Hurray for Hollywood!
Captain Florida loves movies, especially those about his home state. It’s a long, impressive list, from 1929’s The Cocoanuts, starring the Marx Brothers as operators of a Miami Beach hotel, to John Travolta’s The Punisher, just filmed in Tampa.
There’s something special about seeing the Sunshine State on the big screen ("Hey, I’ve been there!"). So over the years I’ve assembled a large collection of Florida videos and DVDs. Then, from time to time, I gas up the car to go looking for filming sites of great movie moments. When I’m successful, it’s pure magic. Or else Captain Florida has way too much time on his hands. In either case, I’m back from being "on location," as they say in the industry, and here’s my report:
Scarface (1983): Who can forget the infamous motel room "shower scene" in this Al Pacino classic? If you’ve spent any time at all on South Beach, you may have unknowingly walked past the site dozens of times. It’s wedged between the Johnny Rockets burger joint and the art deco Colony Hotel near Seventh Street. Look between the two buildings and it’s the first room at the top of the staircase on the right. The film is also something of a documentary, capturing the now-hard-to-believe decrepitude that was Ocean Drive in the early 1980s. If you have a copy of the film, you can see the Colony and other endangered buildings in the background as Pacino pulls up to the curb in a convertible. (That’s something else that’s changed-he found a parking space.)
Easy to Love (1953): A trademark Esther Williams swimfest set in Cypress Gardens. Let’s pray they succeed in preserving the gardens for future generations. The movie people constructed a special swimming pool in the shape of Florida that still exists in an off-the-beaten-path corner of the park. Freaky coincidence: At one of my book signings, I was reading a passage containing a reference to the movie and the pool, and a woman in the front row gasped. Turns out she was one of the dozens of swimmers lining the edge of the pool and kicking in synchronization as Esther back-stroked through the middle of the state.
Cocoon (1985): St. Petersburg retirees find a variation on the Fountain of Youth in this Ron Howard offering. The location scouts bird-dogged another treasure in need of preservation. They’ve torn down most of the grand old coliseums across the state, but not the one in downtown St. Pete (535 Fourth Ave. N.). This historic gem was the site of the big ballroom scene where Don Ameche break-dances. It’s still used for the annual antiquarian book fair and numerous oldies revivals.
License to Kill (1989): This Timothy Dalton 007 installment is arguably the worst in the James Bond series. But it was filmed in Florida, which means it’s the best. There are scenes all over the Keys: the Hemingway House, the Overseas Highway, Key West International. One of the less recognized is the tiny private airstrip on Sugarloaf Key (near the "bat tower") where they captured the drug kingpin. Trivia: Then-Gov. Bob Martinez persuaded the film crew to let him be an extra; you can see him in a brief, Hitchcock-style cameo as the short-sleeved security guy in the background when Bond gets out of a cab.
Miami Blues (1990): This lesser-known film is a Florida-philes delight. Adapted from the novel by Charles Willeford, the noir comedy nails South Florida’s up-for-grabs fast lane of weirdness. Fred Ward (astronaut Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff) stars as the hard-luck Sgt. Hoke Mosely, who lives in the seedy Primrose Hotel, which you can still visit, although it’s now the super-upscale Hotel Nash (1120 Collins Ave., Miami Beach). Alec Baldwin is the frightfully insane Frederick Frenger Jr. If you know the turf, there are recognizable scenes throughout-the airport, docks on the Miami River, shopping malls. If you want to nail down a "Baldwin spot," he accosts a hooker on the sidewalk at Collins and 11th Street with the corner lunch counter in the background.
Raging Bull (1980): While the Florida scenes were filmed in California, they depict boxer Jake LaMotta’s Miami Beach nightclub. I did some digging in special collections at the downtown Miami-Dade library and found the original address in a falling-apart street index from 1959 (2100 Collins Ave.). I drove out to relive the history. It’s now a Lum’s restaurant. I felt like punching the building with both fists ("Why! Why! Why! Why! …").
92 in the Shade (1975): The best unknown Florida film ever, 92 perfectly captured mid-1970s Key West before the obscene T-shirt shops took over. It was based on the Thomas McGuane novel about a deadly rivalry between fishing guides and attracted a surprisingly deep cast of all-stars: Peter Fonda, Margot Kidder, Burgess Meredith, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates and Elizabeth Ashley. Much of the action takes place at what was then the Cow Key Marina on Stock Island (the U.S. 1 bridge to Key West is recognizable in background shots). I was lucky enough to discover the place in the late 1980s, and it was like walking right into the movie: grizzled fishermen at the bar, 85-cent beer, weathered pool tables. The last time I went, the bar was gone, everything had a fresh coat of paint and they were renting jet skis. (To get there, take Cross Street south, then head west on Fifth Avenue until you reach the water.)
Florida has been featured in many more films too numerous to list, but here’s a lightning round of the more notables:
Body Heat (1981: One of the all-time mystery masterpieces-starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner-was shot in Palm Beach County. I’ve recently learned of two locations that are now at the top of my scavenger hunt list (see recommended books at end of this article). The amphitheater where the couple first meets is at the eastern end of Lucerne Road, and Turner’s estate sits on the corner of Hypoluxo and Federal Highway.
Palmetto (1998): Another lesser-known film, this murder-tangle stars Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue and was shot around the Sarasota-Bradenton area, including the Anna Maria Island pier.
Apollo 13 (1995): Take the official NASA bus tour of Cape Canaveral and see most of it. But don’t look for some of the other off-cape sites like the motel where Jim Lovell’s wife stayed-they were shot in California.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954): The ultra-camp horror standard has many underwater scenes from Wakulla Springs in North Florida and Silver Springs near Ocala, where footage for the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball (1965), was also shot.
Black Sunday (1977): From the Thomas Harris thriller novel, it was filmed in Miami’s Orange Bowl, also site of Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999).
True Lies (1994): Arnold Schwarzenegger reaches down from a helicopter and pulls Jamie Lee Curtis from the sun roof of a limo before it plunges off the old Seven Mile Bridge west of Marathon. Pigeon Key is prominent (that quaint and curious little island you see under the old bridge as you fly down the new span to Key West).
And now, finally, one location that never appeared in a movie, although it definitely wanted to. Long before the MGM and Universal theme parks started bringing film and TV production to Florida, a much earlier attempt was made. In a story that would make a perfect sequel to The Cocoanuts, a land promotion was launched about 25 miles north of Sarasota in a place christened Sun City (not to be confused with the nearby Sun City Center retirement colony). Giant studios were supposed to be built and wrestle the movie industry away from Hollywood. Of course, being 1920s Florida, they were also selling real estate. Streets were carefully laid out in a semi-circle around Paramount Park. But the land bust preempted construction. And today, if you drive up U.S. 41, on the righthand side just before the Little Manatee River, a few mobile homes lie scattered along streets named Chaplin, Goldwyn, Chaney and Pickford.
For further reading, Captain Florida recommends The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations and Shot on This Site, which he referred to for this article.