FIRST SHOWN in the American Bicentennial year of 1976, the Milpitas Monster movie was conceived as a commercial art class project in 1972 at Samuel Ayer High School.
The initial plan in January, 1973, simply was to make a ten-minute short film about pollution. Robert Burrill was the instructor guiding and implementing the project. Art student David Kottas created the monster’s image, inspired by classic horror movies such as Godzilla, King Kong, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another student, Patty Thorpe, got the job of designing and sewing the costume for the monster, and she was helped by her mother Anna, a professional tailor. From David Kottas’ drawings, Patty made the head and wings, and thus “the Monster was Born!” Scott Parker, the largest student in the Film Production class, was chosen to be the actor inside the costume.
Production costs for the 16mm film were met by asking local merchants near the school for small donations with the promise that their names would be acknowledged in the film’s credits. With one of the “truly great film titles,” Burrill collected $200 in 15 minutes, which was enough to pay for black-and-white film stock and its processing. He soon realized, however, that a thirty-minute color film could be made for only a few dollars more; a week later Burrill had collected an additional $1,000. Robert recounts, “I knew I had something at that point and I asked my Adult Education Photography class for their help and ideas. A task force was formed and the Milpitas Monster Booster Fan Club was established.”
Three years later, images of the Milpitas Monster were on the front page of the Milpitas Post and the San Jose Mercury News, with headlines of “A Star is Born in Milpitas.”
Local filmmakers and theatre groups were consulted for additional ideas. Burrill notes that “the concept of a fifty-foot monster stealing garbage cans brought immediate laughter. Additional brainstorming with people trained to think theatrically produced many ideas to choose from, and thus a series of drafts of the script were produced for a potential thirty-minute film.”
Wanting something dramatic, the team decided that the Milpitas Monster would destroy the Kozy Kitchen restaurant, a Milpitas landmark, but the miniature model of it for filming had to be believable. The first model was not very realistic, so it was set aside and Duane Walz (father of three Ayer HS students, retired technical engineer, and experienced model maker) supervised five Ayer student assistants in building a much more accurate miniature.
Burrill contacted an old school friend, David Boston, who was writing for the Hollywood scene. Over the Christmas holidays, a professional draft script was completed by Boston. Concentrated shooting began during summer school, with schedules compiled each morning and actual filming occurring every other day for a two-month period.
One stage actor, Doug Hagdohl, wanted film experience, so he was offered a role in the movie, and then the Milpitas Police and Fire Departments enthusiastically joined the project. Burrill notes that “the fire department stations almost got into an argument as to which fire house would be used the most!”
In cult classic horror films of that era, narrators were commonly used to connect the film segments for the viewers. The well-known Tennessee Ernie Ford was approached and initially agreed to narrate the film, but Ford’s agent later backed out of that commitment. His replacement was Paul Frees, who many people think was Hollywood’s greatest voice.
Additional help for this student project came from many sources. Stephen C. Wathen, a local graphic artist, theatrical designer, and filmmaker, added sequences of stop-motion animation to make the monster fly. Robert Berry, a professional musician and composer, agreed to compose special music – “The Milpitas Monster” and “Dining in the City Dump” – for the expanding feature film. George Loughborough, owner of Huntford Printing & Graphics in Milpitas, produced professional advertising.
A short clip of the Kozy Kitchen scene was sent to Bob Wilkins, the 1970s cigar-smoking host of the Creature Features show on KTVU, who had been making televised fun of Milpitas and the film project as word spread in South Bay newspapers. After watching the clip, Wilkins became a fan of the project and director Robert Burrill made some TV appearances on the show.
The original ten-minute short film project was growing magically into a ninety-minute feature-length movie…
As the project progressed, the whole town awaited any scrap of news about the film’s completion. Publicity dropped off completely as Burrill labored for weeks in a homemade studio during the editing of the film. Finally, a time was set late in the school year for the movie’s world premiere.
The Milpitas Monster movie was endorsed by the 1976 Bicentennial Commission as making for a night of celebration. Searchlights and a red carpet were ordered and publicity once again appeared in the newspapers. To Burrill’s joy, 500 World Premiere tickets were sold out in two weeks for $5.00 apiece.
A Star was Born. The Milpitas Monster made his movie debut. It could only happen in Milpitas!
The Milpitas Monster will be screening at the Century Great Mall Theater on Wednesday, October 30 at 6:30pm.
You can order tickets online at: themilpitasmonster.eventbrite.com