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Jimmy Stewart & Crew on Gate Six Road

by Brad Hathaway

Nearly fifty years ago, Hollywood stars Jimmy Stewart, Glynis Johns, Ed Wynn and even teen-idol Fabian came to Sausalito to film a light comedy in the houseboat community along Gate 6 Road.

The CinemaScope movie, titled "Dear Brigitte" because it involved the infatuation of an 8 year old child prodigy with the sexy French actress, Brigitte Bardot, was based on a book titled "Erasmus – With Freckles." It was written by San Francisco-born, Los Angeles resident dentist and author John Haase.

He had placed much of the action in Sausalito's colorful floating home neighborhood. Indeed, in the book, the name of the houseboat was "The Tiburon" and he described it as a permanently moored retired ferryboat that "had been carelessly beached. This caused it to list permanently six degrees to port." As a result, he wrote, "the craft was as mobile as a pyramid."

Haase made the location seem tremendously exotic. He wrote that there were "wonderful harbor noises. The putt-putt of a diesel, a distant steamer's whistle, the vessels backing against the wooden docks, the slap-slap of the gentle waves against a moored sailboat, a concertina, a winch being turned, a ship's bell, a bell buoy, a distant foghorn."

He wrote of visual qualities as well. "One could find a spot on top of the pilothouse and merely watch the bay around the ferry. There was always a sailboat race or a weary tramp steamer coming through the Golden Gate." Mr. Haase seemed to think that the Gate was visible from the houseboat community. Well, he couldn't get everything right.

Officials at Twentieth Century Fox saw the colorful locale as a plus as they looked for a new vehicle for their star Jimmy Stewart in the wake of such successes as "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation" and "Taker Her, She's Mine."

The Bay Area had been good for Stewart before when he starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" which was filmed throughout San Francisco. So location shooting in Sausalito would give the star a chance to revisit the site of a success.

Paired with Stewart as his wife was Glynis Johns, who was becoming a familiar face to audiences with the release a few months before of "Mary Poppins" where she also played a wife and mother.

Another veteran of "Mary Poppins," comic actor Ed Wynn, took the role of a neighbor who narrates the story for the movie audience. During the filming of the Sausalito scenes, Wynn became something of a favorite of the local population as he mingled with the crowds that came out to see the filming.

Playing Stewart's son, the eight year old mathematics prodigy with a fixation on the Parisian sex kitten, was Bill Mumy. Despite his young age, he already had a lengthy career in television with recurring roles on such shows as "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet."

Fabian's role, that of the boyfriend of Stewart's character's daughter, was more a creation of the screenwriters, Hal Kanter and Nunnally Johnson, than of novelist Haase.

This wasn't the only change to the story from Haase's novel. The movie portrayed the professor's family as the only residents on the houseboat where Haase's novel described the layout of the "S.S. Tiburon" as family quarters on "A Deck" but with "B Deck" occupied by "wandering poets (and) poetry students."

Other, smaller details were changed in the process of turning the novel into a screenplay. A key scene where the eight year old child detects an error in a bank's statement of accounts took place in the Sausalito branch of the Bank of America. Whether it was that bank's desire not to be portrayed as having sloppy statements or not, for the film it became the "Bayshore National Bank."   

Brigitte Bardot, who had a single scene in the movie, didn't travel to California for the filming. Her scene was shot in Paris.

Fox sent a team including set decorator Steven Potter to scout locations. Potter recalls the locale as beautiful with great weather. "We just had rain once" he says. He adds the observation that "the people in the town were so very friendly."

The team picked a spot at the curve of Gate 6 Road which gave views of Richardson's Bay, houseboats and the ferries Issaquah and the Charles Van Damme.

The "home" of Stewart's "Professor Leaf" and his family was shown as a side-wheeled, twin smoke stacked vessel. Potter recalls that not all of the construction of the details for the set was strong enough for the safety of the actors. "The railings were falling off" he says.

Following the design mandates of Artistic Director Joseph Martin Smith, Potter created a distinctly Victorian look for the houseboat. The exterior featured filigreed touches and the interior sets had red velvet wall coverings.

Most of the filming of interior scenes, however, was done on the sound stages of the former Hal Roach Studios in Southern California. Only the exterior scenes were shot along Gate Six Road.

While the company was filming those scenes, Potter's wife came up for a weekend visit and the couple joined "Mr. Stewart" for dinner at The Trident restaurant on Bridgeway. This was during the time that the Trident was owned and operated by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber.

Ed Wynn (foreground) and Jimmy Stewart on Gate 6 Road
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

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