That time Ron Howard made a movie in Lake Highlands
In the late 1970s, at the dawn of his directorial career, Ron Howard — popularly known as his sitcom character Richie Cunningham — rolled, along with his actor brother, Clint, and much of his “Happy Days” production crew, into Lake Highlands to shoot a movie about rival teenage rock bands. The finished product premiered Oct. 26, 1978 on NBC. Dallas residents held watch parties and thrilled at the sight of familiar places and faces — there was Town East Mall, scene of the climactic Battle of the Bands; Annex Avenue in East Dallas, where the fictional garage band Cotton Candy rehearsed; the Granada movie theater on Greenville, site of the main characters’ first date; and Lake Highlands High School, which was to “Cotton Candy” what Rydell High was to “Grease.” That year, Scott Patterson was a senior at LHHS, one of about 140 chosen to play extras in scenes filmed on campus.
“They wanted the school to look smaller than it is, so, I don’t remember who decided, but honors students got to do it,” Patterson says. “They filmed all of the hallway scenes in C hall, and the graduation scene on the junior varsity field, all to make the school seem smaller. It lasted, maybe, a couple of weeks. School went on as usual.” Patterson says he and his peers revered Ron Howard, who was just 24 years old at the time. The TV star shook the kids’ hands, hung out with them after filming and answered questions about his career, Patterson says.
“We knew him as Richie Cunningham. He seemed like Richie Cunningham. Not bossy, but in command. He was personable, down to earth and, in real life, he was smaller than he appeared on ‘Happy Days.’ His little brother, who stars in the movie, was always with him.”
Mark Ridlen, a musician and DJ from the White Rock area was in a band called Quad Pi, whose members also starred in the movie.
“I was young and skinny and cute then. I was a rock star,” Ridlen says. He recalls auditioning for Howard at a studio. “We did one song. We nailed it. Our competition all looked too old to play high school kids, so I knew we were in.”
He and bandmates Morgan Ferguson and John and Tad Painter starred alongside actor Mark Wheeler as the members of Rapid Fire, the popular, evil nemesis of the hero underdogs Cotton Candy. Ridlen didn’t have any speaking lines, but he and his curly, shoulder-length locks appear in several scenes.
“They gave Tad the only speaking line, but I managed to get in front of the camera a lot and to stand out. On the last day, I decided to be punk, a sad attempt in my Patty Hearst T-shirt and dog collar,” he says with a laugh.
Former Highlandette director Katha Black chaperoned students at the Holiday Inn where they filmed the prom scene.
“I served punch for 5 hours that night to get about 20 minutes of a prom scene,” she says. “I also appear in two of the hall scenes.”
“Cotton Candy” was a far cry from Howard’s many Oscar-worthy flicks (“Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind,” for example) that followed.
According to an article by The New York Times entertainment writer Mark Allen, it originally was intended as a pilot for a TV series.
“And it shows,” Allen writes. “Every line of the film is shouted, every action over-hashed, every sequence directed for maximum, squishy, melodramatic exploitation,” he notes.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why, when Lake Highlands grad Greg Van Dine wrote to Ron Howard Productions a few years ago requesting a copy of the movie, he received this response: “That film is deep in the vault and will never, ever, let me say again, never see the light of day again.”
But “Cotton Candy” would not go quietly into obscurity. Allen acknowledges the film’s cult appeal. It’s part of a “sub-genre of made-for-TV movies about high school teens embroiled in rock-band drama that holds immeasurable hypnotic powers over a lot of my generation,” he notes.
Patterson finally scored a copy of “Cotton Candy” in 2008, when Ridlen hosted a “Cotton Candy” anniversary screening and party and distributed “Cotton Candy” DVDs to guests.
Those parting gifts did not come easily, Ridlen says. When the Quad Pi parents found out their kids would be in a TV movie, they all bought VCRs so they could tape it. But the recordings that survived were of barely watchable quality. Years ago, however, Ridlen met a guy who had a perfect copy converted to DVD.
“It has the commercials and all. It’s a total time machine to Dallas in that era,” he says. They made copies for all the attendees. He says that anyone who wants to see it will have to attend the next anniversary celebration in 2018.
“I’m not putting it on YouTube. You’ll have to come to the party,” which he promises will be a blast. A low-quality but watchable version of the film is available on YouTube.