Why California’s Pismo Beach is mentioned in so many movies

Stella McDaniel

I was 20 years old when I learned the truth about the Pismo Beach disaster of 1995. 

Sure, I’d heard about it in passing, but I was in kindergarten in 1995, and most of the ’90s were a hazy blur.

It was during college while rewatching “Clueless” for the third or fourth time that the phrase finally stood out to me: Pismo. Beach. Disaster.

As someone who grew up a few miles away from Pismo, as locals call it, I didn’t know the details of the Pismo Beach disaster, which should have been as indelible in my mind as the San Simeon quake of 2003. For this coastal town of 8,000 to make it into a major film, the disaster had to be national news, I thought.

I paused “Clueless” and opened up my internet browser, scouring the web for information. A few minutes later, I came up mostly empty-handed, with the realization that the “Pismo Beach disaster” was entirely fiction. 

But why had Pismo Beach been chosen? What was so special about southern San Luis Obispo County? It was the first time I took notice of Pismo Beach being mentioned in a movie or TV show, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The craggy coastline and surf culture of Pismo Beach, pictured March 1, 2013, is popular among weekend visitors to the area. 

George Rose/Getty Images

‘Pismo Beach, and all the clams we can eat!’

Pismo Beach, nestled between Avila Beach and Grover Beach in south San Luis Obispo County, is a picturesque little seaside town, with a white sand beach and a pier that tourists flock to. Restaurants sell clam chowder and fish tacos just steps from the beach, and vendors hawk souvenir seashells and other tchotchkes to memorialize your time there. Pismo’s Monarch Butterfly Grove provides yearly shelter to thousands of migrating monarchs, and the recently opened Pismo Preserve has 10 miles of trails for bikers, hikers and horseback riders to enjoy.

The name “Pismo” is taken from the Chumash word “pismu,” which means tar. Tar is plentiful in the region, and Native Chumash people used Pismo’s natural tar wells to waterproof their canoes. “Pismo Beach” is a mysterious name that is hard to place but also promises a sunny California seaside, and that’s likely some of its appeal to screenwriters.


One of the first references to Pismo Beach in Hollywood came in a 1957 Bugs Bunny cartoon. It’s the first reference Pismo Beach Mayor Ed Waage mentions to me when I call him up to find out what makes Pismo Beach so alluring to screenwriters.

“Bugs Bunny was kind of the iconic one,” Waage says. 

The short, titled “Ali Baba Bunny,” has not aged well, but the Pismo Beach joke is timeless. In the cartoon, Bugs Bunny pops out of a tunnel and proclaims, “Well here we are, Pismo Beach, and all the clams we can eat!” After which Daffy Duck follows Bugs out of the tunnel and retorts, “Since when is Pismo Beach inside a cave?”

Buildings in Pismo Beach in this undated historical photograph include a clam stand and smoke shop, with the beach in the background.

Buildings in Pismo Beach in this undated historical photograph include a clam stand and smoke shop, with the beach in the background.

Jim Heimann Collection

That cartoon was followed by several 1960s TV references, including an episode of “The Monkees” and the TV movie “Dragnet 1966.” In the latter, Pismo Beach’s clams miraculously cure the ailing body of police officer Bill Gannon (played by Harry Morgan, whom I delightedly recognized as the colonel from “MASH”). Gannon, who’s suffering from ulcers and has lost multiple teeth, retires near the end of the film and moves to Pismo Beach. Eight months and three weeks later, he rejoins the force, fully healed by “the clams.”

“What else do you eat up there? The Clam Capital of the World, Joe,” Gannon tells his former partner. (I was unable to find any evidence “Dragnet 1966” kicked off a “Pismo clam diet” trend.)

A crew digs for clams at Pismo Beach, Calif., on Nov. 28, 1951.

A crew digs for clams at Pismo Beach, Calif., on Nov. 28, 1951.

University of Southern Californi/Corbis via Getty Images

Pismo was indeed known as the Clam Capital of the World for a time. In the 1950s, Pismo clams (named for Pismo Beach) were so plentiful, visitors could easily dig them right out of the sand. 

“Back in the ’50s and ’40s, probably even in the ’60s, a lot of the hardware stores, they all had clam diggers and shovels and buckets,” said John Sorgenfrei of TJA Advertising, which handles advertising for the city. 

Over time, the clam population declined, however, and with it, references to Pismo Beach’s clams on the big and small screens. It’s still legal to collect clams at Pismo Beach, but they must be more than 4.5 inches in length, and most are too small. Still, the clam population has made big comebacks in recent years, and clam chowder remains on the menu at many Pismo restaurants.

At the invite of Mr. William Randolph Hearst

But clams alone might not have been what put Pismo Beach on screenwriters’ radar. Both Waage and Sorgenfrei said they believe the big factor behind Pismo Beach’s notoriety is Hearst Castle, which is just an hour’s drive up the coast.

Back when Hearst Castle was owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, he would invite Hollywood stars up to his lavish SLO County estate for glamorous getaways. The property, with its sprawling gardens, vast collection of art and gold-leafed Roman pool, was putting the “gold” in the golden age of Hollywood.

Both Waage and Sorgenfrei said they believed this is the biggest reason behind Pismo Beach’s infamy: Hollywood guests of Hearst would take the train to Grover Beach, adjacent to Pismo, and then drive the rest of the way to La Cuesta Encantada, Hearst’s official name for the estate. Hearst’s guests included Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, studio heads Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer and literally dozens of other famous dead people.

W.C. Fields was one such guest of Hearst, reportedly proclaiming that Hearst Castle was a “wonderful place to bring up children. You can send them out to play. They won’t come back till they’re grown.” His 1940 film “The Bank Dick,” set in nearby Lompoc, may have the first reference to Pismo Beach in any Hollywood movie, as the opening credits notoriously include the role of “A. Pismo Clam.”

W.C. Fields indulges in his favorite pastime in a bar scene from "The Bank Dick." The opening credits contain a reference to "A. Pismo Clam."

W.C. Fields indulges in his favorite pastime in a bar scene from “The Bank Dick.” The opening credits contain a reference to “A. Pismo Clam.”

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

“Pismo Beach was kind of a way station for people coming up to Hearst Castle, you know, Hollywood stars,” Waage said. “They would have time to stop in Pismo Beach on the way or maybe even stay overnight.”

Many stars stayed at the Pismo Beach Hotel, Sorgenfrei said, including Gable and Crawford, who filmed parts of 1940’s “Strange Cargo” in Pismo Beach (though the movie makes no mention of Pismo and is instead set in a French penal colony).

Waage theorizes that Hearst’s guests went back to Hollywood and talked Pismo up, which helped create its notoriety.

“We have this beautiful white beach; I think that’s probably the difference,” Waage said. “… We like to talk about our ‘wow’ view as you come around going south on 101.”

But Hearst died in 1951 and had stopped entertaining a few years earlier. Perhaps predictably, the mentions of Pismo in movies and television mostly petered out by the end of the ’60s — until a young woman by the name of Cher Horowitz began raising awareness, that is.

The lasting legacy of the Pismo Beach disaster

The second coming of Pismo Beach name-drops happened in the 1990s. 

“Clueless” writer and director Amy Heckerling said she decided upon Pismo Beach when trying to figure out how to show the growth of protagonist Cher (played by Alicia Silverstone) without making the movie too heavy. Cher’s good works had to be “a harmless good deed kind of thing, so I just needed the name of a location,” said Heckerling, who also directed “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Seated at the table from left, Stacey Dash (as Dionne) and Alicia Silverstone (as Cher) in "Clueless," written and directed by Amy Heckerling. Cher is captain of the Pismo Beach disaster relief effort. 

Seated at the table from left, Stacey Dash (as Dionne) and Alicia Silverstone (as Cher) in “Clueless,” written and directed by Amy Heckerling. Cher is captain of the Pismo Beach disaster relief effort. 

CBS Photo Archive/CBS via Getty Images

“I remembered hearing a W.C. Fields movie where he said something about Pismo, the way he speaks — ‘Pismo!’ It just struck me as a great sounding place,” Heckerling said. “There was humor to it. You didn’t think anything horrible could be happening in Pismo Beach.”

I thought that movie might have been “The Bank Dick,” but Heckerling said she couldn’t remember the exact film, and I couldn’t find a reference to Pismo in that film except for “A. Pismo Clam” in the opening credits. It’s possible Fields liked the name “Pismo” so much he worked it into several movies, but I didn’t have time to comb through his entire catalog.

Three years after 1995’s “Clueless,” Pismo Beach got a shoutout in two other big films: “A Night at the Roxbury” and the cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” in which John Goodman’s character eulogizes Steve Buscemi’s Donny: “Donny was a good bowler, and a good man. He was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors, and bowling. And as a surfer, he explored the beaches of Southern California from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo. And up to Pismo.”

Heckerling said she had never made the Pismo connection between “The Big Lebowski” and “Clueless” and didn’t know whether the one inspired the other. But the timelines certainly work.

Central Coast surfboard maker Shane Stoneman said the Pismo reference in “The Big Lebowski” is likely a joke about how Donny was not very adventurous for a surfer.

“I read it as a funny ironic little detail that his outer reaches of surfing stop at Pismo. It’s laughable to a lifelong surfer,” Stoneman said via email. “We are always trying to save up enough for the next trip to Indonesia or some much other far reaching exotic destination.”

The sun sets behind the pier in Pismo Beach on Dec. 20, 2017. With its close proximity to Southern California, this Central Coast community has become a popular stop for global and domestic tourists traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The sun sets behind the pier in Pismo Beach on Dec. 20, 2017. With its close proximity to Southern California, this Central Coast community has become a popular stop for global and domestic tourists traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

George Rose/Getty Images

And as for the “Roxbury” reference? A character who has a running gag where he asks people whether they just grabbed his ass receives the message, “Dooey just called from Pismo Beach. He says there’s no way he could have grabbed your ass.” Heckerling, who was a producer on “A Night at the Roxbury,” said she didn’t remember who put that line in the movie, but “that sounds like it must have come from me.”

“I guess I just like Pismo Beach,” said Heckerling, who also admitted that despite being involved in two notorious ’90s Pismo Beach references, she’d never had the chance to visit.

Since the 1990s, Pismo Beach continues to get shoutouts, mostly on television. It’s gotten nods in shows like “Robot Chicken,” “Ray Donovan” and “Futurama,” in the episode “Raging Bender,” which features a fighter robot named Destructor who’s introduced as “the gizmo from Pismo!” Wikipedia also alleges there are references to Pismo in the 1990s cartoon sitcom “The Critic” and the 2010s dramedy “United States of Tara,” but I wasn’t able to find confirmation. Nor could I verify that Pismo Beach gets a shoutout in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but I believe in my heart of hearts that it’s mentioned at some point in that ode to unsung California cities.

How has fame affected the tiny Central Coast town?

Not much, if Mayor Waage is anything to go by. When I asked him whether anyone had ever asked him about the Pismo Beach disaster, he admitted no one had. His own familiarity with it was minimal: “I’ve read about it in the Wikipedia article, and that’s it.”

“We haven’t had any big disasters,” Waage said. The town remains basically the same glittering tourist destination it’s been since Hearst’s guests stopped by to clam on their way up to Hearst Castle, though Pismo boasts a “brand-new pier,” Waage said.

Amid the pandemic, Pismo has seen an uptick in tourists discovering the semi-infamous town for themselves.

The sun sets behind the pier in this coastal community on Dec. 20, 2017, in Pismo Beach, Calif. 

The sun sets behind the pier in this coastal community on Dec. 20, 2017, in Pismo Beach, Calif. 

George Rose/Getty Images

“People come here and just enjoy. It’s an escape if you will,” Waage said. “They come here just to kind of unwind, have a great time, recreate and enjoy themselves.”

And, of course, enjoy a bowl of clam chowder.



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