Despite being less than four hours drive from LA, the small town in California’s Central Valley where I went to high school has only ever hosted one film production. Even with an impressive variety of natural terrain — plains, rolling foothills, mountains, farmland, rivers and lakes — that would seem to make it a convenient stand-in for the Midwest, the South, or the old west, you’re far more likely to see Vancouver dressed up as New York City or a CG Bay Bridge being blown up than anything shot in the middle of California. Why spend all that money to fly over flyover country when drive-past country is right here?
Being ignored by popular culture was sort of our lot in Fresno County. As definitive evidence of this, I point to Tupac’s “California Love,” in which Fresno is California’s largest city (at half a million) not to receive a shout out (technicalities: one could argue that San Jose is bigger and also not specifically mentioned, but it’s also clearly on the San Francisco Bay and thus covered under the “from Diego to the Bay” clause). Even Bakersfield, Fresno’s smaller San Joaquin Valley sibling to the south, has produced the occasional nationally known music act. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Korn. What did Fresno have?
Reedley though, at the southeastern end of Fresno County, at least we had Road House. (Whether anyone else knew it is immaterial, we knew it).
While it’d be nice if there were more, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect film to be our sole cultural product. Released in 1989 as super producer Joel Silver’s follow-up to his smash hit Die Hard, Silver — who has said proudly that he makes films for teenage boys — pitched Road House to prospective cast members in three words: “boobs and bombs.”
It’s a nice pitch, and accurate enough, but it makes Road House sound far less strange than it actually is. It starred Patrick Swayze, a burgeoning star after Youngblood and Dirty Dancing two years earlier. An early tagline: “The dancing is over. Now it gets dirty.”
Swayze played a “cooler” — which we’re left to infer from the film is like the head of security for a bar — named Dalton, who is so universally acknowledged as the best in his business that he’s one-name famous among service staff. “You see that guy over there? That’s Dalton,” waitresses breathlessly tell bartenders when Dalton shows up at the Double Deuce. “I thought you’d be bigger,” sniff the bouncers.
That’s Road House in a nutshell, a mix of wildly inventive parallel universe world-building and tried-and-true tropes from westerns and martial arts films. The Double Deuce, by the way, is the rowdy honky-tonk Dalton has been hired to clean up. What ensues after Dalton rolls into town (in a grey Mercedes that he keeps hidden in a barn for the entire movie) is a hybrid Western/martial arts movie pitting white hat Dalton against black hat Brad Wesley, an ascotted big game hunter who has an entire town under his thumb.
“When I first read the script, I wasn’t very happy,” director Rowdy Herrington told us. “I thought it was too broad. Joel Silver called me because I was going to pass and said, ‘Would you come down and meet me? Even if you don’t do this, I think you’re talented. I have other things going on.’ So I said, okay. He set up a meeting at midnight. They were shooting Die Hard on a lot at Fox. I met the whole bunch of guys, Bruce Willis and everybody and McTiernan. Anyway, Joel and I talked about it and he said he understood my concerns about the material and that’s why he wanted me to do it. I told him what I would do to it.”
One quality Road House has, common to a lot of cult and extremely rewatchable movies, is the sense that there’s this whole hidden world around us that we just never noticed before. Lucrative honky-tonks, the toughs who ruin them, the famous bouncers sent to clean them up. In Road House, that may be partly due to the fact that it was initially a much longer movie, carefully whittled down to its 1 hour and 54-minute running time. The original cut was three hours long.
“The script was long. It was like 140 pages or something,” Herrington says. “And my first meeting with United Artists, I went in with Joel and [then-chairman of United Artists] Tony Thomopoulos is sitting at one end of this long conference table. We’re at the other, and he’s got his people on each side of him. I was totally unprepared for this because Joel didn’t give me a clue what was going to happen in this meeting. We go in and sit down and Joel says, ‘Tell him what you’re going to do.’ I did a couple of minutes on what I was going to do with the script and the stuff that I thought was really going to be hit scenes, why this picture should get made, and all that. And Tony Thomopoulos just said ‘The script’s too long.’ And of course I agree. Joel slid the script all the way across this long table that Tony had, and he said ‘Take anything out you want, but when it’s a bomb, it’s your fault.’ ‘What do you want, a hit or a bomb? Choose now.'”
Kelly Lynch was already signed to United Artist for a Sam Kinison movie that never happened, and instead got cast as Dalton’s love interest, the sexy doctor. They also lucked out getting Jimmy Iovine (future Dr. Dre collaborator) as their music supervisor.
“Jimmy read the script and said, ‘Oh my God, I know who this blind guitar player is,'” Herrington says. “It turns out the original writer of the script [R. Lance Hill] had seen Jeff Healey in a bar and wrote him into the script.”
Iovine had apparently seen a similar show. So Road House got Jeff Healey, a blind Canadian with a unique way of playing slide guitar with the guitar flat across his lap, to play Cody, leader of the bar band at the Double Deuce. Healey was just 23 when Road House came out, and 41 when he died of lung cancer in 2008.
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For the femme fatale, Denise, Brad Wesley’s sometime girlfriend who propositions and strips for Dalton, Joel Silver cast platinum blonde newcomer Julie Michaels. Michaels would go on to study with Benny The Jet Urquidez, who helped choreograph Road House‘s fights (with stunt coordinator Charlie Picerni), and eventually became a stunt performer. You can see her in the beginning of Point Break, beating the crap out of Keanu Reeves while topless. But at the time she was just 19, auditioning for her first movie role.
“Julie came in and auditioned and she did a very clever thing dealing with Joel Silver,” Herrington says. “She lifted up her dress and on her thigh was written ‘Property of Joel Silver.’ That sealed the deal.”
I got in touch with Michaels to ask if that was really how the audition went. “All six of them, you mean?” she asked.
“They were very thorough, for sure,” Michaels says. “There was a regular audition with the casting director, and then later with the director, then with Producer Joel Silver. And then there was a dance audition. I had a very smart agent. In a dance audition, you’ve got to do something that’s pretty fab, so that was his suggestion. And I had the balls to do it. So I wrote ‘Property of Joel Silver’ on the inside of my thigh. Kicked my leg up and stuck my foot on the top of his desk and the rest. Everybody blushed. It was great,” Michaels says.
“We had some Playboy bunnies and a lot of really pretty girls in the Double Deuce,” Herrington says. Joel said early on, ‘See a girl? See a pretty girl.’ He had a lot of great one-liners.”
“Joel was awesome,” Michaels says. “He’s Mr. ‘Boobs and Bombs.’ He actually named my hooters. He named them. ‘Frank and Henry,’ I think it was. He would go, ‘It’s going to be Frank and Henry day coming up.'”
Road House ends up with this freewheeling soul and a completely whacked-out premise. But sort of subtly whacked out, if that’s possible (Herrington notes that there was originally a castration scene, but he refused to shoot it). To the point that critics at the time seemed to think the filmmakers might be attempting realism (they weren’t).
Certainly Road House isn’t the first action movie to have elaborate world-building, but usually action movie world-building involves… outer space, cyborg technology, futuristic robots, rogue terrorist groups. The world Road House imagined is one where honky-tonks are big business, bouncers are as famous as professional athletes, and beautiful women constantly take their tops off at the slightest provocation (as someone who saw many of his movies as a teenager, I can confirm that Joel Silver was very good at his job). The concept of the “cooler” didn’t exist before Road House willed it into existence.
Then there was Dalton himself: a wiry dancer who probably weighed 160 soaking wet, Dalton was a peculiar kind of health nut who eschewed food in favor of black coffee and cigarettes, reluctantly beat up men twice his size, and spoke mostly in barbed aphorisms “I heard you had balls big enough to come in a dump truck, but you don’t look like much to me,” the old bouncer, Morgan, tells Dalton.
“Opinions vary,” Dalton responds.
As a character, Dalton is an utterly singular Texan take on Bruce Lee. Preternaturally wise, but in an aw-shucks kind of way; a glib, teetotalling tai chi practitioner who chain-smokes. At a time when action movie heroes were generally musclebound giants who impaled bad guys on pipes, Dalton was a human :-| emoji.
After Dalton takes over at the Double Deuce, he immediately cleans house. It’s his way or the high way. He ruthlessly fires Morgan (played by the pro wrestler Terry Funk), who protests, only for Dalton to mock “there’s always barber college.”
Dalton goes on to offer his three rules for successful cooling. “One, never underestimate your opponent. Two, take it outside, never start anything inside the bar unless it’s absolutely necessary. And Three… be nice. Until it’s time to not be nice.”
Most of the advice still holds up. Some other choice nuggets of Dalton wisdom include: “Nobody wins a fight,” “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Give me the biggest guy in the world, smash his knee and he’ll drop like a stone.”
Road House essentially invented the Bar Rescue format, giving it a metaphysical bent. There has never been an action hero like Dalton, an NYU philosophy major turned world-famous bar bouncer who had a Mercedes he never drove, lived like an ascetic Marlboro monk in a house with no electricity, and trained constantly for something he hated doing (beating the hell out of people).
Set in Jasper, Missouri, the script called for a river. Reedley, California happened to fit the bill. Situated on the Kings River just shy of the Sierra Nevada foothills, those who grew up there get a sense of deja vu watching Dalton drive out to “Jasper,” through arid countryside with mountains in the distance. The real Jasper, so far as I can tell, is much flatter, and probably more verdant. Even the central idea, of a honky-tonk on a river, filled with rowdy river rats, is a heightened but believable version of the town I remember. The parents of a friend of mine met when he helped get her raft untangled from some overhanging trees. It’s that kind of place.
“We had Patrick’s motor home parked on G Street and I was waiting for him to come out with Tim Moore, who was executive producer,” Herrington says. “When Patrick came up, this mob of girls came and they were trying to rip his clothes off. I mean, it was like Elvis. We really had to shove them away, it was like a physical deal. He was a little freaked out. He was like, ‘This fame, man, this is crazy.'”
“Boobs and bombs” might’ve been the hook, and Road House certainly has both, but it’s still unlike any movie I’ve ever seen; at once intuitively familiar and utterly alien. The effect is magnified when you recognize locations in it.
Almost needless to say, audiences and critics at the time didn’t really “get” it. For Silver, Road House was the lull between Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2. The initial box office take was modest and the reviews were horrendous. Gene Siskel said of Swayze, “A young star has sold himself to become a pinup boy.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Road House “brutal, sexist, and stupid.” Variety’s unnamed reviewer said it was “ill-conceived and unevenly executed… its vigilante justice, lawlessness and wanton violence feel ludicrous in a modern setting.”
It was so universally panned that the Razzies even attempted to pile on, nominating Road House for five awards (one of many unforgivable whiffs that should forever invalidate the Razzies’ existence). It’s fair to say Road House‘s final 15 minutes or so aren’t the strongest, but worst actor for Patrick Swayze and Ben Gazzara? Fuck the Razzies.
“And then what was his name, the CBS guy with the big hair…” Herrington says.
“Gene Shalit, yeah. Gene Shalit called it ‘Out House,'” Herrington says.
I laugh. Herrington doesn’t.
“I was kind of mortified to be honest,” he says. “Because it’s like my worst nightmare, [the critics were saying] some of the things that I thought about the script at the very beginning. It was very difficult to turn down a studio movie when your whole goal is to get into that system, and with the agency telling you, ‘Look, this is really big payday and after this, you’re on the A-list directing movie stars.’ But that does not mean that it doesn’t hurt when the chickens come home to roost.”
As Humphrey Bogart said, the trouble with the world is that it’s always one drink behind, and eventually, through repeated cable viewings, public opinion caught up to Road House‘s greatness. In the age of cable television it became one of the most replayed movies of all time. Herrington says it’s broken the record for the number of screenings on television, a claim for which I can’t find an original source (though there is this Wall Street Journal report that says Road House aired 65 times between 1994-2002, which is undoubtedly a lot).
Kelly Lynch, who played the love interest (DOC: “Do you always carry your medical record around with you?” DALTON: “Saves time.”) famously told the AV Club that Bill Murray and his brothers would prank call her husband (who Murray worked with on Scrooged) every time Road House was on TV.
Every time Road House is on and he or one of his idiot brothers are watching TV—and they’re always watching TV—one of them calls my husband and says [In a reasonable approximation of Carl Spackler], “Kelly’s having sex with Patrick Swayze right now. They’re doing it. He’s throwing her against the rocks.”
Movies that define the zeitgeist of a particular time tend to win the awards and get the most press — your The Graduates, your Reality Biteses — but movies that imagine new and alternate worlds and keep you guessing have a peculiar staying power. Road House, in its familiar but slightly off kind of way, is like a song lyric you keep rewinding just to make sure you’ve heard it right. Did Sam Elliott just kick two soldiers out of a wet T-shirt contest? Do I have that right?
I tried to find some of the exact filming locations, mostly the river shots, like Dalton seeing Brad Wesley’s ranch, and the final fight between Dalton and Jimmy. Rowdy Herrington remembered it as the “Harris Ranch,” just as it’s listed on Road House‘s entry in the AFI database. Trouble with finding that is, “Harris Ranch” is also the name of a giant hotel/BBQ joint in Coalinga, out in the Dustbowl-esque west Valley. Which is definitely not on a river.
Not sure who to ask, I remembered I went to kindergarten with a girl named Harris, with whom I’m still friends. Once, when I was 16, I crashed my car into an orchard, and in the process smashed a sign that had said “DB Harris.” “That was my uncle’s sign,” I remembered her telling me at the time.
I asked her if she might know anything about a “Harris Ranch” where they filmed Road House. She said no, but put me in touch with her uncle (a different uncle, for those keeping track).
“Oh yeah, I remember when they were filming that,” this other Harris uncle told me. “Swayze was coming into Fresno at night and raising hell. A couple of my friends partied with him. He was a real party animal, dancing on the bar and stuff. Or that’s what people tell me.”
The Other Harris Uncle tells me that the “Harris Ranch” in question was owned by a John Harris (not an uncle), though it’s now the Giffin Ranch. It’s on the west side of the river on the way to Pine Flat Lake, he says, out on Belmont Avenue where it turns into Trimmer Springs. “There’s a 2500-foot landing strip out there that John Harris developed.”
I took it as an opportunity for a drive. A drive through the countryside is the perfect quarantine recreation activity, outside yet solitary, and anyway my favorite taco truck happens to be right on the way. (Tacos Morales. They make an incredible carne asada burrito with pot beans and lettuce and pico de gallo that’ll have you sweating through your shirt. Hot enough that you’ll regret it the next morning but it will still be worth it.). The road meanders past vineyards and canals, with tall curving oak trees and golden foothills in the background, passing from flat, stony terrain into rolling hills dotted with patchworks of orchards, made up of peculiarly square orange trees, who’ve just had their tops cut off. With the windows down and going on three months without a haircut I feel just like Dalton.
The road isn’t that close to the riverbank, but I pass by a pretty two-story house with white horse fencing out front. I feel strangely compelled to stop. Something about it feels vaguely familiar. It isn’t a normal place to stop, where I’ve pulled over, and every few minutes a car or a semi-truck carrying a load of fruit passes by at 50 or 60 miles per hour. The house isn’t the house, but something about it looks like it could be, in a way I can’t quite define. And on the other side of the street… there it is, an airstrip. Which I otherwise would’ve driven right by without noticing. I pull out my phone to see where I am and zoom in, and suddenly there it is, “Harris Farms River Ranch.”
A locked gate blocks access to the river. It’s all private property in that direction from road to river, complete with NO TRESPASSING signs. And this is, I think, the essential dichotomy of small-town life. On the one hand, it’s a place where you can call up someone you went to kindergarten with and have her uncle pinpoint the location of a specific event from 30 years ago, complete with apocryphal anecdotes and local color. On the other, it’s a place with giant parcels of land, with airstrips you never noticed, locked gates and “no trespassing” signs, behind which God knows what goes on. There’s probably nothing nefarious about it, but it’s not that hard to imagine a Brad Wesley living here. It seems at least vaguely plausible, some rich guy who secretly controls the whole town. Who would know? How would anyone find out about it?
Small towns are like that: quaint and claustrophobic in equal measure. Life is easier there, or is it? Everyone knows each other, but at the same time, everyone knows each other. You can have a party and the cops probably won’t show up. But also you can get robbed or shot and the cops probably won’t show up. Cartoony and broad though it may be, Road House at least got that right. Lots of people have stories about the small towns where they grew up. I’m just grateful that mine had a Road House.