PITTSBURG -- Filmmaker John Chavez was running around, picking off members of the Pittsburg Mallards and herding them toward the red carpet set up along the northwest face of the historic California Theatre on Sunday evening. At the end of the carpet, a photographer fired off pictures of the Mallards, their families and even some of their cheerleaders.
The event was the premier of "Thrown For a Loss: The Story of the 1963 Pittsburg Mallards," Chavez's 48-minute documentary on the local Pop Warner football team that was scheduled to meet President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 26, 1963, and instead witnessed Kennedy's funeral procession.
Former player Frank Myers helped organize the event and worked with Chavez on the documentary.
"It was really emotional," Myers said. "I didn't anticipate this emotion. That was amazing to see it -- I put myself back there. I can remember vividly everything that happened around us. And seeing that carriage go by. It put me right back in that same spot, right on the corner."
Added coach Jim "Smiley" Camitz, "I never thought this would happen. "I knew after I quit coaching that I had the greatest Pop Warner team that ever played football."
During the program, Camitz told the audience that, "Outside of my wife and three children, they gave me the greatest moments of my life."
The 350-seat auditorium was sold out for the program, which was emceed by Oakland A's public address announcer Dick Callahan and included U.S. Congressman George Miller as well as other dignitaries.
But the stars of the night were the former Mallard players and their coach, Jim "Smiley" Camitz.
Callahan introduced each of Camitz's players from the 1963 team as well as his other three seasons as coach of the Mallards.
The team, which he built from scratch as Pittsburg did not have a Pop Warner program when he started, compiled a 34-2 record during his tenure. The 1963 team went 9-0, including a 33-0 win over the Mayfair Athletic Club of Philadelphia in what was known as the Disneyland Bowl, which was played that year at a Philadelphia high school. The game served as an unofficial national championship (there was no tournament then).
That game was played a few days after a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., that was supposed to center on a visit to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Instead, when the Mallards arrived in Washington on Nov. 25, they watched the funeral procession from a position on Rhode Island Avenue NW, across from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
"Every 10, 15 feet was a military (person)," Myers recalled. "Navy, Army. And when the procession went by, they were even crying. So that was amazing to me. To see these people stand at attention, and they saluted as Kennedy went by. That was amazing. That was one of the things that sticks with me -- to see everybody in tears and everybody crying."
The documentary included home movie footage of the procession filmed by the Mallards themselves.
The coverage of Kennedy's assassination struck home with the then 12-year-old Chavez, who decided that weekend that he wanted to get into broadcast journalism.
"I was at St. Cornelius Catholic School in Richmond," Chavez said. "That whole weekend I was watching TV. That Christmas I asked my mom to buy me a tape recorder and I started taping things off of television.
"The Beatles came after that and I started taping the Beatles. When I went in to high school, they started asking what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to work in radio or be a disc jockey in San Francisco."
The recently renovated California Theatre gave the event Sunday the air of a Hollywood premiere. The theater was built in 1920 with live vaudevillian acts and silent films the main fare. It continued to show "talkies" but suffered from the competition of television and closed back in 1954 -- before most of the Mallards were old enough to go to a movie on their own. A $7.6 million restoration was approved in 2009 and completed earlier this year. The balcony is actually still under construction.
Brightly painted murals on the side walls and an elegant chandelier over the auditorium were painstakingly restored and recreated.
"It was sort of unreal," Chavez said. "I had always imagined a film of mine being premiered somewhere, but I always was thinking maybe it would be the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, or it would be in New York. But it happened to be in Pittsburg. It meant a lot more to me that it happened here. The atmosphere of the people and the setting made it very meaningful to me and the fact that my family was here, too."
Chavez grew up in Richmond and Pinole and graduated from San Francisco State University. He worked for KGO-TV before moving to Los Angeles where he now resides. He said he is looking for places to show the documentary and that he is also trying to interest studios in a possible feature film on the Mallards.