@1999 The Gainesville Sun
On a lonely stretch of State Road 40, the pine forest gives way to sawgrass and sabal palm as the Gulf of Mexico draws near. A concrete bridge spans the Withlacoochee River, angling slightly left before the road flattens out again and continues toward the big water. Eleven miles to the south, the twin towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant loom like smoking concrete volcanoes. These days, nobody comes out here much, except fishermen looking for a boat ramp or teenagers looking for privacy.
For six weeks in the summer of 1961, however, this place had everyone’s attention. It was here that Elvis Presley, at the height of his fame, brought a whole Hollywood contingent to make a movie called Follow That Dream. Before he left, Presley had Levy County, and much of North Central Florida, all shook up.
Eugenia Burns was 14 and lived in Cedar Key; her mother volunteered to drive her and some friends the movie set. Off they went one morning to Yankeetown, four in the car with Mom at the wheel, followed by a load of girls in another car. “We drove up there, and they must have been between takes,” Burns recalls. “We could see Elvis, and my mother cautioned us about being real quiet and not screaming and yelling. Well, he looked up and he saw us, and we were being calm and everything.
“We went to the end of the road and turned around, and we were driving real slow, and when we came back to the set he had walked up to the side of the road as if he was waiting for us. My mother stopped the car, and he reached into the back seat where my friend Susan was sitting, and he squeezed her hand. She wet her pants, she was so excited. He reached in and squeezed my hand, too.
“The other carload of girls were screaming and yelling and that kind of stuff,” Burns says “and he wouldn’t even go near their car.”
Based on the novel Pioneer, Go Home by Richard Powell, Follow That Dream is a comedy, the ninth of Elvis’ 33 movies. He stars as Toby Kwimper, the eldest child in a hillbilly family that “homesteads” on a remote spit of land, much to the consternation of the state government. There are only five Presley songs on the soundtrack.
The film – which was almost titled Here Come the Kwimpers – was budgeted at $1.5 million, one-third of which was spent in Florida. Presley’s salary at the time was $500,000 per picture. “Since the book was set in the Fort Myers area, they wanted to capture the Florida scenery,” explains Gainesville writer Steven Opdyke, who’s working on a book about Elvis movies. “They were looking for a river, and they started down along the coast from Fort Myers on up and found everything too populated.”
Heading west along State Road 40, the filmmakers discovered what they were looking for at Bird Creek Bridge, at the tip of marshy Little Pumpkin Island. Producer David Weisbarth’s location scouts wound up in the Yankeetown office of realtor Ollie Lynch. “They came in and asked who owned that land,” Lynch says. “And I told them that I did.” Most of the three-acre set where they made the picture, Lynch recalls, was sawgrass, almost totally submerged at high tide. “They didn’t pay us anything for the use of the land; they just paid us in fill dirt,” he explains. The Florida Development Commission spent $8,000 to haul in sand, plant palm trees (all of which died before filming was completed) and re-surface the asphalt in front of the set. In the movie, it looks like a tropical beach on the side of the road.
The filmmakers were not permitted to remove a power pole near the bridge; they simply “dressed” it as a palm tree, complete with attached fronds. It’s clearly visible in Elvis’ first “fishing” scene.
Lynch became the moviemakers’ local liaison and arranged for extras. “I was in four different scenes, three of which were cut out before they showed it,” he chuckles. “They used to come into my office and say ‘Mr. Lynch, we need 10 men dressed like fishermen tomorrow morning.’ So then I’d get on the phone and call people. They got paid $10 a day and lunch, if they were there for the lunch hour.”
Presley was put up at the Port Paradise Motel in Crystal River. The star had his 20-foot Century Coronado speedboat docked behind the motel. Reportedly, he rarely ventured out in Crystal River or the nearby towns, preferring to take his boat out into the Gulf and waterski with his co-star, Canadian actress Anne Helm, and members of his omnipresent entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia. “They basically stayed in their rooms,” says Opdyke. “They had their meals delivered. Anne Helm later said that they would do Dexedrine to stay up, and if they wanted to go to sleep, Elvis would give her Valium.”
Omnipresent too, on and off the set, was Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker. “The colonel,” Opdyke reports, “was here for the duration, and several people have said that he stuck pretty close to Elvis.” Parker arranged several “publicity stops” for his client; Presley was photographed at Weeki Wachee Springs, and crowned the first king of Tampa’s Latin Festival (the crown was reportedly lost in all the confusion). One Sunday, Presley spent hours signing autographs at a park in Brooksville (according to Opdyke, Parker exacted a hefty fee from the town council for the Elvis appearance).
Mary Ellen Boyette, the 1961 Chiefland Watermelon Queen, visited the set and posed for photos with the star and a very large melon. “He was such a nice person, but I was just completely tongue-tied through the whole thing,” she says. “But it’s one of my treasured memories.”
On July 15, the production moved to Ocala for the first of four days’ shooting at the First Commercial Bank on Silver Springs Boulevard. Hundreds of spectators stood in a roped-off section; many more watched from the library steps across the street. Elvis’ dressing trailer was parked alongside the bank, in the drive-in lane.
“All the girls and boys were watching, hoping for a glimpse of him,” remembers Joanne Parramore, who was 15 at the time. “And he’d stick a hand out, or he’d stick a foot out, and everybody’d scream.”
A police escort would rush Presley inside the building when he was needed. Parramore’s mother worked at the bank, so Joanne and a friend were allowed inside to watch the filming – so long as they remained quiet and out of the way. “When they took a break, he came over to us,” Parramore recalls. “I distinctly remember him saying something like ‘Boy, these lights sure are hot.’ He was very nice and signed the back of a deposit slip.
“My mother was real impressed with how polite he was. They had lines for the lemonade, or water or whatever they had to drink, and he’d stand in line. He wasn’t the first guy in line.”
With members of her family, nine-year-old Shirley Darnell of Gainesville stood in the crowd outside the bank, after a morning’s fun at Silver Springs Park. “We only really saw him from a distance,” says Darnell, who’s now Capt. Sadie Darnell of the Gainesville Police Department. “My sister and I stared at his chair, the stereotypical movie chair with the name on it, and watched for when he’d come and sit in it.”
Darnell’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, had a job as assistant set decorator and prop man on the film. “I remember we were very proud that our uncle was involved in such a major production,” she says.
In the family group that day was Darnell’s 10-year-old cousin, Tom Petty. “My sister and I weren’t all that impressed about Elvis being there, but we knew that Tommy was very excited about being a part of what was going on,” Darnell says. “He was absorbing it all. It was one of the few times I ever saw him kind of serious.”
Joe Stewart, then 21, had come down from Gainesville with his sister and sister-in-law, and he brought his 8-millimeter movie camera. “Word on the street when we got there was that Elvis and Anne Helm were having lunch at the Marion Hotel on Magnolia Street,” Stewart says. “Locating the hotel, we went around back and discovered Elvis’ white Cadillac parked at the loading ramp. We camped outside the fence surrounding the area, and were lucky enough to catch Elvis and Anne on film as they came out the door.”
In Stewart’s dim, scratchy home movie Presley – still dressed in his blue Toby Kwimper shirt and jeans – feigns surprise as he and Helm, accompanied by their driver, spot the crowd and climb into the Caddy’s back seat. The next shot shows the big car passing through downtown Ocala on its way back to the Commercial Bank. “The temperature actually reached 102 degrees before the day ended, Stewart says, “but it did nothing to disperse the crowd outside the bank.”
The film’s finale was shot in the county courthouse in Inverness, with dozens of local people hired as extras.
Presley left Florida after six weeks in front of the camera; the film’s interiors were shot later, on a California soundstage. Within a month he was knee deep into his next movie, Kid Galahad.
Follow That Dream had its world premiere April 11, 1962 at the Marion Theatre in Ocala. Presley was in Hawaii, working on Girls, Girls, Girls, but he sent a telegram thanking everyone for their help on the picture. The movie opened a week later in Gainesville, at the Florida Theatre, and shortly thereafter around the country. It was, at one point, the No. 2 box office attraction according to Variety. “It generally got good critiques,” Opdyke says. “Variety equated it to Lil’ Abner and The Real McCoys. The Hollywood Reporter said Elvis did well playing comedy.”
It’s not much of a movie, but among Elvis aficionados it’s considered one of his better vehicles. “Most of his fans said, all we wanted to see was Elvis three times a year, performing new material,” reports Opdyke. “We didn’t care what it was, we just wanted to see him performing.”
Thirty-eight years after Follow That Dream came and went, Ollie Lynch still owns the land by Bird Creek Bridge. It’s overgrown with trees and weeds now, but he can still find the place, just off the set, where Presley’s personal trailer was parked.
“My mother was up in her 80s, and she’d always read how wonderful Elvis was to his mother,” Lynch says. “So she thought he was pretty fine, and she wanted to bake him a pie.
“I pulled up there and went around the corner, and Elvis was just coming out of the trailer with those hoody-looking friends that he traveled with. I told him ‘My 80-some year-old mother’s out here, and she’s got a pie for you.’ And he said ‘Well, bring it around.’ He was very gracious.
“So I got mother out with the pie and took her around there, she gave the pie to him and he handed it to these guys and said ‘Take that in there; we’re gonna have some of that real soon.’ And then he leaned over and kissed mother’s cheek.
“And I swear she didn’t wash her face for 3o days after that.”