This story appears in the book Vintage St. Pete Volume II: Legends, Locations, Lifestyles. Another story about films made in the area will appear later this year in Vintage St. Pete/Vintage Pinellas Volume III.
St. Petersburg has welcomed Hollywood movie companies on numerous occasions over the decades. Films made almost in their entirety here include Robert Altman’s H.E.A.L.T.H., Ron Howard’s Cocoon and Carl Reiner’s Summer Rental, which was John Candy’s first starring vehicle.
We’ve documented the production process on all three of those big-budget movies in our Vintage series, along with a detailed story on Sun Haven Studios, the Depression-era facility on Weedon Island where three early “talkies” were made.
The St. Pete filmography doesn’t end there, however. Film buffs, and the otherwise sharp-eyed, will recognize St. Pete cameos in a few other well-known motion pictures. There are others, of course – who can forget the 1992 controlled demolition of the Soreno Hotel for Lethal Weapon III? – but these are the big ones.
As they say in Hollywood, location, location, location.
1940s: Noir revoir
Two-thirds of the way through 1947’s film noir Dead Reckoning, Lizabeth Scott is driving a Lincoln Continental convertible through the nighttime streets of “Gulf City,” a southern town never identified by state (the script also makes mention of a “Tarpon Springs Road”).
It’s actually Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. In the passenger seat: Humphrey Bogart.
A few moments later, the car is speeding over the Treasure Island causeway; in close-up, the two stars discuss some nefarious crime that’s occurred. Turning onto a country road, their vehicle is pulled over by a motorcycle cop. The pair smooth-talk their way out of a ticket. The officer never knows there’s a dead body in the trunk.
These scenes were filmed May 29-31, 1946 by an assistant director and crew from Columbia Pictures. The director, John Cromwell, was not in St. Petersburg.
Neither, for that matter, were Humphrey Bogart or Lizabeth Scott.
The crew was taking “long shots” that week, depicting the car speeding past downtown buildings, pedestrians and policemen, over the causeway and through the woods. Also lensed were backgrounds, to be “rear-screen projected” behind the actors as they ran their dialogue, inside a dummied-up car, in a Hollywood studio. Pre-filmed beach landscapes provide the backgrounds for a later scene in a restaurant.
In the role of Bogie-from-the-back was George Ford, the movie legend’s body double. There are several split-second profile moments where it’s obviously not Bogart in the car.
Newly-minted St. Petersburg Times reporter Bette Swenson was sitting in for blonde bombshell Scott. Swenson was only told, however, that she was doubling for “Bogart’s leading lady,” as the actress in the role had not yet been hired. It was later revealed that Rita Hayworth, just coming off Gilda, was the studio’s first choice for Dead Reckoning; when she proved unavailable, Scott got the nod.
Swenson, who as Bette Orsini would go on to a long and distinguished career at the Times (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for her expose on the Church of Scientology), wrote about her “Hollywood” adventure in a story dated June 2, 1946:
Thus your reporter has completed what it probably the shortest screen run in history. You’ve seen Ingrid Bergman, Ida Lupino and Jennifer Jones in the movies – well, if you take a magnifying glass and be very alert all through “Dead Reckoning,” you’re liable to get a chance to glimpse the Poor Man’s Judy Canova in the prize performance of her career.
1950s: Military melodrama
The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart and June Allyson, had just finished its engagement at the Playhouse Theatre in St. Petersburg when the two stars, paired for what would be their third celluloid romp as a married couple, arrived in town.
It was March 22, 1954. Stewart, Allyson, director Tony Mann and a small crew took over Al Lang Field to capture two short scenes for Paramount’s Strategic Air Command. In the story, Stewart’s character, former bomber pilot “Dutch” Holland, has just signed a contract to play baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals.
August Busch, owner of the real-life Cardinals, agreed to let the film company shoot the movie’s opening scene, using his players, during actual spring training in St. Petersburg.
Arrangements had already been made for much of the film – a typical post-war melodrama about the fighting men of the USAF – to be shot at MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa.
Produced in VistaVision, the latest trendy widescreen format, Strategic Air Command starts with a shot of the sign outside Al Lang Field. Pan right, across a glorious Technicolor landscape of downtown St. Pete, and a car pulls up with perky June Allyson at the wheel.
She and James Bell (playing her father) enter the stadium, and take seats to watch the Cardinals throwing the ol’ hardball around the bases. Stewart-as-Dutch is playing third. She calls out to him; he waves back.
And there’s Al Lang Field, in all its early 1950s glory, framed by palm trees and Australian pines and azure skies and the blue/grey water of Tampa Bay. There’s the original scoreboard, with its Coca-Cola sign.
There’s some dialogue between Stewart and Allyson, and several other actors. It sets the plot in motion (Dutch, who’s being recalled to active duty, will have to put his budding baseball career on hold). The entire scene lasts about four minutes.
A B-36 bomber, borrowed from the Air Force for the occasion, flew on cue over Stewart’s head as he stood on third base, foreshadowing his return to duty as a flyboy. It took three tries for the pilot, flying the plane at 1,000 feet, to get it exactly right.
Later in the film, there’s a much shorter scene depicting Stewart, in full Air Force uniform, watching a game from the same spectator seats (obviously shot on the same day). And that’s it for Al Lang Field’s big moment on the silver screen.
The company spent approximately three hours in St. Petersburg, wrapping up at noon (the Cardinals had a 1 p.m. game against the Milwaukee Braves).
Jimmy Stewart sat right down on the bench beside us and talked up a storm. Uncle Al Lang was there too, so conversation was unlimited. What was Jimmy Stewart’s favorite baseball team? The Yankees, of course, but he told us confidentially he had to change his favorite from time to time to fit local preferences.
“School reporters” Nancy and Sally Stephenson, St. Petersburg Times/March 27, 1954
1980s: Mob memoir
Security was tight on the beach behind the Don CeSar Hotel on Oct. 15, 1982, as actors Robert DeNiro and James Woods shot a scene for Italian director Sergio Leone’s sprawling gangster film Once Upon a Time in America.
If you’ve seen the movie – the original, heavily-edited release or Leone’s four-hour “director’s cut” – you know this scene. Noodles (DeNiro) and Max (Woods) are lounging on beach chairs in the rear of a towering, opulent pink hotel (guess who?).
Max: A dream I’ve been dreamin’ all my life. Swear to God, Noodles, you and me together we can make it come true.
Noodles: What is it?
Max: The Federal Reserve Bank. It’s the biggest step we could take, Noodles.
Noodles (after a long pause): You’re really crazy.
Max (exploding in anger): Don’t you ever say that to me! Don’t you ever say that to me again!
Max storms off to mope along the surf.
The short scene, which took two days to complete, employed 350 local extras, dressed in 1930s beach attire, in the background. Approximately 60 Florida production people worked with the Warner Bros. crew.
A local newspaper reporter asked the on-set publicist if DeNiro would consent to an interview. He was met with a laugh and this response: “He doesn’t talk to God.”
2000s: All-star caper
George Clooney and Brad Pitt shot scenes for Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven in and around an enormous circus tent erected in the Derby Lane parking lot Feb. 20, 2000. Inside the tent, their characters, Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan, watch a performance by the Peking Acrobats, paying special attention to the nimble Yen, portrayed by real-life acrobat and contortionist Shaobo Qin. Yen is subsequently recruited for the gang of thieves Ocean and Ryan are pulling together for a big Vegas heist. He is to be the team’s “greaseman.”
Two teenage members of the acrobatic troupe, Li Dian Feng and Yang Chun Lei, collided while working on the “parallel poles” sequence seen in the film. They fell 10 feet to the floor and were taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where they were treated for minor injuries and released.
Clooney and Pitt were also filmed walking to their car after the “performance.” By 3 p.m., Clooney was done for the day, and done with St. Pete. Although he happily chatted and sign autographs for the extras inside the (closed-set) tent, Clooney was kept clear of the curious onlookers outside the parking lot set.
Pitt was back the next day to shoot with Carl Reiner, playing Saul, another recruit. Soderbergh and his crew spent 11 hours at Derby Lane on the 21st, as Reiner’s character placed a bet on the day’s dog races, and as he and Pitt sat in the stands and watched the race. There were 600 extras at the dog track, including St. Petersburg Times film writer Steve Persall:
4:26 p.m.: The stars’ work completed, Pitt stands and excites the extras with a Rocky-style pose. Big round of applause. Reiner stands to leave, hears his name cheered and doffs his fishing hat. Bigger round of applause.
2010s: Art of the dance
Director Soderbergh was back in St. Pete in October, 2011, to shoot scenes for Magic Mike, the based-on-fact movie about male stripper-turned-actor Channing Tatum, a Tampa native. Tatum played himself; his club-owner mentor was portrayed by Matthew McConaughey.
Tatum, Olivia Munn, Joe Mangianello and others from the cast shot exteriors at Wilson’s Bar on 4th Street (filling in for the movie’s “Club Xquisite”), outside a Tierra Verde home, on the Pinellas Bayway Bridge, at Caddy’s on the Beach and at the Three Rooker Bar, a heavily vegetated sandbar two miles off the beach in Tarpon Springs (the latter was shot the first day, with McConaughey, and was the Oscar-winning actor’s only locally-shot scene.