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How La Jolla’s Vietnam movie went A.W.O.L. and got robbed of its place in film history

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Richard Crawford chats about his movie, ‘Captain Milkshake,’ at home in Carlsbad.
COREY LEVITAN

America’s first full-length anti-Vietnam movie was shot mostly in La Jolla.

You read that right. Theatrical films about the Vietnam War date back to 1964’s “A Yank of Viet-Nam.” But “Captain Milkshake” was the first to take a decidedly anti-war stance. And it was filmed in 1969 at landmarks around La Jolla including Windansea Beach and Alligator Head.

In the movie, a young Marine (Paul) returns home to La Jolla after his first tour of Vietnam. On the plane back, he meets a young woman (Melissa) from a hippie family that smuggles marijuana up from Mexico. Melissa and Paul — who rides an “Easy Rider”-esque chopper — fall in love. He attends an anti-war protest (filmed at a real one at UC Berkeley) with the family and starts doubting everything he believes in.

The 'Captain Milkshake' movie poster
The 'Captain Milkshake' movie poster COURTESY

“It’s one of the great lost Vietnam-era movies,” said Jonathan Berman, associate professor of art, media and design at Cal State San Marcos, who screened the film for his students last month. “The film is pretty awesome in that it treats the soldier with a lot of respect. It’s a very respectful anti-war film that’s really well-made and makes the righteous protest of Vietnam come alive today.”

So why haven’t you ever seen, or even heard of, “Captain Milkshake”? The reasons are interesting enough to base their own movie on.

Good warning, Vietnam

The headaches began for producer/director Richard Crawford as soon he began fundraising. With only TV commercials for Ford and Kodak to his credit, no one wanted to risk letting him helm a movie, much less a “pinko commie movie,” as Crawford described the reaction it got.

“All the guys who had money said, ‘Can’t you do a sex movie instead?’ ” Crawford, 71, recalled to the Light at his Carlsbad home. “’I’ll put money in a sex movie.’”

But Crawford knew he had something special. “Nobody had really seen what hippies are like,” he said. “It was all newspaper stories and Hollywood horse**** — guys with leather French vests and wooden beads who looked straight out of the 1950s.”

Geoff Gage, shown in a still from the film shot at Windansea, stars as a Vietnam Marine coming home to La Jolla.
Geoff Gage, shown in a still from the film shot at Windansea, stars as a Vietnam Marine coming home to La Jolla. COURTESY

Crawford co-wrote the movie with Barry Leichtling, then a UC San Diego Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant who lived at 357 Playa del Sur with a hippie family called Trans-Love Airways (after a Jefferson Airplane lyric).

“It wasn’t a family like the Manson Family,” Leichtling explained during a separate phone interview. “We were a group of friends who believed in peace and love and just called ourselves a family.”

Crawford was converting half of a closed downtown roller rink, Skateland, into film-studio space when Trans-Love Airways showed up to build a nightclub, the Hippodrome Ballroom, out of the other half.

“I asked if I could help put up walls and they said, ‘Oh yeah!’” Crawford recalled. “... it was just a lovely environment. They were all eating salads — which was radical in 1969!”

After “Easy Rider” did so shockingly well, Crawford convinced one investor to change his tune and go in for $350,000 — as long as a script was delivered within 30 days to capitalize on the success of Peter Fonda’s cult masterpiece.

Crawford and Leichtling locked themselves in Leichtling’s office on the ground floor of Revelle College. “We went pretty much 24 hours a day,” Leichtling recalled. “People were bringing us food.”

On deadline day, Crawford dropped the script off at his investor’s office. He showed it to some friends who liked it, Crawford recalled being told, even though the investor didn’t.

This house at 357 Playa del Sur served as the main indoor set.
This house at 357 Playa del Sur served as the main indoor set. COURTESY


Free love & free acting

The only way to get a film made on such a small budget, Leichtling explained, was to get a cast to work “just for the giddiness of being in a movie.” Except for four or five paid actors — including leads Geoff Gage and Andrea Cagan — “Captain Milkshake” was populated by members of Trans-Love Airways playing themselves, including a dude named Ron “Anchovy” Barca.“Everyone knew Anchovy back then,” Leichtling said. “He was so well-liked — by the surfers and all the other kids in La Jolla.”

The family had just vacated 357 Playa del Sur, so Crawford offered to re-rent it for them. Crawford said they were “happy as hell” because they were living rent-free and “standing around all day getting stoned and going surfing.”

Crawford shot the battlefield-flashback scenes at the Old Mission Dam and the music came from then-unknown artists Steve Miller, Country Joe and the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service. “We got all of them just before they got big,” Crawford said. “It was perfect timing.”

Everything about this movie was poised for later greatness. Even its trailer was voiced by a future superstar.

“When it seems like the whole world has blown its mind,” read Casey Kasem a year before he launched his “American Top 40” radio show, “just when you begin to wonder what it’s all about, along comes something wonderful that seems to make a whole lot of sense.” (Search for “Captain Milkshake trailer” on YouTube.)

Geoff Gage and Andrea Cagan fall in love in La Jolla Cove.
Geoff Gage and Andrea Cagan fall in love in La Jolla Cove. COURTESY

With help from the investor’s distribution contacts, “Captain Milkshake” debuted in 400 theaters in 150 U.S. cities to raves from college kids and — as Crawford both expected and hoped — scorn from adults.

“The adults hated it,” he said. “I knew that was part of the deal, to p*** off the establishment but the young people would be all over it because it would be their movie.”

So why haven’t you ever heard of “Captain Milkshake”?

War is hell

Once the film started making money, according to Crawford, the investor exercised some villainous, legally gray clauses he had his own lawyers hide in Crawford’s contract. (For example, if Crawford’s account dipped below $5,000 at any time, all promissory notes were due and payable at that moment.) The investor sued Crawford for malfeasance. (Leichtling’s theory is that the investor always intended to kill the movie as a tax scam. “In those days, you could say, ‘My movie was going to play in 2,000 more venues, but something happened,’ ” Leichtling said. “That allowed the tax accountants to extrapolate how much more it would have made and make that a tax deduction.”)

When Crawford tried retrieving the film negative stored at Technicolor Labs, along with its attendant bargaining power, he was told he owed $25,000 for previous copies the investor had made. The order was signed by Crawford’s attorney — who was now working for the investor.

“I was like, ‘WHAT?!!’” Crawford recalled.

With the ownership of the movie now a legal tangle destined to last 35 years, Crawford put it out of his mind. He continued filming commercials and producing television, winning an Emmy for a segment he produced on “That’s Incredible.”

About 20 years ago, Crawford bought an old “Captain Milkshake” reel from a private collector to rent to college film classes and show at film festivals — including one at the venerable Egyptian Theater in Hollywood — and special cult-classic screenings. (One was held about seven years ago at the La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.)

But mostly, the movie was erased from existence — as were Crawford’s dreams of becoming the next Francis Ford Coppola (whom Crawford said once granted him a meeting — “pre-’Godfather,’ of course” — because he liked ‘Captain Milkshake’ and wanted to discuss the possibility of their collaborating together.)

Geoff Gage with Alligator Head in the background
Geoff Gage with Alligator Head in the background COURTESY

The movie’s actors went onto bit roles instead of big careers. (Gage only had one post-“Milkshake” role, and the most notable of Cagan’s six subsequent Internet Movie Data Base credits are episodes of the TV series’ “Room 222” and “Mod Squad” — although, 50 years later, she enjoys success as a ghostwriter of best-selling celebrity autobiographies.)

Spilt ‘Milkshake’

“How did I get over it?” Crawford repeated the next question. “I just did. Then again, if it was a success, I could have ended up killed by people who didn’t want people protesting the war.” (Crawford claimed his phone was tapped and he was receiving threatening calls from the FBI and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.)

Five years after the investor backstabbed him, Crawford said he heard he was shot in in Las Vegas by someone else he tried pulling a fast one on. He died of his injuries about 10 years after that.

Then, about 10 years ago, Crawford said, he received a phone call from his former attorney. Sounding remorseful about his role in the investor’s shenanigans, according to Crawford, he bore some good news: Since everyone with any control or interest in the film was dead, Crawford now owned it again.

Crawford went back to Technicolor, which took three months to locate the negative but lost the original paperwork demanding the $25,000. (“I got out of there really fast!” Crawford said.)

Now, he’s in the process of converting the film to the state-of-the-art 4k format so Amazon can offer it for downloading. He’s also got offers from more film festivals. And, for the time being, he’s offering DVD copies for sale on his website: captainmilkshake.com

“I’m really excited about getting it back out there,” he said, “where it belongs.”