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Outstanding Character: Rose Gaffney managed to make her mark on Bodega Bay, and two filmmakers intend to honor her.

Bodega's Belle

Two women set out to preserve the legacy of antinuclear activist Rose Gaffney

By Sara Bir

A good story wants to stay alive, and to do so, it must be told. It will use its waning energy to seep into the periphery of anyone it can. Rose Gaffney's story wanted to be told, and Annette Arnold and Cathy Wild found they were just the people to tell it.

The Santa Rosa filmmakers' captivation with Gaffney's little-known legacy led them to make a 30-minute documentary, Rose Gaffney: The Belle of Bodega Bay, so that others could learn of her larger-than-life persona and her inestimable contributions to Bodega Bay.

It began when Arnold stumbled across a yellowed newspaper clipping while visiting a friend who grew up a few doors down from Gaffney. Intrigued, Arnold did some research. "The more I read," Arnold recalls, "the more I thought, 'Someone should do something, or all the record of what she's done will be gone.' One day I was telling Cathy about her, and she said, 'Let's get a camera and go!'"

Which they did. With minimal filmmaking experience, the two set out with Wild's camera to interview old acquaintances of Rose. "A lot of people were a little hesitant," Arnold says, "because she's got a lot of friends and she's got a lot of foes. Nobody's mild-mannered about her at all."

Perhaps that's because Rose Gaffney (1895-1974) was not mild-mannered herself. As one person in the film observes, "There are a lot of characters in Bodega Bay, and to be an outstanding character in Bodega Bay, that means something." As a young girl, Gaffney rode the rails down from Canada to work as a servant for a Bodega Head rancher. The two eventually married, and when he died, he left Gaffney his land.

Though she only had an eighth-grade education, Gaffney was a spirited, whip-smart woman with a fierce connection to her land. Her formidable presence and craggy face ("I never won any beauty prizes," she once wrote) fueled many a childhood rumor of the "witch of Bodega Bay."

"She was a philanthropist, she did good deeds. . . . Yeah, she was a big, grumpy woman, but she was also a very good person," Wild notes. "But on her terms."

Originally the intention of Wild and Arnold's project was to focus exclusively on Gaffney, but something else kept popping up. "In finding out about Rose, we found this huge Pandora's box. We just wanted to know about this wonderful old battle-axe," Wild says. "But PG&E kept getting in the way, coming up in every story."

In short, Pacific Gas and Electric selected Bodega Head in the early '60s as the future site of one of the first commercial atomic power plants. Outraged, Gaffney and a passionate group of locals formed the Association to Preserve Bodega Bay and Harbor, whose dedicated work (as well as numerous strokes of luck) over the next several years prevented the realization of the plant's completion. All that remains today is the reactor hole, 90 feet wide and 120 feet deep, known as the Hole in the Head. Currently, the spot is a bird sanctuary.

"They condemned her land to take it away from her," says Wild.

"She kind of started a one-woman campaign," Arnold says. "She took PG&E to court, she started writing letters, she got everyone she knew to write letters. A lot of people weren't against it. People thought it was going to bring in money."

Half-jokingly, Wild and Arnold say that they have Kathy Bates in mind for the Hollywood feature film adaptation. That may seem a little like a pipe dream, but Rose Gaffney's legacy makes the Hole in the Head saga of Bodega Bay a cinematic gold mine, an Erin Brockovich without the T&A.

The colorful characters of the saga include Lou Waters, a jazz musician who went into retirement in the '40s at the top of the charts because he didn't want to be a has-been. Seventeen years later, Waters volunteered his geology knowledge to the effort, and came out of retirement to do a benefit concert on Bodega Head.

There's also Julie Gordon Shearer, a young and fetching reporter with the Mill Valley Star who covered the story and went on to marry David Pesonen, the association's brilliant organizer. After Hole in the Head, Pesonen went on to become a lawyer and fought against the construction of three other nuclear power plants.

"It was actually one of the first big environmental movements in the United States," says Arnold. "Rose Gaffney was dubbed 'the Mother of Ecology' by the [Los Angels] Times in 1971, and a lot of it had to do with Hole in the Head."

The Rose Gaffney film acts as an introduction to all of the players in the Hole in the Head story. Arnold and Wild are screening their documentary-in-progress as they continue to edit new material, piecing the larger story together.

Arnold and Wild knew each other through the Old Vic's dinner theater, where Cathy was an actress and Annette was a stage manager. Driven by enthusiasm, they learned how to make a film while making the Rose Gaffney project.

"We didn't even know we were making a documentary," Wild claims. They used the Community Media Center in Santa Rosa to edit much of the film, a move Arnold and Wild estimate has saved them $2,500 in production costs. Still, the two are financing the film themselves. The Sitting Room in Rohnert Park has offered to be their umbrella organization for nonprofit status, and Wild is now learning the ropes of another handy filmmaking tool: grant writing.

Rose Gaffney: The Belle of Bodega Bay won't be screening at Sundance any time soon, but its heartfelt, straightforward format allows the interviewees do all of the talking. The only additional narration is excerpts of Gaffney's letter, read in a gruff voice by Wild.

"Meeting these people and having them open their doors to us and having them be so generous with their hearts and their souls--they're inspirations, and we couldn't stop," says Wild. "I noticed a lot that people had been nurturing and keeping these stories they wanted to tell one day, and they never got around to telling it. So in spite of these being stories and secrets that were kept, they gave them to us, because they were old, and it was time to pass it on."

"We're trying to pass it on, too," Arnold says.


Six key members of the original Association to Preserve Bodega Bay and Harbor will participate in a panel discussion on Hole in the Head, followed by a screening of video clips of the Hole in the Head documentary-in-progress. Friday, Oct. 17, 6:30-9pm. The Cooperage at Sonoma State University, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $5 donation. 707.332.2308 or 707.664.9411.

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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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