By People Staff
January 21, 1991 12:00 PM

OPENING CREDITS…Huddled on the Pacific Coast at the mouth of the Columbia River, Astoria, Ore. (pop. 10,190), is the kind of place where usually nothing much happens and the locals like it that way. That was before Arnold Schwarzenegger barreled into town to film Kindergarten Cop. Next thing Astoria knew, the movie was a smash, school officials became reluctant censors, and the town’s tots were at the center of a debate about just what constitutes kiddie entertainment.

FLASHBACK… For nine days last June, many of the 400 students in kindergarten through fourth grade at the John Jacob Astor Elementary School got paid $35 a day to act as extras in Cop, a comedy-drama in which Arnold plays an L.A. detective who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher to nail a drug dealer. And when the movie opened last month, Astoria’s young thespians couldn’t wait to see themselves onscreen. But then…

CUT TO…Principal Judy Bigby, 46, had planned to take all 400 students to the movie. Wisely, she went to see it first. “As I watched, I was thinking we would need to honor the PG-13 rating,” says Bigby, who found herself confronted by images of drug dens, corpses and killers—as well as the cute and tender kindergarten scenes.

The field trip was cancelled. “I would say the sex and violence and vulgarity were the three main reasons,” says Astoria schools superintendent Len Carpenter, 45. Offers Bigby, diplomatically: “We decided to let the parents decide whether to take their children.”

FREEZE FRAME…Cops studio, Universal, is “astonished that this has become an issue because the film was screened for audiences across the country prior to opening,” says a spokesperson, “and violence was never an issue. Our exit polls indicated that 95 percent of parents who saw the film said they would recommend it.” Not among them: parent-critic Gene Siskel, who has questioned the movie’s marketing strategy. “The ad campaigns suggest a cute little romp,” says Siskel, “whereas the actual film has been fairly rated PG-13, reflecting scenes of violence that are certain to disturb young viewers.” The Oregonian critic Ted Mahar agrees: “It’s like biting into buckshot when you think you’re eating a cream puff.”

Still, such cautions haven’t kept kinder-crowds away from the film, which grossed $44.8 million in two weeks—and $21,024 in Astoria. “I thought it was pretty good,” says Chris Holmstedt, 9, who saw it at Astoria’s Liberty Theater. “Not to make Mrs. Bigby sound bad, but I would call it more comedy than violent.”

Then, too, at the Astor school, the memory of Schwarzenegger towers over all. During filming, the star was interviewed for a student documentary. “Hi, I’m Arnold Schwarzeschnitzel,” quipped the 6’2″ iron man, who advised the kids to “stay away from sugar products, drink your milk, and eat healthy foods.” And when he was asked how he solves his problems, the guy who was the cyborg assassin in The Terminator and who took on an entire Martian security force in Total Recall replied, “You don’t solve problems running around with a machine gun. In reality, we have dialogue and negotiation to solve problems.” For that, Big Guy, Mrs. Bigby would give you an A. FADEOUT