Sun Devils in the spotlight

Some of our favorite movie myths and moments took place right here in Tempe, Arizona.

Dim the lights and grab your popcorn for this behind-the-scenes look at epic extras, buzzworthy backdrops, campus cameos, and everything in between.

Fade to black, forever

The first movie known to be shot in Tempe was a silent film called “The Yaqui.” And while we’ll never hear or see the 1916 release — no known copies exist today — its mystery is irresistible.

Here’s what we know. The photoplay was both written and filmed in Tempe by Dane Coolidge and Hobart Bosworth, respectively. At the time of its release, it was a really big deal to practically everyone in the area.

“‘The Yaqui’ is one of the Blue Bird features” — one of three photoplay brands created around that time by Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (now Universal Pictures) — “but even beyond that is the fact that the play in its entirety was filmed here and presents scene after scene that practically all local people are acquainted with and in which many local people are seen,” proclaimed an article in the Arizona Republican on May 2, 1916.

Nearly 1,000 people witnessed a morning, afternoon, or evening presentation of the photoplay on May 3 of that year alone — including 200-plus ASU students, back when it was known as the Tempe Normal School.

Exactly two months later, the Arizona Republican ran an ad for the photoplay with this audacious call to action — “HEAR THE $5,000 PIPE ORGAN” — and while we can’t be sure what this means in the context of a film we’ll never see, we can be sure that it was absolutely spectacular.

In period movie houses, every silent film performance was accompanied by an in-house pipe organist. Creating musical scores in real time clarified the atmosphere of the film — be it jaunty, maudlin, dramatic, or something else entirely — just as prerecorded scores do for audiences today.

On the morning of July 3, 1916, the Arizona Republican spread the word about some of the film’s featured locations — including portions of town “just west of the Pacific [Creamery],” a historic site and the modern home of Four Peaks Brewery on 8th Street.

On to the plot points! According to an Arizona Republican from April 30 of that year, the film cast “some five or six hundred Indians and citizens of the little sister city” to tell the story of the Yaqui people, who had “been oppressed and [downtrodden] for years by their conquerors” in Mexico.

Bosworth played the role of Tambor, “the Yaqui separated from his family and deported to Yucatan where he escapes to return and even the score with his persecutors.”

And so goes the story of “The Yaqui,” at least as far as we know.

Deadpan on arrival

Jerry Lewis wanted to make his 28th feature film — “The Nutty Professor” — on a real college campus. While shooting on location was uncommon at the time, he and his 80-man production crew took over ASU’s Tempe campus to do exactly that in 1962.

A twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the movie centers on Professor Julius Kelp, a nerdy and absent-minded professor who concocts a potion to improve his social life. The potion turns him into Buddy Love, also played by Lewis, who is handsome, obnoxious, and confident enough to pursue Kelp’s student Stella Purdy.

Things get wild thanks to a side effect — the potion is totally out of control. Love returns to his original form again and again, always at inopportune times. Cue laughter.

A few of the plot points would be enough for most schools to avoid the Paramount picture altogether. And while excited to be involved, even a relatively young university like ASU had reason to keep its name out of the limelight.

“If you look at the contract the university signed with Paramount Pictures,” explained ASU Archivist Rob Spindler, “they wrote in there the university could not be named in the script, so they were very careful to protect the reputation of ASU during filming.”

Some 200 Sun Devils were paid $10 a day to serve as extras in the film, much of which took place in Discovery Hall, just west of the Business Administration building, which opened in 1968 (see story on p. 4). In one scene, the former business administration building — Interdisciplinary B, which today houses ASU’s Graduate College — is visible through the window of Kelp’s office.

Cardboard crowd shot

ASU has added maroon and gold magic to more than one movie over the years — including the 1996 classic “Jerry Maguire,” filmed on location at Sun Devil Stadium. We already knew that many of the extras in the crowd were selected through an open call of students. What we didn’t know is that at least as many extras were made entirely from cardboard.

Yes, cardboard.

According to our friends at the Tempe History Museum, each of the locals involved in the production received a cardboard cutout of another person to place in the stadium seat next to them.

Barbra Streisand at Arizona State University's Sun Devil Stadium in 1976's "A Star is Born" (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Stop by the Tempe History Museum to learn about other movies made in Tempe including “A Star Is Born” (with Barbra Streisand, pictured above), landmark U2 and Rolling Stones concert films, “Raising Arizona,” and more. Save the date for their new exhibit scheduled to open in early May.

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