Steven Spielberg learned to make films in Phoenix. We should shout that from Camelback Mountain

Opinion: Steven Spielberg honed his filmmaking skills while growing up in Phoenix. It's a story that we in Arizona should celebrate much more than we do.

Phil Boas
Arizona Republic

Every year nearly a half-million people hike the twin trails at Camelback Mountain in northeast Phoenix.

It is safe to say that virtually none of them know that one of the best stories in our state and nation’s history unfolded on that mountain some 60 years ago.

This month in movie theaters, the man who lived that American tale is telling it to the world through his motion picture “The Fabelmans.”

His name is Spielberg – a German-Austrian fusion that translates as “play mountain.” In this sense, “spiel” or “play” has a double meaning as either childhood amusement or dramatic performance. Only the blended meaning fully captures the Phoenix boy everyone knew as “Steve.”

Camelback was his play mountain, and this was our Tom Sawyer story – a precocious child growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix gathering dozens of neighborhood kids and setting them to the task of telling his stories.

Spielberg's trajectory began in Phoenix

On many a fine morning in the early 1960s the teens and the tweens of the Arcadia neighborhood between Indian School and Camelback roads gathered at the Spielberg home on North 49th Street and trooped up to that berg.

They were the first children of the Baby Boom and so wore uniforms and helmets they found in their parents’ closets, the same U.S. Army general issue their fathers wore in World War II. Steve’s father, Arnold, had served in the U.S. Army Air Force in the China-Burma-India theater of operations, first as a part of a B-25 squadron and later running its radio room.

For Steve's purposes, Camelback Mountain became North Africa, the backdrop for his WWII film “Escape to Nowhere.” The year was 1962. The camera was 8mm.

'Fabelmans' review:New movie is a portrait of Spielberg as a young man

There were times on that mountain when young Spielberg was rolling six 8mm cameras, depicting shell bursts in the desert sand. They were the special effects of a boy who, in his early teens, already aspired to be a Hollywood director.

We know many of these stories because the writer and film historian Joseph McBride, a man Orson Welles once called his “favorite critic,” was the first to understand its lush dimensions. When he began interviewing all of Steve Spielberg’s childhood friends in Phoenix, many of them told him roughly the same thing: “I’ve been waiting 30 years for someone to ask me about this.”

In 1997, McBride published what continues to be the best and most important biography of this child growing into manhood and his more formal first name.

He may be the most influential Arizonan

President Barack Obama, right, gets a hug from movie director Steven Spielberg after Obama was presented with the USC Shoah Foundation Ambassadors for Humanity award as he attends the USC Shoah Foundation’s 20th anniversary Ambassadors for Humanity gala in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Steven Spielberg: A Biography,” is a treasure for Arizonans who want to learn about a remarkable piece of their state’s history. McBride is a skilled storyteller and meticulous researcher, who was early among film authorities to appreciate the breadth of Spielberg's genius.

This boyhood story matters to us because Steven Spielberg grew up to become the most successful motion picture director in history and the most important person to have grown up in Arizona.

The evidence on both counts is indisputable. Spielberg’s influence on American and global culture far eclipses any other Arizonan, be it Sandra Day O’Connor, our nation’s first female Supreme Court justice; or Barry Goldwater, who launched a 50-year political revolution.

In 1996, LIFE magazine called Steven Spielberg the most influential person of his generation, a generation that included Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. LIFE had chosen Spielberg for his then-three decades of sustained excellence.

“He’s our Homer and our Hans Christian Andersen,” the magazine exulted.

Rolling Stone magazine’s Michael Sragow wrote, “Steven Spielberg is, in any conventional sense, the most successful movie director in Hollywood, America, the Occident, the planet Earth, the solar system and the galaxy.”

The Hollywood Reporter called him “Hollywood's most successful and arguably greatest director”and “the industry's titan, still commanding extraordinary deals.”The actor Richard Dreyfuss simply called him, “The greatest filmmaker of all time.”

Yet almost no one knows his story here

And yet Arizona scarcely knows his story or that his first great gusts of creative energy began here as child attending Ingleside Elementary School and later Arcadia High School.

Like many Arizonans, he was a transplant, born Dec. 18, 1946, to highly gifted parents living in Avondale, a Jewish neighborhood in Cincinnati. His father, Arnold, would become a pioneer in computers whose talents would eventually lead him to Silicon Valley. His mother, Leah, a classical pianist, would one day help organize and play for the Scottsdale Chamber Orchestra.

But Leah would mostly set aside a musical career to raise her son and three daughters in a household of pure enchantment. She was an artist who understood that a creative soul needs nurturing and her boy’s soul was ravenous.

That would soon become clear when Steven was 5. The family moved to Haddon Township, N. J., part of suburban Philadelphia, where his father worked for RCA. On a day in early 1952, Arnold took Steven to a theater in nearby Camden to see Cecil B. DeMille’s feature film “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Mesmerized by the cinema, Steven was drawn to one scene in particular that would later play an important part in Arizona history – the crash of the circus train.

In 1957, Arnold and Leah moved the family to Phoenix, where Arnold went to work for General Electric helping to develop its first transistor computer. They moved into the house on North 49th Street, and very soon after 10-year-old Steven used his Lionel train to recreate the trainwreck he saw in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” With his father's home movie camera he got eye level with the train and captured the destruction.

His first full-length movie was shot in Phoenix

Valley native Steven Spielberg's first film, "Firelight" debuted at the Phoenix Little Theatre.

A few years ago, I spoke to a Valley physician who had moved his family into that home many years after the Spielbergs had gone. He said that Steven, now a father himself, arrived at the house with his family and asked to take a tour. During the tour, Steven pointed to a utility closet and exclaimed, “That’s where I made my first movie!”

The doctor told me his utility closet where Spielberg recreated the crash of the circus train and roused the embers of Hollywood history now holds his gardening supplies – an assortment of rakes and shovels. Today that history is playing out on movie screens across America in “The Fabelmans.”

That boyhood story holds so much possibility for Arizona because that kid reached out and touched so many of our cultural icons. He taught himself to make movies at Camelback Mountain, Papago Park, the National Guard Armory, the Salt River Indian Reservation, Sky Harbor’s now-defunct Terminal One, Phoenix Baptist Hospital and Pinnacle Peak.

He used to go on the Wallace and Ladmo children’s show and essentially promote his homemade movies, remembered Pat McMahon, who played Gerald and an array of other colorful characters on that long-running program.

As a 16- and 17-year-old Spielberg made his first full-length motion picture, “Firelight,” about space aliens who abduct humans in a make-believe Arizona town. By then his mother had let him turn much of the family home into a movie studio. "She even allowed Steve to set up a flashing red light by the carport door to signal the neighbors to keep quiet while filming was in progress," wrote McBride.

Spielberg has denied that he remade “Firelight” into his sci-fi classic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, but the young people who worked with him on that first film would swear they instantly recognized scenes in the latter. McBride has called “Close Encounters” a “transmutation of ‘Firelight’.”

In 1964, Spielberg premiered “Firelight “at Phoenix Little Theater, complete with spotlights and a limousine for the young cast and director. The Arizona Republic and news stations amply covered the event.

This story should inspire newcomers

Very soon after the "Firelight" premiere, the Spielbergs moved on to California.

Having read McBride’s book, I used to tell my newspaper colleagues that the best story in Arizona is the boyhood story of Steven Spielberg. A few years before the pandemic struck, I decided it was time to start figuring out how we make that story part of our modern memory.

Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in America, having just surpassed Philadelphia in population. Greater Phoenix has roughly 5 million people today, but it is a young metropolis, still unrefined and lacking the kind of cultural identity that Philadelphia and other older American cities enjoy.

As this community continues through its formative years, as we continue to debate and try to determine our values, this authentic Arizona story can inform us where we came from and how we might move forward.

For years Phoenix has been place of population churn, a byway for Americans moving toward the Pacific and a carrry-over for migrants headed for the Heartland and Northeast. In recent decades, however, more and more of us have put down roots and know that our children will eventually define this place and refine its character.

The Spielberg story speaks to them and says anyone growing up in this oasis city can think audacious thoughts and dream of conquering worlds. It speaks in particular to the children of our newcomers, many of them immigrants from Latin America, who today make up the larger part of our public schools.

The Spielberg story is an immigrant story of a Jewish family that escaped a brutal fate in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe to travel to North America and eventually the Sonoran Desert in central Arizona. They have known what it means to feel unwanted, whether at the sword of the Tsar or the hostile stares of American antisemites. When they first got to Phoenix, they felt awkward and out of place as one of the few Jewish families in a largely Christian neighborhood.

Steven would later tell this story of the outsider through the metaphor of a space alien named E.T., who was rejected by earthlings and later phoned home.

A boy on the outside moves to the center

Steven Spielberg  uses his hands to frame a shot during the making of "Schindler's List' in 1993.

Slightly built and teased at school, young Stephen endured the taunts of school children who called him “Spiel-bug.” Some made fun of his Jewish faith and others just ignored him. But McBride described how Steve, the boy, used all of his creative wits to reshape his environment so that all the kids wanted to be in his movies. Soon he was the focal point at school and of Valley newspapers and TV stations intrigued by this ambitious boy-filmmaker.

In many ways the childhood story parallels the Hollywood story of Steven Spielberg. In the mid-1970s at the age of 27, Spielberg made “Jaws,” then the highest grossing film in motion picture history. Lines at American movie theaters were circling the block.

The fledgling director made a youthful mistake by inviting a news crew to record as he and other young friends watched the announcement of Oscar nominations. You can watch it on YouTube and see the look in Spielberg’s eyes as he realizes he has been snubbed by the Hollywood elite and denied a nomination for best director.

One of his friends says angrily, “Who made (the movie)? The shark?” But Spielberg’s look is crestfallen as he realizes that despite all of his early success he is still an outsider and much resented by the Hollywood powers that be.

In time, he would summon all of his creative genius and work ethic to again reshape his environment and place himself at the center of that world as one of the most powerful people in modern Hollywood.

We saw the potential in playing up this story

Convinced of the potential of this story, I decided to try to light a fire under it. I got a projector and went to many of the leaders of Arizona to make sure they know it. I told it to ASU President Michael Crow at a Phoenix Starbucks, and he immediately understood. He had already read McBride’s biography and his enthusiasm was high.

I told it to Doug Ducey in the governor’s office, and watched him fend off aides who wanted to bring in the next visitor, such was his curiosity. I told it to then Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and the folks over at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And I told it to the major Jewish organizations, who were thrilled at the idea of amplifying it in this state. They said this story could give Phoenix something it dearly needs – a Jewish identity.

I took the story to friends of mine who are a lot smarter than me and know how to build things. Together we created a team that included Denise Resnik, one of the dynamos of Greater Phoenix, who founded First Place AZ and co-founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC); and Craig Weiss, a patent attorney and ingenious entrepreneur. We added a fourth, Trevor Barger, a highly creative expert in land-use planning and design.

We called our group “Project Firelight.”

And we started to blue sky. We met with doers all over the Valley and at Arizona State University and began to imagine ways in which we could make the Spielberg boyhood story a larger part of our state’s identity.

We envisioned a Firelight Center for storytelling, creative inspiration and collaboration that might one day be lined with school buses.

We talked about a Firelight Festival with regional and national ambitions that might capture the artistic vibe of Austin’s South by Southwest, the intellectual energy of the Aspen Ideas Festival, the creativity of Park City’s Sundance Film Festival, all while promoting storytelling in all its guises.

We thought about doing fundraisers based on Spielberg's charity work as a boy, in which he used to show reel-to-reel movies on a bedsheet stretched out across his backyard. He would invite all the neighbors to the movies and collect a quarter for admission in a paper cup. Then he would donate the proceeds to the Perry Institute, a school for mentally disabled children.

Imagine doing that on a large scale across Phoenix to raise money for important causes.

We haven't given up. This is Phoenix's story

We got an invitation to the Amblin bungalow at Universal Studies to pitch our ideas to Spielberg’s executives. Several months later they graciously told us of complications arising from ownership rights to his story. At that time, Spielberg was already planning to tell his childhood story through film.

But we’ve not given up, because we believe in the story.

There’s a moral to Spielberg’s boyhood tale, and he expresses it most when he talks to high school or college kids who aspire to be filmmakers. He tells them he wishes that when he was a young man that he had possessed all of the technology they hold in their palms -- in their cellphones.

There’s no need to wait for formal training or to get accepted to film school, he says.

You shouldn’t dream your film. You should make it!”

“Use the camera on your phone (to make your movie now) and post everything on YouTube.”

Everyone should connect Spielberg with that mountain

That’s roughly what he did as a boy growing up in Phoenix. He didn’t wait to go to film school. He started making movies when he was 10 with his father’s Kodak Brownie 8mm movie camera.

Think of the resonance this has for all people:

“Don’t dream your movie, make your movie.”

“Don’t dream your book, write your book.”

“Don’t dream your business, build your business.”

Steven Spielberg and his creative family are the sons and daughters of Phoenix, Arizona. Of all the places they lived, this was the place they considered home.

Their story is our story.

And it should be so much a part of our cultural fabric that no Arizonan should ever look at Camelback Mountain again without thinking, “That’s where a kid named Spielberg taught himself to make movies.”

Phil Boas is an editorial columnist with The Arizona Republic. Email him at