James Dalessandro presents ‘The Damndest, Finest Ruins’

 (Bob Varner)

(Bob Varner)

After the infamous earthquake and subsequent fire struck San Francisco in 1906, the city’s then mayor, Eugene Schmitz was asked how he felt about his entire city lying in ruins.

“Our fine city lies in ruins, but those are the damndest, finest ruins the world has ever seen,” Schmitz replied.

This quote was the inspiration behind Hollywood screenwriter James Dalessandro’s documentary, “The Damndest, Finest Ruins.”

“Most people don’t realize the magnitude of what happened here in 1906 in San Francisco,” Dalessandro said to the students and faculty in Skyline’s Main Theatre in the afternoon of Oct. 4. “Here is the biggest disaster in American history, over a period of three days the entire city of San Francisco burned to the ground.” Dalessandro added that 29,000 buildings were destroyed. It destroyed most of the cable car lines and both of the city’s opera houses. Enrico Caruso the famous Italian opera singer had sung at the San Francisco Opera house just five hours before the disaster.

Because Schmitz wanted to downplay the tragic effects of the earthquake he spread false information on the number of fatalities.

“For 100 years they claimed that 478 people died [in the 1906 earthquake] in San Francisco.” Dalessandro said. Back in January, Dalessandro wrote a resolution before San Francisco’s board of supervisors telling them this was “an absolute lie,” the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved his resolution and a more accurate death count will be decided on by the time of the centennial.

The “Damndest, Finest Ruins,” was made from animated still photographs of the earthquake. In the making of the film, Dalessandro had a lot of help from some of the wizard’s at Lucas Film.

“I have a lot of friends that work for George Lucas, who spent 30 years of their lives making furry little critters run around and talk,” Dalessandro said. “And they’ve always believed that some of that technology should be used to tell a story that’s slightly more real.”

Dalessandro said when he took his friends to a museum in San Francisco containing 150,000 photographs of the disaster, his friends went wild. They animated still photos and added smoke and people, adding more and more stuff, the finished product came out to be 19-minutes long.

“You actually think you’re watching a document of the 1906 earthquake, which would be impossible,” Dalessandro said.

Movie clips from other movies were also added. Dalessandro said everything they could possibly find went into the documentary.

“George Lucas pretty much gave us the run of the ranch, which was really nice.”

The documentary was narrated by Ben Burtt whom Dalessandro calls Lucas’s right-hand man.

Dalessandro is also the author of the book “1906: A Novel” after the presentation of the documentary, Dalessandro sat out in the lobby signing copies of his novel. Music from the1906 time period played lightly in the background.

“1906: A Novel” has both real and ficticious characters told from the point of view of a 23 -year- old female journalist and suffragist. Dalessandro said that in 1906 San Francisco was the suffragist capitol of America.

“So I thought, ‘why not have a woman tell the story -rather than a macho, testosterone -dripping story and give kind of a woman’s perspective.”

Dalessandro says we are woefully unprepared for another earthquake. To be prepared Dalessandro says structures must be hardened and massive amounts of volunteers are needed. In addition, the police and fire department desperately need to be built up.

Dalessandro also said that individuals should be responsible for their own safety and that everyone should prepare themselves with two weeks worth of food, water and medication ahead of time.

Because San Andreas fault goes right down the middle of the San Francisco Peninsula according to Dalessandro if an earthquake hit it would affect roughly 7 million people.

Dalessandro says New Orleans has roughly 35 hundred miles o levees, we have 1600 miles of levees in the state of California. Due to how they are situated if a major earthquake hit, Sacramento would be underwater and Southern California would be out of drinking water.

“You’re talking about an ecological disaster of unprecedented proportion,” Dalessandro said.

Having completed 75 trailers and 23 film scripts Dalessandro is an experienced screenwriter and teaches the longest-running Bay Area independent screenwriting class.

To anyone interested in becoming a screenwriter Dalessandro recommends starting later in life so you have a chance to build up some interesting experiences.

“Doing interesting things with your life makes you a better writer, live a full life and study film,” he said.

Dalessandro has had 4 books published and has created 75 trailers and 23 film scripts. He’s held down several different jobs and is well traveled.

“I get bored easily, I’m always doing something different,” Dalessandro said.

The event was recorded by a representative from KGO radio and was filmed for a “Down to Earth” episode by geoscience professors Mel Zucker and Richard Lambert.

“1906: A Novel” has been recognized for revealing the inaccuracy of the death count, exposing a lie that’s held for an entire century. Dalessandro is satisfied with the work he put into his novel

“If fiction can change history, I went out to do it.”