Because of its popularity as a retirement destination, and the subsequent preponderance of an elderly population, sleepy St. Petersburg had a nickname: God’s Waiting Room.
Although the unfortunate tag is usually attributed to Johnny Carson, no one really knows where it came from.
Of course, nobody calls it that any more, as St. Petersburg has evolved into a center for business, bohemia and the arts.
But it was that God’s Waiting Room thing that drew 20th Century Fox Location Manager Bob Maharis to the city in 1984, to scout places to shoot the $17.5 million fantasy film Cocoon – in which three feisty old-timers discover a group of benevolent aliens who happen to hold the secret to immortality.
“It will photograph well,” Maharis told a St. Petersburg Times reporter on the first day of shooting, Aug. 20, in Williams Park. “It has a nice feel. We felt the old people here were more energetic. They ride bicycles, they go to the Coliseum to dance.”
Cocoon’s director was 30-year-old Ron Howard, four years out of Happy Days and fresh off box office gold with his third directorial effort, Splash.
In a 20th Century Fox “making-of” featurette, Howard, sitting on one of the Boca Ciega Bay sets, looks – and sounds – just like TV’s Richie Cunningham, his big-boy mustache notwithstanding. He was still many years from Apollo 11, The Da Vinci Code and his Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind.
“Often when you go into a town, it can be a little touch-and-go,” he says. “Particularly after a little while, they start to feel like the movie company’s running the town. That hasn’t occurred here. It’s been just the opposite. We’ve had nothing but cooperation.”
The cast included veteran actors Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Vernon, Maureen Stapleton and Jack Gilford. Wilford Brimley was the relative newcomer. He turned 50 during production; his brown hair and walrus mustache were dyed white to make him appear older.
Also in town for the duration were Brian Dennehy and Tahnee Welch (Raquel’s daughter) as aliens-in-disguise, and Steve Guttenberg as the charter boat operator who stumbles upon their secret.
According the story by David Saperstein (re-written for the film script by Tom Benedek), the space travelers – Antareans – have returned to earth to retrieve fallen comrades, who were left there thousands of years before, encased in protective cocoons in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
Dennehy, Welch and their crew hire Guttenberg’s boat to retrieve the cocoons, and deliver them to a secret swimming pool they’ve charged with “life force.” Suitably revived, the cocooned aliens will leave Earth when the mothership arrives to take everybody home.
Remember, this was just two years after Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (Early on, Howard jokingly referred to the story as Close Encounters on Golden Pond.)
Unfortunately for the Antareans, the house-with-pool they’ve rented for the mission is next door to a retirement home. And oldsters Ameche, Cronyn and Brimley have a habit of hopping the fence to take a refreshing swim now and again.
Suncoast Manor Retirement Community, the Pinellas Point facility filling in for the fictional retirees’ “rest home,” was miles away from the swimming pool, behind a Park Street mansion on Boca Ciega Bay. Such is the magic of Hollywood.
The filmmakers built a structure over and around the outdoor pool. This way, the trio of escapees from “Sunny Shores” could enjoy their swim away from prying eyes. And the Antareans’s business – hauling the cocoons from Guttenberg’s boat and sliding them into the pool – could go on in secret.
The trouble starts – the central plot is set in motion – when the old guys, swimming in the water with the cocoons and the “life force,” begin to feel energized, rejuvenated. Turns out the juiced pool water has a way of making old humans “young again.” It’s what Ponce de Leon had been looking for – the Fountain of Youth.
That’s essentially it. Although reviews were mixed (the ending both tugs on the heartstrings and stretches disbelief), Cocoon was the sixth highest grossing film of 1985. At 77, Don Ameche won an Oscar.
Cast and crew descended on the city and worked for 12 weeks. The Coast Guard gave the company use of several airplane hangars to shoot interior scenes. Except for several underwater shots (lensed afterwards in the Bahamas) and the Industrial Light and Magic sequences for the woo-woo ending, all of the film was lensed in St. Petersburg.
Looking at Cocoon now, it’s a treasure trove of 1980s St. Pete, from the downtown shuffleboard courts to John’s Pass, from the Snell Arcade to Northeast Shopping Center. The first scene captured on film, Aug. 20 at Williams Park, was a cutting-room-floor casualty.
A lengthy sequence was shot, in a single day, at the St. Petersburg Coliseum.
Cronyn, then 73, tried parasailing. Brimley caught a giant tarpon, fishing from the beach behind the St. Petersburg Hilton, where the cast was staying.
Vernon told the Times they all dined at Leverock’s, Giovanni’s and the Lobster Pot, and enjoyed the Don CeSar breakfast buffet.
Stapleton set up the board game Trivial Pursuit in the Hilton lobby and challenged all comers, sometimes playing until the wee hours.
Sundays were days off. They dropped by the Dali Museum (the first incarnation, on 3rd Street), Sunken Gardens and the soon-to-close London Wax Museum. Charter buses were organized for day trips to Busch Gardens.
Howard, his pregnant wife and their 3-year-old daughter, future film star Bryce Dallas Howard, visited Fort DeSoto.
Only Guttenberg and Dennehy, two of the youngest cast members, apparently sampled the nightlife. Silas Dent’s was a favorite. On Oct. 16, as the two were leaving Bennigan’s on 66th Street, driver Dennehy made an illegal U-turn. The officer who pulled him over administered a sobriety test, which he failed, and the Canadian actor spent the night in jail.
“The cop was very nice,” Dennehy told writer Steve Persall in 2010. “Poor Guttenberg was frantic about the whole thing … I should’ve let Steve drive and I didn’t because I’m dumb, Irish and willful.”
Because the state film industry at the time, such as it was, did not keep precise records of expenditures, there’s no dollar figure on the impact Cocoon made on the local economy during the 12 weeks of production in St. Pete. But it took in $85.3 million at the box office.
Thirty-six years after the events, only Brimley, Guttenberg and Welch are still with us. And Ron Howard, of course.
In that “making-of” video from ‘84, he reveals one of the more pleasant surprises about working on Cocoon:
“All of our background people, with small parts and extras, we’ve been able to cast here in St. Petersburg – with a lot of people who haven’t worked in pictures since the silent days!
“But it’s great; I get up and talk to them about it, and say ‘Gee, you’re doing very well.’ And they’ll say ‘Well, I know a little something about this. I was with D.W. Griffith in 1913.’ Or ‘I was making pictures in New Jersey as an extra, working as a kid, and I remember.’
“I ask them if it’s changed. And they say ‘No, it hasn’t changed too much.’”