good writer, he filed those stories away for future reference.

Shelton, as you might know, is the writer-director who gave us "Bull Durham," "Play It to the Bone," "Tin Cup," "White Men Can't Jump" and "Blaze" (a side benefit of which was the film's star, Lolita Davidovich, to whom he is now married).

But long before any of that, he sold "The Best of Times" to producer Gordon Carroll. The movie, which opened five days after the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX, was by most measures a flop.

It grossed just $7.8 million, which today might not be enough to pay the salaries of its two stars, Williams and Russell.

The synopsis: Williams' character, Jack Dundee, drops a sure touchdown pass from Russell's character, quarterback Reno Hightower, that would have given Taft a miracle victory over the big, bad boys of Bakersfield High. Thirteen years later, Dundee manages to convince the participants to stuff themselves back into their uniforms and give it another go. OK, so that part of the story has a predictable climax.

The movie, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, is really about the nagging sense of missed opportunity that hounds many of us, to some degree or another.

But the football part of the story resonates most in these parts -- on both sides of the field.

Shelton remembers the day an orchestra was laying down the movie's soundtrack -- specifically the music for the film's final, dramatic football scene. As is typical, only the conductor was facing the screen; the performers couldn't see what was happening in the story until they played it all back for everyone when it was finished.

"And this violinist -- apparently from Bakersfield -- rushes up to me afterward and says, 'This can't happen. Taft could never beat Bakersfield,' " Shelton says. "I said, 'It's a movie, it's fiction' ... But emotions run deep, I know that."

Actually, Taft could beat Bakersfield. The Cougars (or Rockets, as they were called in the movie) just couldn't do it very often. During one four-game stretch, the Drillers (referred to in the movie as the Tigers) beat Taft 58-0, 58-0 -- yes, again -- 82-0 and 48-0.

"Bakersfield was always bigger, faster, stronger," Shelton says. "One year the great Frank Gifford was their star and coincidentally Taft happened to have its best team in years. Gifford had hurt his ankle that week and the word was out. Taft thought this was its year to finally beat Bakersfield -- and Gifford ran for six touchdowns practically on one leg."

That would have been 1947, the fall of Gifford's senior year. BHS won 45-0, such a drubbing that the schools suspended their rivalry for 10 years.

Although "The Best of Times" portrays a fictional high school game set in 1972, Gifford -- by then the play-by-play announcer for ABC's "Monday Night Football" -- was the model for Johnny O, the story's shifty scatback from Bakersfield. Others are based loosely on real characters, too.

The benevolent but mystical figure hovering in the background toward the end of the movie is Old Man Lester, an aging former boxer (or perhaps his ghost) with unfinished business of his own. Turns out there really was a Jack "Kid" Lester who fought in Taft and lost -- but he wasn't quite the sympathetic figure the movie might suggest.

"Kid" Lester took a memorable beating at the hands of Sam Langford, the "Boston Tar Baby," in Taft in 1913 -- a shameful outing Shelton the screenwriter imagines Lester never lived down. Two years later, Lester was caught throwing a fight in St. Paul, Minn. He was suspended, fined and disgraced.

But he had an authentic-sounding name and his story had a morsel of truth, so Shelton wrote him in. It is Langford, one of the great fighters of that day, who never got his due.

Speaking of not getting its due, what about this movie?

"True, it didn't do very well," said Shelton, who played minor-league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles' organization as a young man and remembers road trips to Bakersfield. "The film got lost in some politics between the studio and the producer and it just got dumped (without much of a marketing budget). Years later people come up to me and say, 'That was a great movie.'

"I think it's fun and worthwhile, but when a film doesn't do well it's always crushing."

He's happy with the way things settled out, however, "as long as Bakersfield forgives me."

"And I hope they do. It's just a good, spirited fable."

Taft certainly cherishes the movie. Bakersfield is left to cherish all of those actual victories. As for Shelton, today he'll be cherishing the Super Bowl. His pick: Seattle 27, Pittsburgh 24. Maybe there's a Ron Shelton screenplay waiting to burst forth from that game, too.

Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach him at rprice@bakersfield.com or 395-7399.

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