by Steven Sanchez
In June, 32 years ago in 1988, a film was released to the world, one that starred two comedic giants in the prime of their careers. You had Dan Aykroyd, former Saturday Night Live alum, who was fresh off the success of Trading Spaces (1983) and Ghostbusters (1984). Then there was John Candy, who was featured in a string of ‘80s classics like Splash (1984), Brewster’s Millions (1985), Spaceballs (1987), and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). That film was The Great Outdoors.
The movie takes place in Pechoggin, Wisconsin (Lake Potowotominimac in the movie), when in actuality it was made here in the Central Valley at Bass Lake. The film was shot at the renowned mountain resort town for six weeks in October of 1987. The area was no stranger to Hollywood productions, but for as beautiful as the water and landscape are, very few were actually shot there. You had Carnival Boat (1932), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and Hiawatha (1952). But this was the first time that a movie of that magnitude with that much star power, was going to be the location for filming.
The movie is about Candy’s character, Chet, who wants to take his family on vacation at a scenic lake resort during the summer. All is well, until Aykroyd’s character, Roman, whose wife, Kate, is the sister of Chet’s wife, Connie, comes with his family and crashes the party. From that moment on comedy mayhem ensues, and the idyllic break that Chet wanted goes right out the window. The story itself had memorable scenes of arguing, bickering, fighting, crashes, and chaos, but behind the scenes it was anything but that.
In conjunction with our previous article about filmmaking during the height of the pandemic (with summer being the ideal time for lake vacations, and this being the 32nd anniversary of the film that helped put Bass Lake on the map, not only as a tourist destination but filming location), we thought we’d do an on-set retrospective of the comedy classic. Our guides through this memorable cinematic journey will be Rhonda Salisbury, CEO of Visit Yosemite/Madera County (the official Visitors Bureau for southern Yosemite and Madera County), who was the Executive Secretary for the General Manager of The Pines Resort in Bass Lake at the time of the making of the film. She has 34 years of tourism industry experience under her belt. And there’s Steve Welch, who worked as Operations Manager and eventually became V.P. and General Manager of the Pines Resorts from 1984-2007, when the resort was sold. It is now owned and brokered for Bass Lake Realty. Steve is also President of the Bass Lake Water Company.
Aykroyd and Candy shared a lot of screen time, so you might assume that it must have been a laugh riot the whole time. Surprisingly, the professionalism was evident and the biggest takeaway were their kindly characteristics. “I did get to meet both of them. They both were great! Very nice and appreciative. I even rode the merry-go-round with John Candy and, I believe, his young son,” reveals Rhonda. What has been said about John Candy was that he was a larger than life personality, which is a pun to his very round stature, and he didn’t shy away from his appetite in front of the cast and crew. “One funny thing was when I went into the Pines Market and John Candy’s bodyguards were there shopping—one had a basket full of all kinds of meats, one had junk food and sides and one had beer, sodas, water and booze…they rented one of the vacation homes on the lake and were having a great time,” Rhonda remembers.
Even Steve was awe-struck by the duo. “I met both a few days before filming began as the director, Howard Duetch, had asked to get into the Pines Bar one morning to rehearse a scene. I opened the bar and shortly afterward in walked Dan and John. They introduced themselves and sat down at the bar (I was behind the bar), and we all began a very friendly conversation. They were casual and relaxed and remained that way for the duration of the shooting. I must say, since they were two of my comedy idols, I surprisingly found myself being a bit star-struck.”
Most people head up to the lake looking for fun, but sometimes the tedious schedule of moviemaking can get wearisome, and lake towns can be limited in terms of entertainment options for people who are considered “Hollywood.” So, the stars of the film sought fun outside the lake. “Another funny thing was when John Candy’s bodyguard came up to the office because John wanted to see the Mike Tyson fight. We really didn’t have much cable or satellite in those times, so I had to find the fight in Fresno. So they all hopped into the limo and went to Fresno to see the fight,” Rhonda recalls.
The locally famous Ducey’s Bass Lake Lodge and Bar & Grill stood in as Wally and Juanita’s Perk’s Pine Lodge in the movie. It’s the go-to place when visitors want to have food and drinks while overlooking the picturesque wonder of this hidden utopia. And it’s featured quite often as the setting for many of Chet and Roman’s interactions. Unfortunately, shortly after the film wrapped, the original Ducey’s burned down as the result of a kitchen fire. But it was restored, and the new lodge opened on Saturday, April 20, 1991. The film can be seen as the last recorded documentation of the old Ducey’s. Rhonda’s memories of the past joint is just like all the others who have had the pleasure of stepping into the Lodge, and how fond the memories were of those good times. “I spent my 21st birthday at old Ducey’s. It’s when I fell in love with Bass Lake and moved to the mountains. It’s still so fun to see the movie and Ducey’s as I remember it. Brings back wonderful memories. We all miss it so much!”
As a filmmaker, and from the first-hand experience of being on a few sets myself, there’s nothing like the camaraderie that develops while getting a film in the can. The few things that can compare to that kind of togetherness are sports and the military. But there’s that special something that moviemaking has—out of those long hours working, preparing, setting stuff up, waiting to be filmed—that’s where relationships are forged and memories are created. For the residents of Bass Lake, it really brought the town together and that camaraderie was felt throughout the entire shooting schedule. Rhonda vividly remembers, “So many of us were extras (I think I made $50 a day), and we all hung out and watched them make the movie; quite a bit was filmed at the lake. Plus, I got to hang out with some of the crew who rented places around the lake…they were fun!”
When it comes to these things, you get one of two reactions from townspeople when they know a film is coming to town. They either embrace it with open arms, or it becomes a subject of controversy throughout the shoot. Some common problems when it comes to on-location filming are: the traffic, a curfew (if one exists), the big crews causing distractions. The list goes on. Rhonda informs me that there was none of that, and the town fully supported the movie. She elaborated that the people were so much more laid back at the time, that there were no disagreements or outside interference in the filmmaking process, and it went off without a hitch. The filmmakers got their location and movie, and the community benefitted economically from their presence. “It had a huge impact on the local economy in the middle of our very slow winter season. I don’t remember the numbers, but you can say that it was an excellent year for Bass Lake!” Rhonda says proudly.
For Steve’s family, the making of the film became a family affair, “My two kids, a 12-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl at the time, both worked on the picture. My daughter was in the finished movie briefly in two scenes but my son’s scenes were cut, so even to this day, it surfaces as a subject of sibling rivalry.”
Even the child actors in the movie left an indelible mark on the young occupants of the lake town. “The filming continued over the Halloween holiday and Dan Aykroyd’s twin girls and John Candy’s boys, in the movie, were invited to the local elementary school’s costume party and all had a great time. You can imagine the local kids were impressed with these young actors,” says Steve.
The community didn’t feel the impact of this movie just by its on-screen star power, but based on the person who spearheaded the entire project. This was a John Hughes picture, written and produced by the man who wrote ‘80s teen staples like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). He would also direct Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. After the release of The Great Outdoors, he would go on to achieve his greatest success by penning what would become the highest grossing comedy for its time: Home Alone (1990). It would spark an entire franchise.
Even though his films may have been outlandish and bombastic, he was anything but that. He was known for being a reserved, quiet guy, not what anybody would consider “Hollywood” by any means. He preferred to remain in Chicago to do his writing and make his films. A true independent, he would make appearances on the set to see how things were going, but he never interrupted the flow of things. Rhonda recalls seeing him a few times at Ducey’s where he’d hang out during the filming. Even though he never made a spectacle of himself, everybody there knew who he was. That introverted nature would go on to define his later career in the ‘90s, as he veered away from Hollywood and kept to himself by going under a pen name, Edmond Dantés, for the Beethoven movies. But he used his real name while incognito with the films Miracle on 34th Street (1994), 101 Dalmatians (1996), Flubber (1997), etc. It would be that way until his death in 2009 at the age of 59.
The film is filled with iconic scenes, and the interesting thing is that probably the most memorable scene was at the end, while the credits were rolling. The principal cast members and the extras were dancing joyously and raucously to Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” at Ducey’s. It’s so unabashedly bonkers and wild, but so entertaining to watch, that it’s left an indelible mark on audiences. Rhonda recollects the filming of those takes, and it stands out for her much as it does for others that have seen it. “The dance scene at Ducey’s bar was so much fun. Dan Aykroyd was hilarious as was Annette Bening. We had so many locals and extras dancing around…it was a blast and the cast really interacted with the locals.” It definitely shows on screen.
Another fun fact of the movie is that this was the film debut of Annette Bening. It’s crazy looking back in hindsight because she was a stage actress up until that point, and afterward she would go on to have an illustrious dramatic career in great films like “The Grifters” (1990), “American Beauty” (1999), “Being Julia” (2004), “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), among many others. Rhonda had nothing but nice things to say about the accomplished actress. Actually, one of her last big screen film appearances would so happen to shoot in another lake town in the Valley, Shaver Lake, for “Captain Marvel” (2019).
Luckily, no crew member, animal, or Bass Lake resident was hurt during the making of the film. But everybody involved had a small price to pay while shooting, and the memories stick out for Rhonda, “I was an extra in a couple of scenes wearing shorts and no sleeves in the middle of winter…it was freezing but so much fun. I did get cut out of the scenes though.” The film presents itself as a wacky, off the wall extravaganza, but it’s movie magic that takes place behind the scenes that convinces viewers that what they’re seeing is real, and Rhonda remembered that magic in hilarious detail. “One more fun thing was when I went to my extra assignment in the Ducey’s parking area. They brought in fake trees so that when Roman’s family arrived and opened the car doors they all hit trees. The trees were only, maybe, 10 feet tall so it was funny watching the scene with the short trees.”
Disclaimer: by no means would the filmmakers jeopardize the life of the star of the film in the famous water skiing scene. Not only did Bass Lake make its mark on this film in regards to location, but to the props department as well. “Friends of mine built the boat used in that scene, actually two identical boats. If you recall one slid off the trailer at the marina launch ramp,” says Steve. “A stunt person skier did most of the skiing. I watched a little of that from shore.” John’s life was in good hands.
Also, the Bald-Headed Bear that John wrestled was actually a Hollywood trained bear named Bart the Bear who was used in other movies. When it comes to filmmaking not all of what’s in the script gets filmed nor ends up in the finished product. Steve got to witness this first hand. “One interesting thing of note is in the original John Hughes script, which we were able to read before the filming, this action scene was originally written as the twin girls hooking a giant fish and being towed around the lake in a small rowboat until Dan rescued them. We saw them testing a mechanical fish in the lake for several days and when they could not get it to work correctly the scene got re-written.”
And John didn’t put his health on the line to eat the Old 96’er (a 96-ounce steak). The Loon’s Nest vacation cabin was a set that was built on the backlot at Universal Studios and was designed to match the style of Ducey’s existing cabins and that’s where they shot all the interior scenes.
Steve can say he had the distinct honor of technically seeing the movie before anybody else did, “One other thing occurs to me that the ‘dailies’ were often viewed in the old single screen movie theater here in the Village (now gone). My marketing director and I, on a few occasions, got to view them. It was fascinating for me to see how they looked on the big screen after having watched them being filmed earlier in the day.”
Another fun fact that Steve knows: “The original script had a working title of Big Country, but during the filming it was changed to The Great Outdoors, since Tom Hanks’ movie Big was due to come out about the same time (and I think another movie with the word Big in it too).”
When the film was released the studio held a premiere for the townspeople in the old Ponderosa Pines Theatre, and the whole town came out and laughed through the whole movie. Rhonda pointed out that she may even have the commemorative wine glass from that. Maybe it was champagne…she can’t recall.
The film was released on June 17th, 1988 and made $43.4 million at the box office. When it came out it did good business but it didn’t set the box office on fire. Since then it has become a cult classic. Anytime summer rolls around, when people want to see a lake movie, or when people talk about family comedy films of the ‘80s, this film is always shown or brought up. They’ve been showing it a lot lately, on broadcast as well as on cable. John Candy would continue to do other high profile films in the next few years with Uncle Buck (1989), Home Alone (1990), JFK (1991), and Cool Runnings (1993), until his untimely death in 1994. The movie’s legacy continues to grow so much so that it was made public on April 27th, 2017, and Universal Pictures is planning on doing a remake starring Kevin Hart.
Since then other films have utilized the beauty that Bass Lake has to offer. Meatballs 4 (1992), a vehicle for Corey Feldman, was shot entirely there. For Mouse Hunt (1997), the Bonnie B Ranch near the lake hosted the cast and crew. It starred Nathan Lane and Lee Evans, was the directorial debut of Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, Rango), and the big old house was erected near the lake for exterior shooting. The Giant of Thunder Mountain (1991) co-starred area resident Richard Kiel—known for portraying the Jaws character in the James Bond films. And Rhonda, Steve, along with the rest of the community, are just waiting for the next big production to roll on by.
My family and I try to go up to Bass Lake any chance we get, and every time I go I always see The Great Outdoors photographs and posters everywhere. Each shop sells the DVDS while playing the movie in a loop. This film and community are forever linked and etched in time. It’s what keeps tourists coming, it’s their connection to the story. Rhonda notes, “We still get calls like where was the Perks Pine Lodge, or where did the carnival take place?” The audience has their memories of it and so do the townsfolk who call Bass Lake home. Rhonda informed me that the production of the film, those six weeks in the winter of ‘87, is still a topic of discussion amongst those people. You combine the storytelling ability of John Hughes, the comedic genius of Dan Aykroyd and John Candy, with a great location, you’ve got comedy gold. That’s why people keep going to the lake, and that’s why people continue to watch the movie.
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