Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and Roman Polanski all made a special “appearance” in San Luis Obispo on May 3, 1974. Their stopover here was brief, barely more than two hours, but certainly enough to make an impression.

Unfortunately, not the one that Paramount Pictures was hoping for. Despite the combined star power, the locals seemed unimpressed, often confused, and the negative reception that night sent shock waves all the way down to Hollywood.

These famous (and infamous) actors came to town in the form of a “sneak preview,” a special movie screening designed to measure audience reaction to a film that was about to be released nationally by Paramount. Of all the movie theaters, in all the towns, in all the world, Paramount chose San Luis Obispo for the crucial screening.

The movie was Chinatown.

At the Obispo Theater.

Newcomers might scratch their heads over that reference. The Obispo? The address was 993 Monterey Street (think of where Pottery Barn is today). Less than a block away from its sister movie house, the Fremont up the street, the Obispo featured wrought iron chandeliers, a balcony popular for high school make-out sessions, and a majestic painting of Morro Rock above the screen.

The Obispo first opened on Christmas Eve in 1911 as the El Monterey, on the site of what was formerly the Eagle Livery Stable. Tickets were 20 cents. The name was changed to the Obispo in 1928 after a $20,000 remodel.

How San Luis Obispo was chosen to be the preview site for Chinatown remains a mystery as complex as the one faced by Jack Nicholson’s detective in the movie. Studios typically utilized “blind preview screenings” outside of Los Angeles to gauge the potential success of a film. Perhaps the relative proximity to Hollywood explains it; maybe producer Robert Evans wanted an excuse to visit Hearst Castle. Whatever the reason, Evans and the studio publicity machine came north.

The audience that night at the Obispo didn’t know what movie they were going to see in advance. They would sit attentively, eyes focused on the big screen, and fill out response cards afterwards. Paramount would then use the cards to make changes to the film, either in the story or editing, the sound, the music, or even changing one of the actors. It has happened. You could assume the pressure was particularly high that evening for Paramount—this was May 3 and Chinatown was set to be released nationally June 20, leaving not much wiggle room for creative change.

Of course, any serious movie lover would have killed to have been in the audience that evening. After all, we’re talking about Chinatown, a classic motion picture, widely considered one of the best ever made (99% on Rotten Tomatoes!), based on an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Robert Towne that is still used as the blueprint by burgeoning script writers everywhere.

But the movie we’ve come to love and embrace over the years, a sordid tale of corruption, murder, and incest in 1930s Los Angeles, isn’t exactly what the Obispo audience saw, or more importantly heard, that night in May 1974.

A little back story to Chinatown. Production on the film was rife with tension throughout filming. Director Polanski (who also has a pivotal on-screen role) clashed with Towne over the script. Producer Evans clashed with Polanski over the look of the movie. Faye Dunaway clashed with everyone—things apparently got so heated that Evans sent her away for three weeks. It’s a wonder the movie was ever made, but the rough cut of Chinatown still needed music.

Film historian Kevin Maher picks up the story. “While the rough cut was prepared, Evans went about searching for the score. Having played a big part in the success of ‘Love Story,’ Evans believed the score was the ‘beating heart’ of the picture…Time was short so director Polanski turned to novice film composer Phillip Lambro. What he created delighted Polanski, but Evans wanted more, so he went behind Polanski’s back and had the composer create 10 more minutes of music, which recast the entire score.”

After all the hard work and battling, it all came down to San Luis Obispo. Evans, riding a career high following the smash success of The Godfather, sat in the back of the Obispo, waiting for the audience verdict, a reaction he describes in his 1994 autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture.

The San Luis Obispo screening was considered “a total disaster” by the producer. “By the time the lights came up, half the audience had walked out, scratching their heads,” Evans said. He considered the soundtrack by Lambro to be a primary culprit, dismissing it as “dissonant, weird, scratchy” music.

Returning to Hollywood, Evans moved quickly. He delayed the picture’s premiere and recruited veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith to create a completely different score, anchored by a haunting trumpet solo by Uan Rasey. Goldsmith scored the entire movie in less than ten days.

Screenwriter Towne, who hated the original music, was present at the first recording session for Goldsmith’s score, and later told a journalist that “you could see the movie come to life. It was like you couldn’t see the movie with the other score, and now you could, and I thought, ‘Omigod, we may have a chance.’”

Chinatown had more than a chance. Goldsmith went on to be nominated for an Academy Award, one of 11 nominations that the movie would receive, but only Towne brought home an Oscar—for Best Original Screenplay. Everyone else was lost in the award tsunami that was Godfather II. But the film remains a must-see classic.

The Obispo Theater didn’t fare as well. The iconic movie house was destroyed in a fire less than a year later on December 28, 1975. The film showing at the time was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The fire was the result of arson.

Robert Evans was not a suspect.

:: David Congalton

Editor’s Note: To hear the difference between the two scores, watch the original Chinatown trailer using Lambro’s score, then listen to a part of Goldsmith’s score.