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Thunder Road: Asheville's Silver Screen Hot Rod Fiend Part IV!

When we left off last week, Robert Mitchum had made his way through most of the filming of Thunder Road in Asheville and left behind quite a legacy! But what did local Ashevillian's and people who made the movie think? What was its long term impact? Let's take a look at what people ultimately thought:

In Lee Server’s book about Robert Michum, Baby I Don’t Care, he described the lasting effects of Thunder Road in the following way:

“Thunder Road would foster a rabid underground following, a cross-cultural group of enthusiasts that included southern teenagers, vintage car buffs, films scholars and an otherwise unclassifiable demographic that desired to watch over and over the cool way Mitchum, while tearing down Thunder Road, flicks a cigarette through the window of a pursuing bad guy’s car. Pop culture critics would be inspired to flights of Rhapsody about the film and its delirious allure, most notably Richard Thompson in an ode published in a 1969 issue of December Magazine. ‘Thunder Road’ he wrote ‘is a private myth irradiating the secret corners of a lost existence with the savor of true existentialism…. Thunder Road disciples envy those who saw it exactly right: at a drive-in, sitting in their customized Fords and Chevs, just after leaving the high school dance and just before juking on down to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor.” Thunder Road was also very popular in Tennessee, because of the moonshine and bootlegging history of that state.

After Thunder Road was made, Bob Mitchum bought a sports car garage for Jim called Engine Masters Inc. in Santa Monica. He wanted to provide a safe place where Jim and his friends could work on their hot rods under the supervision of two master mechanics. He allowed Jim to buy into the ownership of the garage with his earnings from the movie. Bob thought the shop could even be used as a space for a technical school in the future, according to press releases from the time.

Jim Mitchum would go on to star in several other cult automotive classic films like Two Lane Blacktop starring the singer James Taylor and the drummer of the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson as the two existential characters traveling the backroads of the US in a primer gray 1955 Chevy. He would also star in a modern update of Thunder Road, Moonrunners which was the origin for the Dukes of Hazzard TV series. Robert Mitchum continued to further his interest in cars, flying to Germany to buy a brand new Porsche 911 while he was working on another film location and went through several other Porsches and BMWs.

After all of these years, Thunder Road is still shown once a year at the Wedge Brewery and the Fine Arts Theater in downtown Asheville. That hasn’t stopped locals and researchers from wondering about what happened during the filming of the movie and the legacy that it has left behind.

The Mountain Xpress wrote an article an article on May 4, 2016 by Joe Elliot that quoted many notable Asheville locals as saying the following about the lasting legacy of the movie:

“Perhaps the most exciting event ever to take place at the Sky Club was when Robert Mitchum came to town to star in Thunder Road. The whole town was star-struck, and one scene in the movie was shot in the restaurant. A couple of my friends took the entire week off from work just to be extras in the nightclub scene. Mitchum cut a wide swath [in Asheville]. He and his wife stayed at the Battery Park Hotel, and it was widely rumored that his mistress was staying down the street at the Vanderbilt. Mitchum spent most evenings at the Sky Club, though, drinking, dining and dancing with the ladies who absolutely threw themselves at this tall, handsome movie star. I witnessed more than one violent confrontation precipitated by a husband’s or boyfriend’s jealous rage, but Mitchum was big enough to take care of himself — and, after all, all he was doing was dancing.

— Jerry Sternberg

“I was probably 12 or 13 when the movie was made in Asheville. I remember that some local folks got some bit parts, like the well-known WWNC radio announcer Farmer Russ (Offhaus). I also remember a fellow Boy Scout I met at summer camp who was wearing a neckerchief slide carved from a piece of scrap balsa wood that he said was from some of the debris of a wreck scene in the movie where the car crashed through some rail posts. His dad had some connection with the location shot, I think. A classmate of my older brother at Owen High crashed his ’52 Ford trying to duplicate that 180-degree spin in the scene at the bridge.”

— Steve Norwood, Asheville

“I was an 18–year-old high schooler who ran into Robert Mitchum one night. As teenagers, we ended many of our nights at the Hot Shot Café in Biltmore Village for a late-night grilled cheese sandwich, Coke and a good bull session. All of a sudden, the doors opened wide and in walked Robert Mitchum and his posse. We were all stunned. They said nothing but strolled to a large table. They were a rough-looking crowd and probably had a bit too much to drink. We continued to stare, not saying anything.”

— Stan Cocke, Asheville

“I was present when the sports car club had an autocross event at McCormick Field and Robert Mitchum’s son drove the ’50 Ford being used in the movie through the gate in right field and around the track, causing them to halt the event. The announcer made a very sarcastic remark, and Robert Mitchum left.”

— Jerry King, Asheville

“My uncle was Howard Penland, who was raised north of Weaverville on Ox Creek Road. His wife, Clara, told me years ago that that there was a time when the folks who lived on Ox Creek Road and Reems Creek Road were concerned that there might be an illegal moonshine operation near the Beech community. The reason was that they would occasionally see a hot rod car headed toward Weaverville at a very fast rate of speed. They were relieved when they later learned a movie called Thunder Road was being filmed in the area.”

— Danny Starnes, Black Mountain

“My great-uncle Joe Gouge was a moonshiner out of Mitchell County. Our family surname is used in the movie with the character Stacey Gouge, but the actor mispronounces it. Our name isn’t spoken like it’s spelled, but rhymes with Baton Rouge.”

— Michael Gouge, Asheville

“NASCAR pioneers Fireball Roberts and Banjo Matthews of Asheville and all the guys that were there to build the cars were on the set. There were also a lot of active moonshiners around all the time.”

— Jim Mitchum

Joe Elliott was able to interview musician Randy Sparks, who recorded The Ballad of Thunder Road theme song for the movie soundtrack when he was just 25 years old and fresh out of the Navy. He would go on to found the popular 1960s folk-pop group The New Christy Minstrels. Sparks shared his memories with Elliott of making the film:

Robert Mitchum saw me on “The Bob Crosby Show” on TV, in uniform, and told his agent, ‘That’s the guy I want to play my kid brother in Thunder Road. I learned many years later that he had probably pulled strings with the secretary of the Navy to get me an early release, and I went from Washington, D.C., to Asheville on my first day as a civilian. I had also been contracted to write and sing songs for the movie, and I had my lead sheets in hand upon arrival. But at the Battery Park Hotel, headquarters of Mitchum’s film company on location, I was told by Bob himself that my assignment had been significantly altered. His 16-year-old son, Jim, had lobbied him to play the acting role, and in the time between when I was contracted and my arrival on location, the title song had already been crafted by veteran songwriter Don Ray, with Mitchum’s collaboration, but I would still be the one to sing it. Bob politely refused to listen to my song titled ‘Thunder Road,’ but he wanted to hear ‘Whippoorwill’ (the alternative title), and he allowed that they might make use of it in a scene later in the film (Keely Smith sings it at the close of the film). I was disappointed, of course, and I had a right to be angry, but maintained a positive attitude. I was, after all, a nobody with zero movie credits, an outsider fully unprepared to combat nepotism, hardly a bona fide actor, so if anything, I probably felt somewhat relieved.

The social ambiance with the cast and crew in the lobby of the Battery Park reminded me of a meat market, and this was terribly disappointing. I had for 18 months in uniform refused to stoop to the level of the traditional image of sailors on liberty in a seaport, and I now felt like walking away. I spied a pretty girl about my age standing in one corner of the sprawling room and looking very much out of place, so I walked over to her and said, “You don’t look pleased to be here.” “I think I’m in the wrong place for the wrong reason,” she replied. “Bob just told me that I would be having a private dinner with him in his room, so that we could go over the script together, and I’m not that kind of girl.” “How would you like to have dinner with me?” I asked. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day,” she said, and I led the way to the hotel’s dining room. Mitchum shortly came along, overtly expressing his dismay, and I thereafter faithfully served as her chaperone. I can assure you that she was untarnished by the evils of Hollywood in the coming weeks, but I had instantly forfeited my billing in the picture. Of course, I didn’t learn this sad fact until much later, and I’m still somewhat amazed that they left in place my vocal performance over the credits, which, by the way, wasn’t necessarily a boon to my musical career. Jack Marshall, the orchestrator, had written the instrumental track two or three keys too high for my voice, and I sound like a castrate. I begged for a change of key, but he refused. ‘We’re already over budget,’ he grumbled.

It would be easy to dismiss Thunder Road as just another “B” movie but when you look at all of the energy and craft that Mitchum put into this project, it seems to be anything but just another movie. To the people of Asheville, it means everything and for people that are automotive enthusiasts, it is something we can hold up as a point of pride. Asheville has a natural creative energy that has brought about many deep and meaningful creations, of which this is one. Many locals remember Robert Mitchum here and many interacted with him. While some have shared tales of Mitchum’s drunken debauchery, others remembered a very thoughtful and kind man, who would send them Christmas cards for years after his visit to Asheville.

Mitchum at the Asheville Airport signing autographs

Robert Mitchum in the Hendersonville Apple Festival Parade

Thank you for reading through this four part installment of our blog! Stay tuned for more Asheville automotive history!

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