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Sunday Favorites: Florida’s “Hollywood” Story

The Tampa Bay area has served as the backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters, with big stars flocking to the city to perform in the beautiful setting we call home. Here’s an overview of Florida’s history in the movies.

Today, the Tampa Bay area serves as the backdrop for many Hollywood blockbusters, with big stars flocking to the city to perform in the beautiful setting we call home. Remember when Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawk closed down the Ca’d’Zan while filming Great Expectations in 1998? How about Denzel Washington walking the docks of Cortez in 2002’s “Out of Time” as he portrayed a police officer from a small town in Florida?

In fact, the earliest Florida films are 1898 “newsreels” of US troops in Tampa during the Spanish-American War. After that, Florida continued to be used for many of the best films. The state offered scenic jungles for “Tarzan,” a tropical island (Anna Maria) for “On An Island With You,” and shady Silver Springs for “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Before World War I, Jacksonville rivaled Hollywood with more than thirty studios and thousands of actors and extras to hire. At this time, film companies such as Universal, Disney, and MGM moved to the state, and film production in Florida increased until it took the lead in film production in 1995. While Florida has since faltered, movies are still filmed and produced here every year.

Our area has been featured in several major motion pictures, but the film that started the trend was a local production called Sarasota’s Hero.

The first sound-on-film production to hit the area was described as a “clean and enjoyable epic comedy” by the Sarasota Herald. Premiered on July 26, 1929 at the Edwards Theater (now the Sarasota Opera House), opened up a whole new territory of entertainment for locals suffering from the Great Depression.

The newspaper first ran an ad seeking local talent, then imported Hollywood director Don O. Newland to help select the final cast. Thousands served as extras in the film, which starred Grace Adams as Baby Ethel, Elizabeth Gains as Katrinka, handsome John Lavine as Billy Brown, the film’s hero, attorney J. Keen as Mr. Henpeck and Charles Warpole as The Rival were.

Then Police Chief Tilden Davis and local socialite George Lindsey both had supporting roles. Newland boasted that it was the best amateur cast he’d ever assembled, adding, “It’s not press stuff either,” according to Bernice Brooks Bergen in her book Sarasota Times Past.

The plot consisted of Mr. Henpeck going to the train station to pick up what he thought was a friend’s baby. But the “baby” turns out to be an attractive woman. When his wife finds out he’s marching through town with another woman, all hell breaks loose.

Scenes were filmed at several local businesses, including the Sarasota Terrace Hotel, the Woolard Furniture Company, and the Cigar Corner Store (now the Gator Club).

Although portrayed as comedy, the film had plenty of action, including a thrilling scene where two Model T’s, courtesy of local Ford agency Sarasota Sales Company, hit a riveting 40 mph before colliding at Five Points collide.

The editing was done in an artistic affair that resulted in Newland leaving with over 3,000 feet of film to edit.

While Sarasota’s Hero didn’t receive critical acclaim, it paved the way for other successful productions in the area that leveraged local talent.




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