SHORTLY AFTER moving to Ross, movie star Sean Penn wandered into the Barn Theatre across the road from his new home. He was unceremoniously asked to leave by someone in the local theater group who didn't recognize him. Although embarrassing at the time, the incident fits the town's image as a place where the wealthy and the famous, including rock stars like Huey Lewis, can live in relative privacy in leafy neighborhoods where the median household income tops $102,000.
The town has a history of its own in films. Shady Lane, with its towering elm trees and gracious homes, was pictured prominently in one of the "Godfather" movies as the leafy street that Al Pacino walked down with Diane Keaton. In "Jack" Robin Williams lived in a restored Victorian off the Ross Commons.
Those who drive through Ross on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard are familiar with the abstract sculpture of a bear by the famed San Francisco artist Benny Bufano that sits on the lawn in front of the police and fire departments and serves as the town's official symbol. During the holidays, it's decked out with a wreath.
Many families with children are drawn to Ross by its two fine schools. Much of the town’s community life is focused on the private Branson School and the public Ross School, which boasts an elaborate gala auction every two years featuring only-in-Marin items such as backstage passes to rock shows a week in New York City with Tony Award Show tickets and a guitar signed by Carlos Santana. Volunteering on its fund raising committee has become almost a prerequisite for those wanting to get elected to the Town Council.
The town is named after Scotsman James Ross, who paid $50,000 in gold coins for 8,857 acres in 1857. Even then, Ross, which now commands some of Marin's highest housing prices cost a pretty penny.
Ross died five years later and his widow, Annie, deeded 1.4 acres to the North Pacific Coast Railroad on condition the mil depot, known as Sunnyside Station, be named after her late husband.
Their daughter, Annie Ross, and her husband built their estate on 21 acres that now make up the Marin Art and Garden Center, one of the loveliest spots in the county for fashion shows and fund-raisers.
The couple was involved in horticulture and, during travels abroad, brought back, exotic plants to beautify their estate. Financial hardships eventually forced them to sell the property, but despite land transfers, fires and earthquakes, their original "Octagon House" endured and remains on the grounds.
Town residents, many of whom were wealthy San Francisco entrepreneurs living in country estates, incorporated Ross in 1908. Ross officials wasted no time in requiring dog licenses, permits to cut trees even more precious then than today, because wide tracts had been clear cut and limiting trains to 15 mph.
In 1909, all five of the town's concrete bridges built by designer John Buck Leonard over a meandering creek became eligible for landmark status and inclusion on the list of the National Register of Historic Places.
Almost a century after incorporating, Ross hasn't changed much and people like it that way. There are only 792 dwellings, only a handful more than a century ago, and many streets are lined with dirt paths !rather than concrete sidewalks. Since there is no mail delivery, the Post Office, once the town train station, has become a popular place for Ross residents to meet and greet. "We've really tried to maintain the small-town character," said Charlie Goodman, who served for 12 years on the Town Council Goodman grew up in Ross, moved away, but then returned because, he says, "I 'thought it was a great place to raise my family.