35 Years Later a Pink Turkey Returns…
Movies Under the Stars series continues in Elizabeth Evans Park
Long ago in a faraway backwater of the universe, a small town dreamed of salvation in a freeway exit to a Main Street painted pink. At the same time, in weird parallel deserving of an episode of The Twilight Zone, Mount Dora welcomed Hollywood onto Donnelly Street, hoping that tourist gold would flow their way from theaters across America.
Thirty-five years after the release of Honky Tonk Freeway, residents will have the chance to get a peek back into that time, and assess for themselves how much gold was really in all that pink.
Mount Dora Movies Under the Stars continues this Friday, August 19 with a screening of Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), the movie which was filmed in part in Mount Dora and for which portions of town were painted Pepto-Bismal pink. The screening will be in Elizabeth Evans Park starting at dusk. Food and drinks will be available for purchase; bring your picnic blanket. If the weather is inclement, the movie will be screened in the Community Center (on Baker Street next to Mount Dora City Hall).
The movie goes like this: a small Florida tourist town called Ticlaw struggles to attract visitors to their hotel and wildlife safari park, which includes a water-skiing elephant named Bubbles. The state builds a freeway near the town, and the town’s mayor pays $10,000 to assure they get an off-ramp. When that doesn’t happen, the townfolk take matters into their own hands, painting the town pink and blasting a hole in the freeway to divert traffic. Tourists from all over the country truck into town, bringing with them a whole lot of partying, hijinks and mayhem.
The cast was impressive—Howard Hesseman, Teri Garr, Beau Bridges, Beverley D’Angelo, William Devane, Hugh Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, to name a few. Director John Schlesinger had Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Marathon Man (1975) to his credit, for which he had won a directing Oscar and Golden Globe.
And it was a big-budget film by Hollywood standards of those days, costing some $21 million—the most ever for a comedy.
For Mount Dora, it was a chance of a lifetime to make to the big screen. When casting calls went out in February 1980 for 2,000 extras, people from as far away as Jacksonville and Georgia began showing in the IceHouse Theater parking lot, and by the time casting began at 7 p.m. inside the theater, the line was five-wide and stretched around three sides. Mount Dora police were called in to try to manage the crowd.
Shooting in Mount Dora was supposed to begin in February, but production delays at the second location in Fruitville (a little town close to Sarasota) pushed the Mount Dora filming into May. (The I-75 freeway, then under construction, was to have reached a point where a half-finished bridge would be incorporated into the shooting—where it could be “exploded”— but it wasn’t done in time .)
Painting Mount Dora pink was the thing most people remember. Actually it was just the buildings on Donnelly between Fourth and Fifth, with many having false fronts painted pink. Also in preparation for shooting, the film crew built a mock wild animal preserve near the pistol range of the Mount Dora Police Department, with one pen big enough for a rhino. And down by Lake Dora, a trainer worked with Bubbles, a trained Indian elephant, to water ski on a pair of 21-foot long, 3-foot wide skis.
Finally a crew of about 250 descended on Mount Dora in May for filming, with most staying in Altamonte Springs after the day’s work and equipment trucks parked jamming Charles Avenue near Lake Dora. Special parking areas had to be set up for the 2,000 extras coming in every day, and police stayed busy directing traffic around shooting locations.
Filming lasted just 10 days, with much of the time at the Lakeside Inn (the location which inspired the movie’s makers to come to Mount Dora in the first place). Another location was the Community Congregational Church, and a “street bazaar” and parade on Donnelly downtown.
Back then, Mount Dora had vital and strong weekly newspaper in the Mount Dora Topic, back when Al Liveright was publisher. Their coverage of the filming included a special 4-page Ticlaw Topic insert. It makes for strange reading, for you would swear you were reading about Mount Dora except the name of the town was now Ticlaw and the population was studded with Hollywood stars. (You can still find it in the archives of the W.T. Bland Library)
During filming there were many scenes locals still remember, whether they served as extras or not. Familiar local businesses with strange new signage (“Ticlaw Candles and Gifts” in front of the Rexall, “Naguki Florist-Blossom Shop” in front of Rehbaum’s Hardware). The Mount Dora High School band, practicing marching on Donnelly with hundreds of extras—again and again, getting the shot right. Half-naked crew and actors in makeup on break, sitting and reading their copy of the Ticlaw Topic.
Two thousand extras and background artists were paid $35 a day, and businesses on Donnelly were paid $100 a day to permit filming outside their premises. About $1 million was spend by the movie crew while in the area.
After 14 days shooting was done, and Mount Dora went back to business as usual, driving without interruption to the grocery store or downtown, arguing in City Hall about sewer system expansion and a tree census (some things never change, folks), and picking Miss Mount Dora for the July 4 parade and the annual fireworks display, this time paid for by Kendon Films. The Mount Dora Topic picked up awards for best photojournalism and cartooning in a weekly paper from the Florida Press Association.
It would be a year before the Honky Tonk Freeway buzz built back up again with the movie’s release in August 1981, but the Mount Dora Topic was ready. Publisher Al Liveright in a page one announcement wrote,
“Hundreds of our residents, from school kids to senior citizens, who had bit parts and participated as extras in the many crowd scenes, will head for the Tropic Twin Theatre in downtown Leesburg, where the film is slated to open Aug. 21. Management has booked it for a four-week run.” (The world premier was to be later that night at Radio City Music Hall in New York.) Gov. Bob Graham was also to attend along with actor William Devane.”
An all-pink “Ticlaw Topic II” edition was included in the Aug. 20 edition of the Topic, with glowing praise for the professionalism of the movie’s crew and the consummate skill of the movie’s director.
The night of the August 21 premiere, 300 turned out for a cocktail party at the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce. Gov. Graham, producers Don Boyd and Howard Koch and Mount Dora Mayor Gordon Dake all set their palm-prints in concrete. Then everyone loaded up on charter buses and headed for the sold-out screening at the Tropic Twin in Leesburg. (Mount Dora’s Princess Theater had closed in the late 1970s.)
Outside the Tropic, onlookers gawked for a peek at William Devane but he was a no-show, due, it was said, to illness. (Devane probably knew too well what folks were going to see and so made himself sparse.) Before the movie, producer Boyd made Mayor Dake, Chamber Director Lou Cooper and the Mount Dora Topic’s publisher honorary citizens of Ticlaw, and Gov. Graham made a short speech.
Then the lights dimmed and the much-awaited event finally began filling the screen. The first image of palm trees exploding while a freeway proves to be the whole flick’s banana peel, because everything after slips and falls in helter-skelter confusion. Honky Tonk Freeway was a bomb, one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.
For one thing, the movie confuses with so many characters and plotlines happening at once. It feels dated to start with, perhaps because the theme song “Honky Tonk Freeway” by Brooks and Dunn plays to the trucker/CB wave of the late ‘70s, a sound which had lapsed to disco and was by then drowning in “Betty Davis Eyes.” Director Schlesinger was British and may not have understood Florida tourist culture. For locals, there isn’t enough Mount Dora in it—much of it is a road movie—and the raunchiness, even for 1983, is uncomfortable at places. And the jokes—well, most miss their mark by a mile.
I got the feeling Schlesinger was attempting for something like Mike Nichols’ Nashville (1975), but ended up with the painfully sunburnt English tourist version. (Locals had watched in wry amusement as his bald pate went from white to pink over the two weeks of filming.) Or maybe its satire of American life was just too stark for the time. You have to wonder how someone who took the American Dream to such a task in New York City in Midnight Cowboy could find that recasting it in Central Florida was too ugly a job.
On that opening night, theater-goers seemed more interested in what came at the end: Tim Carmody of the Topic wrote,
“For perhaps the only time in their lives, nearly the entire audience sat through what seemed like the interminable film credits at the end of the movie for the words: ‘We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the People of Mount Dora, Florida …’ The credit line was greeted with applause, as the audience filed out of the theater bringing to an end the first, but perhaps not the last, world premiere of a major motion picture in Central Florida.”
Some reviewers were charitable. Judith Crist wrote in Saturday Review,
“(Writer) Edward Clinton has fashioned on of those Grand Hotel structures, much in the style of Citizen’s Band, Handle With Care and Airport-Airplane manner, and he has packed it full of oddball, ultra American types. The whole is brought to a satiric flower by Schlesinger, who sees our country more than plain, as Midnight Cowboy and Day of the Locust indicated….What Schlesinger has composed is a comic ode to the American highway culture. A laughing exploration of the social structures that exist because of life on wheels. “
But for most, the most expensive comedy made to date simply wasn’t funny. Variety panned it on release with this kiss of death:
“The overriding question about EMI’s Honky Tonk Freeway is why anyone should want to spend over $25m. on a film as devoid of any basic humorous appeal … (Its) long-term commercial appeal appears to be almost nil.”
EMI, which must have been well aware of the movie’s impending death, immediately sold the rights for video distribution, and Honky Tonk Freeway closed after one week in theaters, banished to the video purgatory. EMI took a $11-million loss, a hit so severe that the British film company never made another foray into American film.
Having such a short life in the theaters, it wasn’t the kiss of death for the actors. Many got on down the road in fine shape. Geraldine Page won a Best Actress Oscar for Trip to Bountiful in 1985, and Jessica Tandy won the same Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Peter Billingsley, who was cast as Little Billy, appeared two years later as Ralphie in A Christmas Story.
There’s no mention of Honky Tonk Freeway getting pulled from the Tropic Theater in Leesburg after just one week, but then there’s no mention of the movie at all after that in the Topic. It seems like everyone quickly got that the movie was a flop turned back—perhaps with more hurry—to the next business at hand. In the wake of a spike in break-ins, the city promoted participation in Neighborhood Watch. About 35 black residents appeared before city council to protest the city’s unfair hiring practices. Car wrecks continued to pile up on old 441 (road were much, much more dangerous back then.) Al Liveright sold the Topic soon after to Citrus Belt Publications, Inc., and the paper’s new focus was broader. The football kickoff issue featured stories about the programs at Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares. Citrus Belt had also bought the weeklies in Tavares and Eustis, and over the years, the three papers slowly downsized into the relics of local coverage which ended in 2009 and the Mount Dora Topic disappeared from its hometown.
I streamed the movie last summer and found the random Mount Dora scenes fun, like receiving postcards from another era, showing how much cars and people and scenes have changed. Those scenes are fleeting, however—there is far more road than destination here—but if you come out for Mount Dora Movies Under the Stars on August 19, it may be the only way to stay entertained all the way through. It may be more fun watching your fellow residents laugh at the surfacings of old Mount Dora.
When you think about the whole drift of the movie—small Florida town seeks economic salvation in a freeway exit—time plays its own tricks. Perhaps director John Schlesinger’s ambition, or the ghost of it—he later said filming the movie was personally “a shattering experience”—comes back hauntingly. Consider that the real Florida town of Mount Dora is now getting an actual freeway exit; was it prophesized by that movie 35 years ago? And does the golden promise of all that new business—like the painted-pink business district along Donnelly Street—come at a cost like we see in the movie?
Like the residents of Ticlaw, Mount Dora residents may be better off before progress comes to them. Watching the film 35 years from now may tell.
Movies in the Park are presented by Mount Dora’s Parks and Recreation department, with proceeds from concession sales to support youth scholarships. The next Movie in the Park will be on Sept. 9.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)