We're all "Goonies" in Astoria: Following the lucid dream of the Goondocks, 30 years later

I joined the thousands of fans descending on the tiny Oregon town where "The Goonies" was filmed

Published June 15, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

"The Goonies"         (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
"The Goonies" (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

“Astoria is the symbol of our childhood,” a gracefully bearded musician tells me. He and his girlfriend have come 5,000 miles from Madrid to the north coast of Oregon, to celebrate "The Goonies," which turns 30 years old this month. In November of 1984, director Richard Donner brought his cast and crew here to turn the former fishing community at the mouth of the Columbia River, into the Goondocks, where seven teenagers hunt pirate treasure to save their neighborhood from being bulldozed into a country club.

“I think about how far away from home we’ve come. We’ve cried,” he tells me. “Astoria is like a lucid dream.”

It is estimated that 10,000 fans will arrive for "The Goonies'" 30th anniversary celebration this weekend, effectively doubling the population of Astoria. No one quite remembers how Donner and executive producer Steven Spielberg chose the town as the film’s primary location -- one story involves a childhood friend of Spielberg’s, another Donner’s co-producer, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest -- but “no one remembers when it wasn’t going to be filmed here either,” Derek Hoffman, current vice president of Donners Company, told me.

Astoria is only mentioned once or twice in "The Goonies" and lives on-screen for about 20 minutes of a movie that takes place almost entirely in underground caves re-created on sound stages. Knowing Astoria = the Goondocks and coming here (the town is two hours from the nearest major airport in Portland) represent a kind of super merit badge of fandom.

“Astoria is the eighth Goonie,” says Jeffrey Cohen, who played Chunk, now an entertainment lawyer and guest of honor mentioned in a Q&A session. By Sunday morning, I’ll know of at least three marriage proposals that happened in front of key film locations around town.

But coming to Astoria wasn’t my lucid dream. I’ve loved "The Goonies" since I too saw it in theaters in junior high and each of the 47 times afterward. But I can’t say I even knew the Goondocks were here or somewhere else or on a studio lot. I can’t say I ever thought about it that much.

I have my own beautiful nostalgia of "The Goonies" but not of the Goondocks. I’m visiting Astoria as a guest in the dreams of others.

* * *

“Astoria is a real place,” a small-business man from Miami tells me as the opening bonfire winds down. “Movies today are all CGI,” an unproven claim, but I understand what he means. When I arrived, I recognized from the movie the hillsides and streets sloping to the river’s edge, but not entirely. My first day was bright and sunny. "The Goonies'" air of unknown adventure just beyond what you know benefited from autumn fog and rain.

I end up in a long conversation with an art teacher from North Carolina. She’s made the trip with three childhood friends who in elementary school printed up Goonies ID cards for themselves, with each friend named after a character in the movie. Since they lived far from the center of town, the called their gang the Boonies.

The four friends, along with a financial analyst from Australia I meet the next day, are the kind of fans who take “location vacations” making a pop culture pilgrimage out of a weekend away. The financial analyst has twirled atop a hillside in Austria, "Sound of Music"-style. The North Carolina friends have had dined at the Mystic Pizza parlor in Mystic, CT.

But nostalgia alone doesn’t explain the yearning to visit the places where our favorite movies happened. For every childhood classic that calls out, there are 10 of equal standing that don’t (10,000 pilgrims make trips every five years to the Puente Hills Mall where Marty McFly went "Back to the Future"). Maybe paying tribute to a piece of art you love by re-creating it explains it somewhat, no doubt the reason Beatles fans take pictures of themselves crossing London’s Abbey Road. Or slipping into the narrative of your favorite movie, which is probably why visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art run up the front stairs and throw "Rocky" punches into the air. The ability to share it all on social media magnifies but doesn’t explain the urge.

“Our core visitor was 10-14 when the movie came out,” said Regina Wilkie, marketing director of the Astoria Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, which produces the event, making nostalgia probably the chief explanation for this movie and its fan gathering. It’s also a bit ironic. Plot-wise "The Goonies" is about assuring a future, not saving a past. (Mikey: “Home? In another few hours, it isn’t gonna be home anymore.”) Its honorary weekend surfs on giant waves of memory and longing, saluting a movie whose story has no time for either.

* * *

I’ve managed to score tickets to “Zip Line With Chunk,” aka Jeffrey Cohen. I wonder if this is going to be a two-hour quote-along in helmets and harnesses but other than the occasional “Hey, you guys!” echoing off the trees, everyone treats him like a real person. No one does the truffle shuffle or forces a Rocky Road ice cream on the man.

“The weight of being a cultural icon is heavy,” he giggles, around the fourth zip line, and everyone laughs as if sharing a jokes among friends.

Afterward, at a nearby picnic table everyone’s throwing '80s trivia around. When it’s my turn, I toss out that Daniel’s mom in "The Karate Kid" and Burt Cooper’s deceased secretary, Ida Blankenship on "Mad Men," were played by the same actress.

“Is that on TV now?” the woman sitting next to me says with a snort.

“We don’t do contemporary stuff,” her husband echoed before I can answer

This is nostalgia’s ugly face: when it’s not a momentary break from the present but a defensive crouch against it.

* * *

In 2004, a group of Goonies from the U.K. called Wilkie and asked if they could hold a meetup in town in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary. They predicted 75 of them would show up. Nearly 2,500 did. Since then, attendance has spiked for  subsequent five-year anniversaries and Wilkie and her team have upped programming, special guests and merchandising to keep up.

The “Goonies House,” i.e., where characters Mikey and Brand live, sits at the top of a hill at one end of 38th Street in the Northeast Corner of Astoria. It’s far and away the most popular from the movie and gets an average of 1,000 visitors a day in the summer, anniversary year or not.

I stand in front of her house on three separate occasions. It’s clear from the nonstop procession up the dirt road that fans view the house as the soul of "The Goonies," rendered in wood and paint. “I grew up a poor kid,” a guy named Joshua from suburban Phoenix tells me. “Getting kicked out of your house was no joke. When we go to the Goonies House and it's still there, it's like I know they won.” Joshua and his wife have nine friends they have bunked with each Goonies Weekend since 2010. “The trip isn’t complete,” his wife and trip organizer, Jessica, tells me, “until we visit the house.”

A few visitors lack their good manners. One afternoon I watch three guys set up cameras and tripods on the front porch, pointing through the house’s open windows. Cindi Preston, a devoted "Goonies" fan who bought the house in 2001 and still lives there, must deal with this nonsense.

The neighborhood overall seems divided on living near a pop culture landmark. “I think it’s a cute movie,” a homemaker named Jodi who lives at the opposite end of the street, tells me. “But there’s a real lack of respect and concern for the people who actually live here.” The Chamber has been directing traffic on 38th Street all weekend to make sure residents can park and fans don’t walk in the middle of the street. Some neighbors leave town during Goonies Day (declared June 7 by Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen in 2010). Others become enterprising, like the little girl named Sierra from whom I buy an excellent glass of “Goondocks Lemonade.”

“We remind visitors that Astoria is a real, working community,” Wilkie says. “People live here. It’s their home, not a Hollywood movie set.”

Let us repeat this to the three jerks on the porch. What they’re doing isn’t harmless memory making fueled by nostalgia. It’s trespassing and it’s gross.

* * *

My second day in Astoria is not fun. It’s hot and I have packed badly. Echoing a movie about a group of friends, everyone but me seems to be here with a group of friends. I’m still thinking about that nasty woman who crapped all over contemporary pop culture as if celebrating "The Goonies" meant being proud of your own ignorance and parochialism.

By nightfall, I’m tired, dirty and annoyed. I hear myself out loud to nobody …

“I’m not a Goonie. And I want to go home.”

* * *

“We are all Goonies when we are in Astoria,” Jessica and Jesse tell me at breakfast the next day. I hadn’t felt that yet, maybe because I was here to work and not play, on a very present-day deadline and not delighting in the past. Or maybe I have an uneasy relationship with nostalgia, which I used for the better part of early adulthood to hide from things that scared me. Like getting older.

After an afternoon “Baby Ruth Mocha” (espresso, chocolate, peanut butter and caramel -- I tell them to hold the caramel), I had middling hopes for my place in the extended family of Goonies when I arrived for the final night’s screening at Warren Field, where we see Andi (Kerri Green) setting up a pyramid of cheerleaders in the movie’s opening chase scene. A new athletic complex is being built elsewhere in town and Warren Field’s neighbor, Columbia Hospital, will be taking over the land. Soon this "Goonies" location will no longer exist.

I fully anticipate watching the movie by myself, but on the 700-foot walk from front gate to screen, I run into at least 10 people I’ve interviewed this weekend. To the one, they invite me to sit with them. And this isn’t because I’m such a charmer. Everywhere groups of new friends swell and combine like cells as more Goonies come walking blindly by and are invited to share a blanket, popcorn and memories.

Life affords very few opportunities to watch a movie in exactly the right place. I worked for the campus film society in college and saw "Cinema Paradiso" from a projection booth. "Milk" played for weeks at the Castro Theater in Harvey Milk’s old San Francisco neighborhood and my wife rightfully insisted it was the only place we should see it. The chance to meld a great movie with the embodiment of its spirit in the real world is an unrepeatable moment movie lovers could see themselves committing great sacrifices of time and distance to make real. I didn’t realize until I sat down on the damp grass at Warren Field that maybe this is just what happened.

* * *

I’m still thinking about that when the movie ends. I look over at the gracefully bearded musician and his girlfriend. They are both crying and so am I.

My time here wasn’t theirs. I didn’t have a lucid dream of Astoria or childhood wish it could fulfill. But watching this movie in this town on this field that's not long for this world had brought me my own Goonies. In that I would do anything for them and they me.

“Why can’t it be like this all the time?” I hear more than one of my own Goonies say as the lights came up.

Why can’t it? Maybe be both a trip into the past and a projection into the future; that friendship and loyalty across age, gender and race, and believing you can save what’s most important to you isn’t a locked treasure chest from 1985 but an open mandate for now. "This is our time,” cried the most famous line from "The Goonies," out from a wishing well and over the Goondocks into the darkness. Ideally we hear it and don’t wish for what cannot be (like time stopping and walking backward) but try to make what was into what could be.

Perhaps when that happens we can imagine and lucid-dream “this is our time” -- and it has the chance to be for all time.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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