Steve McQueen spent a year at Boys Republic, a correctional school in present-day Chino Hills, after his mother and abusive stepfather declared him “unclean”.
Irreplaceable, perhaps, but unable to change. True, he tried to escape a few times, and in a photo of school baseball players, lined up in bleachers, McQueen’s sideways grin, shoulder hump, class clown-like.
But the rebel became a role model who was elected to the school’s rule-setting Boys Council.
McQueen always took his time at school to set him on the right track. He switched to acting after Boys Republic and US Marines, eventually starring in such films as “The Great Escape,” “Bullitt” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
He never forgot school – more on that soon. And four decades after the actor died of cancer in 1980, his family has not forgotten it.
This weekend brings to Boys Republic the 15th Annual Friends of the Steve McQueen Car and Motorcycle Show. Car and motorcycle enthusiasts will flock to Chino Hills from all over Southern California and beyond.
In 14 years, the show has raised $4.3 million to help the school. That money has helped pay for campus renovations and vocational training.
The car show was a major donor to the Max Scott Center for the Culinary Arts, which opened in 2019. It has a teaching bakery, where products are under contract for Vaughn, and a kitchen to prepare meals for the students.
“This has quadrupled the capacity of the kitchen. It looks like a culinary school,” Chris Burns, executive director since 2010, tells me.
Car show proceeds also fund scholarships, apprenticeship programs and new equipment for the print shop.
“The stuff you see for the show was produced in our print shop,” says Burns. The metal shop makes trophies for car shows – and out of genuine car parts.
I was sitting at the car show’s planning committee lunch meeting last week. 25 participants were in attendance and about half a dozen others, including the actor’s grandson Chase McQueen. His father, Chad, is the one who signed on to the show earlier in 2008.
There were concerns about lower advanced sales compared to last year. One possible explanation is that the 2021 show, scheduled for June, was postponed to October, and thus took place just eight months earlier.
But the car show, seems to be a well oiled machine.
“I’m anguished at how much work goes into this,” Burns told the group. “You are the volunteers. You are not even the locals. You get down to help us, to do this.”
How did the incident start?
Co-president Ron Harris told me that his Porsche 356 club had inquired from Boys Republic about using the property for car shows to see if all proceeds go to the school. The president of the car club learned that McQueen was a student there.
“It’s funny, I’m friends with Chad,” replied Harris. And with that connection, the event became the Friends of Steve McQueen car show.
It fizzled out in vain the first few years — “we didn’t know what we were doing,” Harris says dryly — but the show took off again. Notably once a McQueen film was chosen as the theme for each show, sometimes to elaborate effect.
The theme of the year was “The Great Escape,” a 1963 play inspired by the breakout from a World War II prisoner of war camp, “We had a Sherman tank and it fired empty,” Harris says.
“We get 300, 400 cars and 100 motorcycles,” he says, plus old airplanes, old trailers, fun cars, drag racers and dune buggies.
This year’s theme is “On Any Sunday,” a 1971 Bruce Brown documentary about motorcycle racing, which also featured McQueen. Malcolm Smith, an off-road racer in the film, has signed items to auction the show, will send two motorcycles for display and participate if health permits.
Events begin with a $35 welcome party on Friday night, June 3, continue with a $150 dinner on Saturday and end with a car show on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., admission for which is $ is 10. The campus is at 1907 Boys Republic Drive. (1907 is the year the school opened.)
Thousands are expected. October’s show attracted 10,000, after peaking at 15,000 attendees before COVID. The name McQueen still means something.
“I’ve seen in 15 years how big a draw he’s been, more than 40 years after he’s been there,” says Burns. “Some themes keep resonating: ‘Bullitt,’ ‘Le Mans,’ ‘The Great Escape.’ We get a lot of people from Europe, including the film crew.”
Meditation bears the name Boys Republic there and allows visitors to watch its programs. Some go to Christmas to buy the school’s famous Della Robbia wreath to donate or get their employer.
The school has less than half of the 120 students it did before the pandemic. Referrals are few in order to keep the population low, says Burns, which he expects to be temporary. Personal support has helped the school weather the recession.
McQueen was a consistent supporter throughout her lifetime, financially and otherwise.
He returned frequently in the 1960s and ’70s. These were not campaign trips with a crew. In fact, some photographs are said to exist. The actor stayed for a day, sometimes for a whole weekend, where he would dine with the boys in the cafeteria and walk around the wooded premises with them. Once he brought wife Ali McGraw.
If the students wrote to him, he would send them a personal note. In McQueen’s safe deposit box after his death, his family found two items: a memento from “The Towering Inferno” and a pack of letters from Boys Republic students.
McQueen would demand in his film contracts that he needed certain personal items in bulk. Max Scott, executive director of Boys Republic from 1965-2010, was surprised more than once when he was brought in by a delivery driver.
“Max loved telling the story of how a strange package would look. Inside would be 150 pairs of Levi’s, 150 tubes of toothpaste, 150 toothbrushes,” says Burns. “Steve just wanted extras for the kids.”
David Allen writes at a minimum on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Email [email protected], phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.