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Party Night on 'The Rock'

June 05, 1996|BILL HIGGINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Attempts at show-biz party crashing usually combine a pathetic lack of imagination ("Don't you know who I am!?") with startling ineptness. (It's always a good idea to wear shoes, especially to anything black-tie.) However, this wasn't the case with the aquatic assault on Monday's world premiere of Hollywood Picture's "The Rock" on Alcatraz Island.

A 30ish man, who looked like he'd stepped out of a Nike "Just Do It" ad, wore an O'Neill wetsuit over part of a tuxedo and windsurfed onto a quiet part of the island. He then ditched his board, straightened his tie and was soon apprehended by the Park Service.

The crasher, who in generous tribute to S.F.'s new mayor gave his name as Willie Brown, was cited for illegal landing and disturbing the wildlife. He was escorted away on a Coast Guard cutter. His departing words were: "Getting over was easy. Getting out was hard."

It's regrettable he failed, however nobly. He missed a great party.

As the wetsuited wannabe sailed away, the 500 invited guests were beginning to disembark from the Red & White line tour boats that had sailed across the bay from Fisherman's Wharf. Their evening on the Rock began by passing a 40-yard stretch of film crews and photographers, then hiking up the hill to the "Big House" for a tour.

This brought back memories for director Michael Bay who said Hollywood Pictures had thought the production would shoot three days on Alcatraz and the rest in L.A. They ended up shooting on the island for nine weeks. "I came in here and my mouth dropped open," recalls Bay. "I'm like, 'This island is bitchin! We have to shoot here!' And the studio is like, 'Oh, that is very expensive.' "

Of course, so is throwing a party at a historic island penitentiary where everything including generators, water, food and press releases--all the premiere essentials--have to be brought in by barge. But to most of the guests, it was worth the effort. "This is the kind of event Hollywood is famous for," exuded producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "This is Hollywood from the '30s and '40s! This is about putting on a show! This is a real premiere!"

After the cell block tour, the guests, like good prisoners being rewarded with a special treat, were taken out to the exercise yard and shown the movie. Though in this case, it wasn't like sitting on the cement watching a film projected on the dank walls.

The studio had erected a hard-walled, 100-by-70-foot tent complete with real theater seats (sloping at a stadium angle for perfect sight lines), plus free popcorn and M&Ms at the door. It was really a tribute to some kind of mad, show business genius that could construct something like this on Alcatraz. "I've been to worse screening rooms on studio lots," marveled George Lucas.

When the screening ended, the effect of exiting the theater into the cold, wind-swept reality of Alcatraz was startling. Sea gulls circled overhead, the lights of San Francisco glowed in the distance, the fading outlines of the shuffle board courts were underfoot--a bizarre moment.

Though it was no less bizarre than walking up the steps to the main cell block and being greeted by smiling waiters offering glasses of white wine. Then to see "Broadway," the central passageway between the cells, had been set with four long buffets covered in black tablecloths. Each had an enormous red daisy centerpiece. There was almost no other decoration in the building. No gilding the lily, so to speak.

"Alcatraz is interesting because it's a kind of perverse place," said the film's co-star Nicolas Cage. "Usually when you think of going to an island you think of escaping from the city. Here you think of escaping into the city. To have a party on it is an odd dynamic."

But party they did, over a dinner of sesame-crusted salmon with wasabi cream, tenderloin beef and fettuccine with mushrooms. Among the "people from an environment called Hollywood," as Mayor Willie Brown described the crowd, were co-stars Sean Connery and Ed Harris, plus Cage's wife, Patricia Arquette, Cary Elwes, John Cusack, Jack Rapke, Steve Tisch, Gale Ann Hurd, and studio execs Joe Roth, Dick Cook and Michael Lynton.

Though the evening went flawlessly and generated massive local media coverage, Rob Schneider of "SNL" fame and a San Francisco native summed up the Bay Area reaction: "I want people from Hollywood to visit. I don't want them to move here."

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