The Northern California town that famous people just can’t resist
Santa Rosa is a small California town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. By chance it seems to be tangled up with several creative characters of the 20th century. Read on for details of the “Santa Rosa Connection.”
Famous horticulturalist LUTHER BURBANK moved to Santa Rosa soon after the success of his first big hybrid, the Burbank potato. A Massachusetts native, Burbank sold the rights to the potato and used the money to move west to California. After his arrival he set up a research facility in Santa Rosa and proceeded to revolutionize farming with hundreds of productive hybrid grains, grasses, vegetables and fruits.
(Photo: Luthur Burbank with some spineless cactus, from the September 1908 edition of Overland Monthly. Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
Luther Burbank was friends with author JACK LONDON, who lived a few miles from Santa Rosa on his “Beauty Ranch.” London shared Burbank’s interest in agriculture, experimenting with crops like hay and grapes and raising prize-winning pigs on his ranch’s 1500 acres. In 1911 London began building his dream home, Wolf House, on the site; by its 1913 completion Wolf House cost the then-staggering sum of $80,000. Before London could move in, the house burned to the ground in a mysterious fire, and London was left with a total loss. He never quite recovered and died in 1916 at age 40. His ashes are buried at the ranch.
Actress NATALIE WOOD was “discovered” in Santa Rosa in 1943, the year she turned five. Director Irving Pichel cast the local tot in a bit part for his film Happy Land, which was shooting on location in the town. Four years later Wood played Susan Walker, the skeptical tyke who doubts Santa Claus, in the film Miracle on 34th Street. The movie became a holiday classic and Wood’s career was on its way.
In 1943, the same year that Natalie Wood was discovered in Santa Rosa, director ALFRED HITCHCOCK shot most of his film Shadow of a Doubt on location there. The Master of Suspense apparently found the town a suitable symbol of small-town American innocence. 20 years later Hitchcock returned to the area, setting his 1963 thriller The Birds in Northern California’s Bodega Bay.
Mystery writer RAYMOND CHANDLER co-wrote Hitchcock’s creepy film Strangers On a Train (1951). Some of Santa Rosa must have rubbed off; Chandler made it the hometown of his fictional private eye Philip Marlowe. In The Long Goodbye (1953) Marlowe calls himself “a native son, born in Santa Rosa.” In a 1951 letter to a fan, Chandler said Marlowe was born in Santa Rosa and “had a couple of years of college, either at the University of Oregon at Eugene, or Oregon State University at Corvallis.” (Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, 1981, Frank MacShane, editor.) But Marlowe is more closely associated with Los Angeles, the setting for most of his adventures.
A less hard-boiled character — cartoon everyman Charlie Brown — also emanated from Santa Rosa. CHARLES SCHULZ, creator of the comic strip Peanuts, moved to Santa Rosa in the 1950s and settled for good. A Minnesota native, he built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in the city and subsidized its operation for years. (Schulz walked from his nearby studio to the arena for lunch nearly every day.) After his death his family completed a museum for Schulz and Peanuts, which opened in 2002 in Santa Rosa.
ROBERT L. RIPLEY was born and buried in Santa Rosa, but in between he travelled the world. Ripley created the “Believe It or Not!” newspaper feature showcasing amazing oddities from around the globe. The feature made Ripley famous. “Believe It Or Not” books, radio and TV shows and tourist museums followed, and by his 1949 death Ripley claimed to have visited nearly 200 countries. He was buried, perhaps fittingly, in Santa Rosa’s Independent Order of Odd Fellows cemetery.
The identity of DEEP THROAT was one of the longest-held secrets in modern American politics. He was the anonymous source behind the reports of The Washington Post (1973-74) that contributed to the downfall of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. In May of 2005, the secret was revealed: former F.B.I. official W. Mark Felt admitted that he was the famous anonymous source and the Post confirmed it. At the time of his admission, Felt was a 91-year-old retiree living in Santa Rosa. He died in 2008, aged 95, in Santa Rosa.