Classmates Steven Spielberg reveal fictions in ‘Fabelmans’

Steven Spielberg is not going to his high school reunions. After seeing his autobiographical coming-of-age movie ‘The Fabelmans’ it’s easy to understand why.

Set in the director’s real-life teenage years, the new movie features Sam Fabelman — Spielberg’s alter ego, played by Gabriell LaBelle — getting beaten up, enduring anti-Semitic remarks from jeering jocks, and feeling brutally alienated.

According to Phil Pennypacker, a classmate of the principal of Saratoga High School in Saratoga, California, much of that was true — only it wasn’t the jocks who went after Spielberg.

“There was a group of people of the car club type; they wore distinctive coats and drove electric cars,” Pennypacker, 75 and living in San Jose, Calif., told The Post. “As I heard, one or two of those people threw pennies at Steve and called him ‘Jewish boy’… The anti-Semitic action was despicable.”

The principal has said he attended Saratoga High School in Northern California "beaten and kicked" and, as portrayed in the film, bullied with anti-Semitic taunts.
The director has said that at Saratoga High School in Northern California, he was “pushed and kicked” and, as depicted in the film, was bullied with anti-Semitic taunts.
Pete Thompson for NY Post
Classmates recall that Spielberg was a talented member of the newspaper staff.
Classmates recall that Spielberg was a talented member of the newspaper staff.
Pete Thompson for The New York P

Classmate Michael Augustine, a former antique dealer who now lives in Portland, Oregon, said he was a friend of Spielberg’s. “People covered their mouths and coughed ‘Jewish boy’ when Steve walked by,” he told The Post. “I commented that he should ignore it. But humor was the only way to survive.

“Steve had the greatest sense of humor and was one of the smartest people I knew. He had a total sense of irreverence. Mad magazine was the for him.”

The film was inspired by Spielberg's childhood in Phoenix, Arizona and Saratoga, California.
The film was inspired by Spielberg’s childhood in Phoenix, Arizona and Saratoga, California.
Movie magic

As seen in the new movie — already being tipped as an Oscar contender — Spielberg’s family moved from Phoenix, Ariz., to Saratoga in 1963, during his junior year.

“I was beaten and kicked,” he told the New York Times in 1993, sharing high school memories that led to bloodshed on two occasions. “It was horrible.”

Just like in real life, the director's alter ego — Sam Fabelman (Gabriel Labelle) — started making movies at a young age.
Just like in real life, the director’s alter ego — Sam Fabelman (Gabriel Labelle) — started making movies at a young age.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The blow depicted in the film, which results in a nosebleed, is delivered by jocks who accuse Sam Fabelman of killing Christ. Another classmate, Pete Fallico, who later became a jazz DJ in San Mateo, California, recalls the nosebleed.

“The person I heard of who had a nosebleed was a troublemaker,” Fallico, 75, said, adding that the likely perpetrator is now deceased. “It took him five years to get through high school. So he was older than the rest of us.”

Former classmate Phil Pennypacker recalls Spielberg being bullied by members of a car club.
Former classmate Phil Pennypacker recalls Spielberg being bullied by members of a car club.
Pete Thompson for NY Post
Similarly, Pete Fallico remembered a troublemaker who made Spielberg's nose bleed.
Similarly, Pete Fallico remembered a troublemaker who made Spielberg’s nose bleed.
Peter Hurley

However, Fallico isn’t sure if it had to do with Spielberg being Jewish: “If you showed weakness, people picked you up.”

In the film and in interviews, Spielberg pretends to be the only Jew in the school. He told the website Berhman House that at Christmas time, while the rest of his family’s block was ablaze in the Christmas lights, their house “had nothing but a porch light.”

Former pom pom girl Midge Firenzi remembers Spielberg being "not a jock and not a nerd."
Former pom pom girl Midge Firenzi recalls that Spielberg was “neither a jock nor a nerd.”

Augustine recalls an air of “bitterness” tinged with dry humor about it all. “I asked him what Hanukkah was like, and he replied, ‘You light candles and drink wine. Then you light more candles and drink more wine.’ I told him there must be more to it. And he said, ‘I hope so.’”

Saratoga classmate Midge Firenzi, 75, who describes herself as a “pom pom girl” in high school, told The Post: “There were very few Jewish kids in the school. Maybe it was three or four [out of 276 students] in our class. The school was very WASPy. Almost everyone had blond hair and blue eyes.

The principal only attended Saratoga High, in Saratoga, California, for his senior year.
The principal only attended Saratoga High, in Saratoga, California, for his senior year.

“Steve was suspicious,” said Firenzi, now a Pilates instructor in Cambria, California. “‘Who is this guy? He’s not a jock and he’s not a nerd.’”

But the future Oscar winner stood out as a member of the student newspaper, the Saratoga Falcon. Fallico recalls writing fluently about sports, and Pennypacker, who was the editor-in-chief, admired Spielberg’s top-notch photography: “He shot at the football games and got great action shots.”

Spielberg was a sportswriter for the school's Saratoga Falcon newspaper.
Spielberg was a sports writer for the school’s Saratoga Falcon newspaper.

A major plot point in the second half of the film is Sam getting hot and heavy with a girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East), who hopes to convert him to Christianity. That may be pure Hollywood fiction: no one interviewed by The Post remembers Spielberg having a girlfriend.

On the other hand, the film’s climax rings true to Saratoga classmates.

After Spielberg filmed the one from the superstructure "Ditch day" (above) -- just like in the movie -- mysteriously disappeared years after he became famous.
After Spielberg filmed the “Ditch Day” (above) of the superstructure – just like in the movie – it was mysteriously lost years after he became famous.

In “The Fabelmans,” Sam gets sweet teenage redemption when he volunteers to film Ditch Day, where the seniors skip school and head to the beach for fun and sun. When he reveals the film at a school dance, everyone loves it – except for two of the bullying jocks. One, Logan, doesn’t know why Sam would make him look good; the other, Chad, is furious that the movie portrays him as clumsy, tipsy, and striking out with girls. When the latter attacks Sam, Logan defends the young filmmaker and knocks Chad out.

“The most vivid memory I have of Steve is him filming us on the beach,” Fallico recalled of what Saratoga students called Cut Day. “He made us put up umbrellas and run around in the sand. Steve sped it up like the Keystone Cops. Sometimes he focused on the waves coming in. We later wondered if that was when he came up with the idea for ‘Jaws’.”

While Sam Fabelman's girlfriend tries to convert him to Christianity, Spielberg's classmates don't remember ever having a girlfriend in high school.
While Sam Fabelman’s girlfriend tries to convert him to Christianity, Spielberg’s classmates don’t remember ever having a girlfriend in high school.
Pacific Coast News/Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures

Pennypacker added, “For people who didn’t know Steve, watching that movie was like a lightning bolt.”

The film became a staple of class reunions, but mysteriously disappeared after the 2005 gathering. Pennypacker, who went on to become a California Supreme Court attorney and judge, suspects the footage was captured by someone who recognized its value as a collector’s item.

"The Fables" shows Sam being attacked and fighting, which classmates say really happened to Spielberg.
“The Fabelmans” shows Sam being attacked and fighting, which classmates say actually happened to Spielberg.

But Fallico wonders if there’s more of a Spielbergian plot twist at play. “I assume he sent someone to the high school office and confiscated the film. He wouldn’t want it in the wrong hands. How much do you think it would sell for on eBay?”

As “The Fabelmans” draws to a close, the audience sees middle-aged Sam living in Hollywood, applying for jobs in the movie business and getting rejected. Decades after graduating from high school, while visiting Universal Studios, Pennypacker stumbled upon something that shows the scene is quite true to life.

Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play versions of Spielberg's parents in the film.
Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play versions of Spielberg’s parents in the film.
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Univers

On display is a rejection letter that was addressed to Spielberg’s father’s house at the time. The note, written days after graduating from high school, reads, “Opportunities for field summer work are unlikely to arise.”

But Pennypacker recalled that Spielberg was proving to be a star even before “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“He went to Cal State Long Beach for college, came back that summer and showed a movie he made in the school cafeteria,” Pennypacker said, though he can’t remember the subject. “Everyone who saw it went crazy. We all thought he was on his way.”

Nevertheless, Pennypacker added, “He hates our guts. I wrote him a letter when we had our fifth and tenth year reunions. He didn’t respond. I think [high school] was a difficult time in his life. I think he wants to turn the page and put it behind him.”

Leave a Comment