Entertainment — in the form of live stage performances and, later on, movies — has been a mainstay of Napa Valley living for generations.
One of the first local movie theaters was the Napa Opera House. In 1902, it was the venue for Professor Bradshaw’s moving pictures film. A November issue of the Napa Daily Journal reported Bradshaw “will give his grand exhibition of moving pictures, in the Napa Opera House at 8:15 (p.m.) Professor Bradshaw’s is positively the greatest of all moving picture shows on the road, using Edison’s latest perfected projecting kinescope, which projects the steadiest picture of any machine in the world, thus doing away the dancing and flickering of the view, so that there is no tiring effect on the eyes.”
The Bradshaw show boasted having 5,600 feet of film “containing 74 beautiful moving scenes, life-size, and every action true to life, will be displayed.” The Journal continued, “Pictures of every description will be displayed..., so that any manner of taste can be suited... (it) promises to be very entertaining.”
The beginning of that decade brought local residents a lot of Hollywood excitement. During the Summer of 1940, RKO Studios used Napa Valley as the setting for their film “They Knew What They Wanted,” starring Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton. The local newspapers devoted considerable space to reporting every detail of the cast and crews’ activities.
Apparently, Hollywood found the bucolic and agricultural traits of Napa County to be the perfect setting for their movie. However, Hollywood unfortunately encountered some disappointments along the way.
For example, a rustic, rambling dwelling located in “the Redwoods”—the Mt. Veeder area, had been selected to be the setting for the movie’s leading male character’s home. But, when the crew arrived at that location, they discovered it had been demolished and replaced with a modern structure. As a result, the crew constructed a replica of the razed rustic cabin in the Oakville area, the primary filming location for the movie.
A few days later, the Journal reported other show business realities. “That it isn’t all glamour and a life of ease for motion picture stars was graphically demonstrated last night when the first night shooting for the RKO film took place at the ranch near Oakville. The entire company was kept busy throughout the long hours, with dinner being served at the set from 11:30 p.m. until midnight.”
While the cast and crew were enduring long hours, the spouses of the lead actors were receiving considerable media attention. The Journal continued, “Elsa Lanchester, veteran actress and in private life Mrs. Charles Laughton, joined her husband here yesterday.”
The newspapers also reported on the activities of Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable. “Everything was perfect but the fish yesterday, when Clark Gable and a number of well-known Napans spent the day on the San Francisco Bay in the quest of striped bass. Gable, an ardent sportsman, shared the poor luck of the others. However, the day was an enjoyable one.”
That fishing trip served a dual purpose. Two RKO executives planned to “inspect the Napa River channel and adjoining sloughs” as a possible motion picture setting.
In the years to follow, Napa County would be the setting for numerous motion pictures and television series episodes. Also, Napa’s Opera House—now the Napa Valley Opera House—would be revitalized and local movie theaters would evolve into hi-tech, multiplex campuses.