Historic City Memories: Distant Drums

A World Premier Movie

“Distant Drums” – A Big Deal.

By Geoff Dobson

At one time, the showing of a world premier movie was a big deal. A recent news release indicates that the world premier for the movie “Grazia” is to be held at the Epic Theatres on State Road 207 on January 21. According to the news release, the stars Wendell V. Fountain and Tecla Dal Degan-Kindschi are expected to be in attendance. The independent movie was primarily filmed in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is certainly no stranger to movie making. Motion pictures filmed, in whole or in part, in St. Augustine have includes Selig Polyscope’s 1906 “A trip to St. Augustine;” the silent romance, “Stolen Moments,” starring Rudolph Valentino; the “Perils of Pauline;” “A Year of Easter;” “The Celestine Prophecy,” “Illegally Yours, starring Rob Lowe; and the 3-D thriller “Revenge of the Creature.” The latter movie had a brief walk-on part played by Clint Eastwood not shown in the credits.

Portions of television programs have been filmed in the city, including a portion of “Route 66” and an episode of “City Confidential.”

City Confidential was purportedly an expose of the City and the murder of Athalia Ponsell Lindsley. The murder is not one normally discussed in polite society in St. Augustine. The episode was like pulling a scab off a cut — administered by a machete. It is a subject which the present writer would not touch with the eleven-foot pole in his garage that he reserves for touching things he would not touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

The big deal, however, was the filming of “Distant Drums” in 1951. As a result, St. Augustine was in a race with Sarasota to host Florida’s first world premier of a major motion picture. In 1951, two movies were being filmed in Florida — Paramount Pictures’ extravaganza “The Greatest Show on Earth” which was filmed in Sarasota and Warner Brothers’ Florida western “Distant Drums”.

The questions were who would hold the first world premier; Sarasota or St. Augustine? And, which would be the bigger film; “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Distant Drums”?

Filming on Distant Drums started in St. Augustine in late March with the arrival of movie stars from Hollywood. The Chamber of Commerce recruited one hundred St. Augustinians who had the ability to scale the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos. In May, Seminole Indians arrived. They were directed to “make up” where their bodies were smeared with cosmetics.

“What this for?” asked one Indian.

“To make you look like Indians, said the makeup man.”

Of course, in principal Indian parts, the Indians were not used. Sidney Capo played the part of an Indian boy as did Bob Burns. Other stars included Gary Cooper, Mari Aldon, and Richard Webb.

The story, set in the swamps of the Everglades, took place during the Second Seminole Wars. One sound effect, a scream by a soldier being bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator, was especially created for the movie. It is now known as the “Wilhelm Scream” named for a scene in the movie “The Charge at Feather River”. It has since been used in some 149 different movies including “Star Wars, Episode IV” thus, “Star Wars” has a connection with St. Augustine, remote as it may be.

In order for Distant Drums to be made, it was necessary for the Legislature to adopt an amendment to the child labor law so as to permit minors to be employed in the movies. The act was signed into law by Governor Warren in April.

In Sarasota, all of the 6th grade children from the schools were bused to the Circus Winter Headquarters off of Fruitville Road to play extras. The “Greatest Show on Earth” was a Cecil B. DeMille epic starring Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Charlton Heston, Dorthy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, and Jimmy Stewart along with a cast of hundreds including the entire 1400 employees of the Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

Paramount in post-production was apparently slower than Warner Brothers.

The world premier for “Distant Drums” was scheduled at the Matanzas Theatre on Cathedral Place in the end of December. The world premier was a four-day event that included the arrival of Hollywood stars Richard Webb and Mari Aldon on Thursday. Governor Fuller Warren came carrying the film reels and was greeted by Sidney Capo. There was an official dinner, ball and beauty pageant. On Saturday there was a water ballet and street dance, followed the next day by the world premier.

Richard Webb drove a sulky pulled by an ostrich at the Alligator and Ostrich Farm. Governor Warren proclaimed the day of the world premier to be “All Florida Motion Picture Day” to celebrate the first world premier of a motion picture in the state.

In Sarasota, the Chamber of Commerce ran into difficulties. Paramount resisted having the world premier of the Greatest Show on Earth in Sarasota. Ultimately, the chamber won out with a co-world premier in both Sarasota and Hollywood. Sarasota’s event was only three days long. Again, Governor Warren arrived. On the front of the Florida Theatre an entrance was constructed making the theatre look like the entrance to a giant circus tent — in much the same manner as the Paramount in Atlanta was redone to make it look like the front façade of Tara for the world premier of “Gone with the Wind. Inside, the lobby of the Florida Theatre was covered with sawdust to complete the illusion of entering the circus.

With regard to publicity, Sarasota won out. “The Greatest Show on Earth” won the Oscar for Best Picture. The World Premier was so extravagant, that fifteen years later Sarasota did a re-enactment of the World Premier. Sarasota was extensively featured in the film, with the Winter Headquarters prominently displayed. The circus parade went down Main Street past the Oleander Hotel. Hundreds of school children now in their seventies tune in when the film is shown on TV in order to see if they can still recognize themselves.

The only recognizable scene of St. Augustine in “Distant Drums” is the fort. For purposes of the movie, the fort was “moved” to Lake Okeechobee. As indicated, St. Augustine has had other movies filmed here. The only ones which are routinely remembered are “Illegally Yours” and “Revenge of the Creature”.

“Illegally Yours” also used the fort as a backdrop and includes recognizable scenes on Hypolita Street, Porpoise Point, Old Quarry Road, and State Road 16. The difficulty, however, is that “Illegally Yours,” underwhelmed the critics. It appeared in movie theatres for about two weeks and then went directly, without passing “Go” or collecting $200, to HBO and Cinemax.

Somewhere moldering in a drawer, are 3-D glasses the writer obtained to see “Revenge of the Creature.” Unfortunately, it has not been on in years.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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