Burt Reynolds and the ‘Miracle at the Truck Stop’


JUPITER, Fla. – During the late 1970s and early ’80s, whenever he appeared on the Tonight Show, Burt Reynolds rarely failed to mention Jupiter, where he lived and was planning to build a “top quality” theater.

Johnny Carson always seemed to think he was kidding.

Groundbreaking for the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training, on five acres at A1A and Indiantown Road, took place on May 19, 1978.

“What I’m trying to do is pay back the people here who have been so loyal to me,” Reynolds, who’d grown up in nearby Riviera Beach, told reporters. “There’s a real need for a theater here. This has been a dream of mine for a long time.”

Reynolds was, at that moment, the top male box office star in America. His Hollywood buddies, who knew of the actor’s dedication to home and hearth, never doubted his sincerity.

Actor Charles Nelson Reilly, a friend from Reynolds’ days in New York theater, remembers his first trip to Jupiter. Reynolds drove Reilly and Dom DeLuise down Indiantown Road – one unpaved lane a mile east of the U.S. 1 truck stop – and stopped the car.

“There was a mound, and he said ‘I’m going to build a theater here,’ and we all thought he was crazy,” Reilly says.

Still, Reynolds persevered and the $2 million Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training made its debut Jan. 30, 1979. Reilly takes credit for coining the phrase “Miracle at the Truck Stop,” which they had printed on bumper stickers.

“When it opened,” Reilly recalls, “the L.A. Times said ‘Burt Reynolds Institute? What’s next, the Anson Williams Conservatory and the Sonny Bono Academy?’ And he got so depressed.”

Still, no one had seen anything like it in Jupiter, and the opening season was sold out months in advance.

“I want a theater for people who haven’t seen live theater, and at prices they can pay,” Reynolds said before the opening. “I imagine we might have as 75 percent of the audience guys who climb out of pickups. I hope we’ll also get knowledgeable aficionados of good theater.”

First-night tickets cost $18.95; all other shows were $14.95. Season tickets were sold for $74.75 per person.

To enter the 400-seat auditorium, audiences passed an elaborate fountain, and a commissioned statue of Reynolds by Miami sculptor Manuel Carbonell.

“Vanities,” directed by Reynolds and starring his then-girlfriend Sally Field, came first. The cast also included Tyne Daly and Gail Strickland. Reynolds and Field next co-starred in “The Rainmaker,” also directed by Reynolds. Karen Valentine (of TV’s “Love American Style”) starred in “Born Yesterday,” followed by Stockard Channing in “Two For the Seesaw.”

“I’ve made friends who grew up in theater,” Reynolds said that first year. “They’d like to do it again, but they just don’t want to get clobbered by the New York critics. They want to have fun.”

Indeed, the first seasons were jammed with A-list actors Field, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, Farrah Fawcett (making her stage debut in “Butterflies Are Free”), Richard Basehart, Carol Burnett, Jose Quintero, Robert Urich (Reynolds’ old footbal pal from Florida State University), Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis, Jim Nabors and a then-unknown John Goodman.

“I would just ask the actors ‘What’s your favorite play?’ or “What’s your biggest challenge?’,” Reynolds wrote in his autobiography. “Singers want to act. Actors want to sing.”

Reilly himself replaced an ailing Channing in a production of Ernest “On Golden Pond” Thompson’s “Answers,” a collection of three one-act plays about friendship. He played opposite Reynolds; the other vignettes were acted by Ned Beatty and Charles Durning, and Kirstie Alley and her husband Parker “Hardy Boys” Stevenson.

Joshua Logan came to Jupiter to direct Martin Sheen and Simon Oakland in “Mister Roberts”; Sheen’s son Emelio Estevez, yet to make his mark in the movies, also was in the cast.

Later, a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Reynolds, starred Sheen, Andrienne Barbeau and Sheen’s other son, Ramon Estevez – later to be known professionally as Charlie Sheen.

Reilly lived on and off at Reynolds’ three-story home on Jupiter Island for 17 years, teaching daily at the institute and working on shows, behind the scenes and on the stage.

It was, he says, a wonderful time for everyone associated with the place.

“I lived on the beach, and you could go out and look left and right, and not see another human being on Jupiter Island,” Reilly says. “We would have parties, and nobody would go in the water. Reynolds had all these towels that were the size of blankets, and hats for the sun.

“But there was so much to do in the theater, with the teaching and the kids and the mainstage plays, that you never thought of the beach. It was rather sad in a way, but there was so much to do.”

The audiences ate it up, and, Reilly says, the performers were only too happy to receive such genuine appreciation from a theater-starved community.

“There were always elderly people, and sometimes someone would get sick in the middle of a matinee and have to go to the hospital,” he remembers. “And I would go into the ambulance with them and say ‘Don’t worry, it’s not that good a show. You didn’t miss that much.’”

After two seasons, several rows of seats were installed to augment the dinner tables, and the venue’s name was changed to the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre.

There were three private dining areas overlooking the auditorium, for VIPs. “They had waiters and waitresses,” Reilly recalls. “It was like you’d died and gone to heaven. The china and the tablecloths were unbelievable.”

Often, Reilly or another actor would return to Los Angeles after many months in Jupiter, only to be called back in a pinch.

One year, living at the beach house, Reilly was being visited by actress Julie Harris, who was laying low after an illness, and veteran character actor Vincent Gardenia, who was at the time teaching at the Reynolds Institute.

“Brian Keith was making a movie, and it got delayed, so he couldn’t come do the show he was scheduled to do, whatever it was,” Reilly recalls.

“We were to start rehearsals Tuesday, and we had nothing. No attraction. So I said to Julie and Vincent, who were sitting in the kitchen, what about ‘Death of a Salesman?’ and they said OK, that’s fine. And we did it, and it was amazing.

“It was the best ‘Death of a Salesman’ I ever saw, not because I did it, but because of the quality of the acting.

“One critic in the area wrote that it was like ‘having Christmas and your birthday on the same day, with no limits to the gifts.’”

“Death of a Salesman,” Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater, 1981: l-r Julie Harris, Vincent Gardenia, James Nemec and Kenneth Kay.

The Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training put on lunchtime matinees; classes were every day. Each season, 10 theater students were awarded scholarships.

Among its successful alumni are singer Lisa Felcoski, who does TV jingles, and stage actress Anastasia Barzee, recently seen opposite Kevin Kline in “King Lear” on Broadway. According to Reilly, Reynolds was fiercely dedicated to teaching. “I never knew who that person was on the posters and in the movies,” he says. “Because he was always this wonderful man.

“He and I would teach at midnight, because he liked to teach then. I mean, no one teaches at midnight. But they’d stay till 4 a.m., then we went to the truck stop and had breakfast.”

Sadly, the dream ended in 1989; Reynolds’ financial woes cost him the facility, and it spent the next 10 years under several owners who tried to keep things going, but for one reason or another couldn’t rekindle the old magic.