Catherine Frias, left, and Pat Couse of Fillmore's volunteer film… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Nothing says easy, breezy Southern California like a palm tree — but in Fillmore, the Southern California icon has been unfronded.
Eager for an infusion of Hollywood cash, the Ventura County agricultural town has taken down 26 queen palms, a tree that has lined downtown streets since 1940.
Officials wanted to give film and TV producers a generic, small-town setting that could stand in for Iowa, Indiana or anywhere else in palm-free America. So one July night, a landscaper revved up his chain saws in the heart of the city's quaint downtown and, soon after, the Fillmore Film Commission — its slogan is "Film More in Fillmore" — announced the move in an email blast to location scouts.
"You told us, we listened, and now it's done!" the email said. "Now we really are: ANYTOWN USA."
Not every town can be Anytown. But Fillmore, with a population of 15,000, believes it has all the ingredients: quaint storefronts, old brick buildings, wide sidewalks, an old-fashioned one-screen movie house — and an urgent need for additional business.
Hit hard by the economic downturn and the end of state redevelopment funds, the city has cut nearly half its positions over the last three years. In a budget approved earlier this summer, officials managed to keep the park restrooms open but forecast a $1.4-million deficit.
At the same time, revenue from film permits has plummeted. Tax breaks from other states have been luring away producers for years. In the current TV season, only two of 23 one-hour dramas in production are being made in L.A. County . Industry jobs have vanished. It was time, Fillmore officials figured, for the palms on a couple of blocks of Central Avenue to do the same.
Pat Couse, a member of the volunteer film commission, said location scouts at trade shows have given her the same regretful message for years: "I'd love to film there, but I can't use it because of the trees."
So far, there's been no new business, but industry response has been encouraging.
"For Fillmore to be making a proactive move to be more film-friendly is the most wonderful thing I've ever heard," said Tim Hillman, location manager for "CSI: NY" and a longtime scout for other productions.
Hillman said he's checked out Fillmore many times and "it's just a great-looking town if you're doing the small-town Midwest or Texas. But I remember thinking: What are all these palms doing here?''
Filming in Southern California without making it look like Southern California has long been a challenge. The exterior shots of the suburban Salt Lake City homes in the TV drama "Big Love" were shot in Fillmore, but only after producers chose and then rejected a Santa Clarita subdivision as "too Southern California stucco."
Scouring satellite photos, they found the Fillmore neighborhood — "a tiny little pocket that looked different than the surrounding areas," said Mark V. Olsen, the show's co-creator, told The Times in 2006. Oranges in a grove at the end of the street were picked before filming and a palm tree in someone's yard was removed.
Over the years, filmmakers have disguised palms in phony oak bark, dressed them up as telephone poles, blocked them with trucks and, more recently, wiped them out digitally.
"There are things you can do in post-production, but they're expensive," said Pat Parrish, a scout who specializes in locations for commercials. "We've tended to say we can't go to Fillmore because of the palms. You like to just walk in and shoot."
Even with the palm tree purge, Fillmore doesn't expect a bonanza.
Show business is "like the city's part-time job," said Catherine Frias, chairwoman of the film commission. "It's not unusual these days to find an individual who has two jobs. They need something else to get them through."
Competition is stiff. Nearby Santa Paula, where palms are pretty much limited to Palm Street, has long been a Hollywood draw.
Still, Fillmore hopes for more. Five years ago, the city's permit revenue topped out at $91,000. This year, it's been less than $10,000.
Frias, a lifelong resident who runs a medical billing service, said she worked as an extra on many productions as she went through school.
"Two things that are unique about Fillmore are the fireworks [the city allows service clubs to sell them for the Fourth of July] and the filming," she said. "It's part of our culture."
The tree removal cost $3,900, split evenly between the film commission and the local Chamber of Commerce. It would have been a lot more, Frias said, if their roots had been dug out, requiring extensive sidewalk and street repair.
Last May, the City Council unanimously approved the removal. A commission survey indicated most downtown merchants liked the idea and only two residents raised questions at the meeting.
The questions came later.
In a letter to the Fillmore Gazette, retired seamstress Sharon A. Villasenor said the council had "ruined a beautiful little community that I was once proud to call my home."
"Fillmore has gone through fire, floods and earthquakes and we have always bounced back," she said, "but cutting down those palms on Central Avenue was the icing on the cake."
There are still plenty of palms in Fillmore, and even on other stretches of Central Avenue — just not in front of places like Patterson's Hardware. Established in 1919, the store has a window filled with prize-winning entries — embroidery, photos, a bug collection — that local kids prepared for the Ventura County Fair.
One of the departed trees was right outside, and Dick Mosbarger, an 82-year-old clerk and former agriculture teacher, isn't sorry to see it go.
"They're attractive only at a distance," he said. "I've been after the city for years to take the things out."