News Column

Ann Brebner celebrated on 90th birthday at Skywalker Ranch

August 18, 2013


Aug. 18--Ann Brebner, the doyenne of the worlds of stage and screen in Marin County, was celebrated on her 90th birthday Saturday afternoon at an elegant party and tribute at George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio.

Standing with only the aid of a cane, the regal-looking nonagenarian, wearing one of her signature black ensembles, her snow-white hair swept back in a chignon, personally greeted some 200 guests as they gathered in the skylighted wood and brick entertainment room in the ranch's technical building, its rustic design inspired by Northern California wineries.

In her honor, party-goers dressed in black and white, the only colors she wears because it relieves her of having to decide what to put on in the


"Now I can forget my own appearance and focus on what is going on around me," she once explained in her distinguished British accent.

Lucas was unable to attend the party, but passed along his good wishes in a video that was shown in the building's art deco Stag Theater, where the guest of honor sat for an interview and listened to reminiscences by several of her friends and colleagues.

When she ran the largest casting agency in San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s, she cast Lucas's movies "THX1138" and "American Graffiti." The first dramatic reading of his script for "Star Wars" took place in Brebner's San Francisco office. Lucas praised her as a "casting guru."

"Ann, you've reached a wonderful milestone, one we all aspire to reach," Lucas said. "You've done so much for the film industry in San Francisco."

Clips from some of the movies she worked on, including "Bullitt" with Steve McQueen, "The Conversation" with Gene Hackman, and "Petulia" with Julie Christie, were screened during an onstage interview by Zoe Elton, programming director for the Mill Valley Film Festival. Twice the president of the Mill Valley Film Festival board, Brebner is credited with being the driving force behind the restoration project that turned a decrepit old movie house on Fourth Street in San Rafael into the three-screen, art deco Rafael Film Center. Brebner worked tirelessly for five years to help raise the millions of dollars it took for the restoration work, which she sometimes oversaw herself.

"It would be hard to forget her walking around the construction site in her pink hard hat," film festival founder and executive director Mark Fishkin said.

Former San Rafael Mayor Al Boro, who collaborated with Brebner on the theater project, presented her with a framed copy of the deed that the city signed over to the California Film Institute, which runs the theater and puts on the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Boro called her "the spirit of the theater."

Oscar-winning film director John Korty recalled being a young filmmaker and finding Brebner's casting agency in the yellow pages when he was looking for actors for his first film, "Crazy Quilt."

He described her as "a force of nature," saying her good taste and generosity serves as "a great example to us all."

Born in New Zealand, Brebner studied theater at the Old Vic in London on a scholarship. She met her then husband, actor John Brebner, there and moved with him to Marin in the 1950s.

They founded the Marin Shakespeare Festival, which they ran for a decade. She has since directed plays for its successor, the Marin Shakespeare Company.

A playwright as well as a director, her latest play, "The Dead Girl," about two biracial families, was produced earlier this year by Marin's AlterTheater Ensemble.

Raised by a single father and his relatives after her mother died in childbirth, Brebner came of age as a creative force and leader at a time when women were often relegated to traditional women's occupations and roles.

Asked during the onstage interview what advice she would give her 9-year-old self, she said, "Do what is in your heart, not what your head thinks you should do."

Contact Paul Liberatore via email at


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