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“Elvis Presley kicked off my love of music. That was the dream I followed.”
Tom Petty

Just two days ago Tom Petty helped me solve a mystery that I’d been curious about for several decades.  It had to do with the day when Petty was 11-years-old and introduced to Elvis Presley by his Uncle Earl.

Earl Jernigan was a very interesting guy. He wasn’t a southerner. He was the only northerner in the family. And his love was film, motion pictures. And he had the only business in town that was a film business. He had the only place where you could develop film or buy it.

And anytime there was a shoot, probably within a hundred miles, he would go…He had done Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and he actually had one of the cool rubber suits of the creature in his house, and we thought that was so cool.”
Tom Petty (as told to Paul Zollo)
Homegrown in Florida (Edited by William McKeen)

Jernigan also worked on the Tv show Sea Hunt (1958-61) which was shot at Silver Springs —near Gainesville, Florida where Tom and Earl lived. And Jernigan also shot and developed film for the University of Florida football team.

Reading Petty’s account of his uncle reminded me of a question I’d had since I was a teenager. Back in 1981 when I was 19-year-old photojournalist for the Sanford Herald in Central Florida I went back to Lake Howell High School to cover a spring training football game. I ended up being given 16mm films from two of my best high school football games.

I remember when I was given the films I thought it odd that the label said Gainesville rather than the bigger cities of Miami, Tampa or Orlando. Why Gainesville? That was the mystery. So after reading Petty’s words I walked into my home office and quickly found the old 16mm films and sure enough the name on the label read Jernigan’s Motion Picture Service.  

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Mystery solved. Tom Petty’s uncle developed that film—or at least his company did. That also may explain why Petty talks about growing up poor but had 8mm family films and of his first bands that were featured in the documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream. (I grew up in a plain cement block house in Florida—without air-conditioning— and nobody that lived around me had a fancy 8mm camera.)

When Petty was 11-years-old Petty’s his uncle was working on the set of Follow that Dream (1962) starring Elvis Presley, and Petty’s aunt took him to a filming one day in Ocala, Florida (about half an hour from Gainesville) and the future rock star Tom Petty was introduced to the King.

“He stepped out, radiant as an angel. He seemed to glow and walk above the ground. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in my life. At fifty yards, we were stunned by what this guy looked like. And he came walking right toward us. And his hair was so black, I remember that it shined blue when the sunlight hit it. And he walked over and we were speechless. My uncle said, ‘These are my nieces and nephews, Elvis.’ And he smiled and nodded at us. I don’t know what he said because I was just too dumbfounded.”
Tom Petty
Homegrown in Florida

That first brush of fame marked Petty for life. He also took notice of the crowd of girls behind a chain link fence trying to get an autograph of Elvis and thought at the time, “That is one hell of a job to have. That’s a great gig—Elvis.” Petty went home and traded a Wham-O slingshot for a box of 45 records that included Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Jerry Lee songs. He said he wasn’t thinking about being a musician then, just being a fan of music.

If Elvis kicked off his love for music it was the Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan show in 1964 that gave Tom Petty the idea that he could actually learn to play the guitar and start a band.

So there you have it, a kid from Gainesville inspired by a kid from Tupelo and some kids from Liverpool going on to have a 40 year musical career until his death last week. Here’s what it looked like in 2006 when Petty returned to Gainesville.

P.S. That Lake Howell v. Lyman football game that I got the films from was the first high school football my father ever saw me play. My mom and dad got divorced when I was seven and for whatever reason he didn’t come to a high school game until the two he attended my senior year. I scored a total of four touchdowns in those two games and that Christmas he bought me my first 35mm camera. That was by far the most expensive gift he’d ever given me and it helped set me on the creative path that I’ve been on ever since. In fact, that Konica TC was the camera I used when I worked for the Sanford Herald.

Related post:
Tom Petty’s Gainesville Roots

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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I got my own way of talkin’
But everything gets done
With a southern accent
Where I come from
Tom Petty/ Southern Accents

“The reason to make it in Florida was to make it out of Florida.”
Warren Zanes
Petty: The Biography 

The Beatles had Hamburg to refine their sound, Tom Petty had Gainesville.

When Petty died earlier this week a few places mentioned that he was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida before his success as a musician on the world stage. But since a part of this blog is about a sense of place, I’d like to spotlight just what it meant that Petty was from Gainesville.

The first time I visited Gainesville I was struck how it was unlike any place I’d ever been. I was 17 years old and hadn’t ventured far from the Orlando suburbs where I was raised. I was part of a high school football team that made the two hour drive north to play a game on the same field where the University of Florida played their games.

That was 1978 before cable Tv and the internet so I didn’t really have a frame of reference of what a college town looked like. We pulled into Gainesville and it was magical. The late afternoon sun hitting historic brick buidings that seemed more at home at an Ivy League school than in Florida. We drove down fraternity row where some guys were drinking beer next to a firetruck parked on a frat house lawn, and it seemed as if every coed was jogging around campus. (Jogging was big in the ‘70s.)

This was not the part of Gainesville where Petty came from, but it helped pave the way for his success.

I was in the redneck, hillbilly part [of Gainesville]. I wasn’t part of the academic circle, but it’s an interesting place because you can meet almost any kind of person from many walks of life because of the university. But it’s really surrounded by this kind of very rural kind of people that are — you know, they’re farmers or tractor drivers or just all kinds of — game wardens, you name it. So it’s an interesting blend. 

My family wasn’t involved in the college. They were more of ‘white trash’ kind of family. And so I have that kind of background, but I always kind of aspired to be something else, and I made a lot of different friends over the years that were passing through.”
Tom Petty
NPR interview with Terry Gross

The closet Petty got be a student at the University of Florida was working as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida. But the large campus, and the Lipham Music store where students and local muscians hung out, did help him get his musical education.

“Gainesville, Florida [in 1972] had become fully hippie, with a lot of mushroom-potion drinking going on.”
Jeff Calder

(To get a taste of the kind of interesting people connected with the University of Florida during Petty’s time there, check out the post Writing Quote #40 about author and professor Harry Crews.)

Gainesville has long had a reputation as a party school, and in Petty’s day that gave bands nightly musical opportunities to play. A step up from the teen dances and Moose Lodges he started doing when he was 14.

A lesser know fact is Petty took guitar lessons for 18 months as a teenager from Don Felder—as in Don Felder, member of the Eagles (1974-2001)—and co-writer of the song Hotel California. Felder himself took slide guitar lessons from Duane Alman. That’s the kind of musical talent kicking around Gainesville in the 60s and 70s.

“Tom Petty came in [the music store where I taught] one day, gosh, he must’ve been 12 or 13. He had been playing bass in a band called the Epics that I knew as the Rucker Brothers Band and he wanted to play guitar… so I started teaching him to play and went over to his house a couple of times and hung out and heard him play and went over to two or three of the Rucker Brothers’ shows ’cause it was a bit of a train wreck. I kind of helped put them together in the sense that one of them would play rhythm and one of them would play lead while Tommy was playing bass and just help sort through their band to help these kids put their garage band together…. Growing up together in Gainesville and seeing one of my students blossom as an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter has been one of my most fulfilling experiences in this life.
Don Felder
Billboard article by Gary Graff 

Both Petty and Felder would both go on to become more than local legends. And they weren’t alone.

“Eight musicians with musical roots in Gainesville in the ’60s and ’70s have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills and Nash; Buffalo Springfield), Don Felder and Bernie Leadon (the Eagles), and the original lineup of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — Tom, Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench and Ron Blair. That’s a remarkable showing for a small college town.”
How One Sleepy Southern college town changed the history of rock ‘n’roll

”An unusual number of people came out of that small little north central Florida town that went on to become platinum-selling recording artists and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The closest thing I can draw it to is the same sort of phenomenon that happened at Motown or around Memphis or in Nashville, where in certain areas there were so many people that kind of influenced each other or developed a similar style and that same group of people went on to stay involved in music because of that love and excitement in music.”
Don Felder

As Petty and third band Mudcrutch (after the Sundowners and Epic) became a popular regional band playing clubs and large music festivals (“mini-Woodstocks”) and they even opened for the Jacksonvile-based band Lynyrd Skynyrd. By the time Petty headed to Los Angeles in 1974 the 24-year-old had a solid ten years of playing and performing experience. He would go on to sell 80 million albums.  But the seeds were planted and nurtured right there in Gainesville, Florida.

“However long it had been since he’d run away from Gainesville, Florida, from the rednecks and college boys calling out for ‘Satisfaction,’ however long it had been since that town had both loved him and kicked him down its main streets, he knew it was the place that made him. He didn’t find rock and roll in Malibu. He’d brought it with him.”
Warren Zanes, Petty: The Biography

In the world of film outside of Los Angeles, Austin and Portland have an excellent track record of having that kind of iron sharpens iron vibe that Gainesville had musically back in the day. And over the years I’ve tried to show little pockets around the world where people come from on their way to bigger success.

Yes, screenwriters can even have roots in Iowa. Three solid examples are Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls and screenwriter/podcaster John August (Big Fish), who both studied journalism and/or theater at Drake University in Des Moines, and Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody (who was media studies student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City).

Related Posts:
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Aiming for Small Scale Success First 
Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama
Start Your Own Writers/Actors Workshop

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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Postcard #146 (Hurricane Irma)

“Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.” 
Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree

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Like a good antagonist there are many ways a hurricane can do damage. The above photo I took the day after Hurricane Irma hit Central Florida is one example.

There’s the powerful winds (including tornados tucked inside the hurricane) that can destroy trees and homes. The storm surge which brings a flood of water. There’s the threat of downed power lines. The loss of power in a sweltering climate that can’t be repaired for days or even weeks. There’s human mischief (like the ex-husband who killed his former wife in Houston right before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston).

There’s infrastructure problems (roadssewagecell phone service). There’s neglect (which may have caused the death of eight elderly people in a nursing home that had lost electricity and air conditioning). There are accidents (several people have died in Florida from carbon monoxide poisoning due to placing generators in garages). And—as if all that other stuff isn’t enough— snakebites.

The loss of homes, businesses, income, electricity and basic human needs takes it’s toll in a variety of ways; physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual.  Four days after the storm passed there are still people staying in shelters, others sleeping in cars, and millions in their homes but without power/air-conditioning (with daytime temperatures around 90 degrees).

You know the damage to the power grid is severe when the closest Walmart to me has been closed for four days. The St. Johns River has yet to crest causing additional damage to homes inland that have never had a problem with flooding. While many have said the damage could have been worse, this disruption—like what happened in Houston— will have a lasting impact for years.

But we’re already hearing stories of hope. Of things people did, and are doing, to help other people. And telling and retelling those stories is what’s been called medicine for the soul. We are people that need stories to survive.

Related posts:
Shelter from the Storm (Dylan)
Against the Wind

Scott W. Smith

 

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“It could have been much worse. That was the grateful mantra on the lips of many on Monday, even as an estimated 12 million Floridians prepared for a dark night without air conditioning in the muggy post-storm swelter.”
The Washington Post on Hurricane Irma 9.11.17

Courtesy of Hurricane Irma I spent 40 hours this week living off the grid in Orlando. There are much worse things than losing your power for two days in a hot and humid climate—say, like losing your entire house or having it partially submerged underwater like others in Florida, Texas, and the Caribbean recently.

I’ll share some photos and thoughts in the coming days, but with my electricity on hiatus I went through a mental purge. I can’t think of a time in the past decade where I was away from a phone, computer,  TV, etc. for so long.

It’s common during those unplugged moments to ask yourself questions like, “What’s really important to me?” and “What do I really need?” The Bible talks about being “content with food and clothing,” but we don’t live in a culture where that’s promoted or honored.

“Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”
Comedian C.K. Louis

Be grateful for the little things. Senator Cory Booker’s dad grew up in poverty and told his son growing up, “If you were just born in America, you already won the lottery.”

And so despite learning about the new Apple iPhone X while I was off the grid, I’ve decided to try and be content with food and clothing—and my iPhone7 Plus.

It’s a start.

Well, food, clothing, my iPhone 7 Plus…and air-conditioning—that’s all I need.

So it was fitting that the first movie trailer I saw post-Hurricane Irma was for Alexander Payne’s new movie Downsizing. After being consumed with images and news reports of natural disasters for the past couple of weeks, seeing the trailer for that satire starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig looks to be the perfect synthesis of humor and philosophy needed for our times.

P.S. Downsizing screenwriters Payne and Jim Taylor seem to be tapping into that time honored Hollywood concept of “Give me the same thing, only different.” (Or, “I want something original, but familiar.”)  A fresh spin on a proven concept of miniaturizing people. Swimming in the same water as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1959),  Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), The Borrowers (1997), Innerspace (1997), The Tooth Fairy (“Shrinking paste”) and Steve Martin’s 1974 comedy album Let’s Get Small. The fresh spin appears to be mixing it with themes of consumerism/materialism.

Scott. W. Smith

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“Sometimes you know something’s coming…you feel it in the air. A voice in your head is telling you something is going to go terribly wrong…and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) in Bloodline

Todd A. Kessler,  Glenn Kessler,  Daniel Zelman created the Netflix series Bloodline which was shot in the Florida Keys.

“We were looking for a place to set [Bloodline] that had kind of an iconic sensibility for the United States, if not the world. Many people if they’ve never been to the Keys have at least heard of the Keys or most people have at least heard of the Florida Keys. Something weird goes on down there. It’s kind of like New Orleans or Las Vegas or Los Angeles, you know, places that people know of.”
Todd A. Kessler
UPROXX interview with Daniel Fienberg 

In about 10 hours as I write this post the Florida Keys are projected to be hit with category 3 or 4 hurricane. There’s no good outcome of this storm. There’s nowhere for Hurricane Irma to go that won’t wreck havoc.  We can hope that most of the people living in and visiting the Keys have already evacuated as the eye of the hurricane will go directly over the string of islands on the southern tip of Florida.

From there, there’s the strong possibility Hurricane Irma will go up the west coast of Florida hitting Naples, Ft. Myers, Sarasota, Tampa/St. Pete, and Cedar Key. My father died in 1995 while living in St. Pete Beach and he always worried about “the big one” hitting that area because—like parts of Houston—there’s nowhere for the water to go except over land. (The last major hurricane to hit the area was The 1921 Tampa Bay hurricane )

I last visited Key West earlier this year, and was in Tampa/St. Pete just two weeks ago. These are areas I’ve been exploring off and on for 30 plus years and it’s a land mixed with beauty and fragileness. I hope the people and buildings weather the storm well.

P.S. Bloodline ended its three season run on earlier this year. And even though the show didn’t perhaps find a wide audience some called it Netflix’s finest show to date. And it did give viewers one of the final looks at the talents of Sam Shepard—and did a super job of showcasing the Florida Keys.

Related posts:
Sam Shepard (1943-2017)
Postcard #111 (Captain Tony’s)
‘Burbank by the Sea’—St. Petersburg, Florida
Postcard #107 (Downtown St. Pete)
Postcard #142 (Sarasota Seahorse)
Don’t Waste Your Life (2.0)  (Written after an Iowa tornado I was hired to cover.)

Scott W. Smith

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Today is the first day of school at Valencia College and the film production, sound technology, and digital arts students will be walking into the newly opened School of Arts & Entertainment for the first time for classes.

I took a tour of the impressive facilities on Thursday and thought I post a few photos so give you a glimpse of what’s going on in the world outside of Los Angeles. The Valencia film program traditionally trains below the line talent and the various students over the past 20+ years have worked on 47 feature films as part of their education.

(And read my 2015 post The Perfect Ending that shows the connection between Valencia College, The Blair Witch Project, and Game of Thrones.)

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One of only three Dolby Atmos theaters in Orlando

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Scott W. Smith

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”I grew up an hour south of Tampa in a small town called Venice, which is mostly a retirement community. My parents are chiropractors and a pretty loving, normal family. I mean, you know, I hated my childhood but it was perfectly safe and privilege.”
Moonlight producer Adele Romanski
Meet the Moonlight producers who Meet in College by Carl Swanson

Seahorse.jpg

Here’s a quirky little photo of a seahorse (and a horse and monkey) that I took earlier in the week on during a quick trip to Sarasota, Florida. I believe it’s part of the Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy.  It was early in the morning when I took this photo and everything was closed, but I was able to get this photo from the sidewalk at it faces the major road into town. (And the museum’s website says they are closed for the summer.)

Sarasota is a city steeped in the arts. It’s home to the Ringling College of Art and Design, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a few art museums and galleries, and The Circus Arts Conservatory.

The Florida State University/ Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training is also located in Sarasota. So there are some things happening on the West Coast…of Florida. And perhaps that foundation in the arts is part of the reason that two from the area where recently recognized  by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science.

Adele Romanski won an Best Picture Oscar this year as one of the producers of Moonlight. She went to Pine View School (a public school for gifted students)  in Sarasota County, which has been ranked as one of the top schools in the nation.

Visual effects artist Steven Rosenbluth (Iron Man 2, Avatar) graduated from New College of Florida in Sarasota and earlier this year won a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his motion system used on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. 

And since we’re talking about Sarasota and quirky—and movies—I guess I should mention that Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) attended Sarasota High School where he was named president of the National Thespian Society. And he also did local theater in Sarasota and his road to to making Pee- wee’s Big Adventure. (See the post Your ‘Big But’ and New Year Dreams.) 

Here’s the trailer for Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on Netflix last year.

Scott W. Smith

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