The Boardwalk has attracted Hollywood for decades. There is a long list of movies, music videos, TV shows and commercials that have used the Boardwalk as a backdrop in various ways. The park appears most conspicuously in movies such as, Harold and Maude, Sudden Impact, Sting II, The Lost Boys, Chasing Mavericks, and the soon-to-be-released Bumblebee, which was filmed just last year.
One movie production stands out to me as the most unique by far. It included Academy Award and Tony Award winning actors, period set requirements, a unique set of extras for background shots, an admired original musical score and an exceptional filming schedule. It was an NBC made-for-TV project, nominated for 5-primetime Emmy Awards, and aired once on American television to decent critical reviews. As far as I know, there were theatrical releases in Britain and Australia, but none of consequence in the United States.
What am I referring to?
This picture was a re-adaptation of The Entertainer, an acclaimed British play and film of 1961 starring Lawrence Olivier. This 1975 remake starred Academy Award winner, Jack Lemmon; Ray Bolger, the scarecrow in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz in his first dramatic acting role in 50-years; Tony Award winning actress, Sada Thompson; and an up-an-coming actress named Tyne Daly. It was filmed the first week of August 1975 – at the peak of the Boardwalk’s summer season – and, to my recollection, the only major production ever to occur during summer months. Acclaimed composer, Marvin Hamlisch, (Oscar winner for the score to The Sting and the Way We Were) wrote seven original songs for the film and was co-producer of the project. In short, this was a big-time Hollywood production.
The storyline is set during the war year of 1944 and depicts a few days in the life of a middle-aged, mediocre and debt-ridden vaudeville performer, Archie Rice, (Lemmon) who hasn’t risen to the stature of his successful, retired, but medically ailing father, Billy (played by Bolger). Archie has cajoled his disapproving dad to come out of retirement to help salvage his struggling career. Thompson plays Archie’s wife Phoebe and Daly, his daughter in wartime service, Jean.
It is a very, very rare exception today for Boardwalk management to allow filming during any of the ‘Walk’s scheduled operating days. These productions can be extremely disruptive to normal operations. In fact, most film companies nowadays prefer closed sets to control their activity anyhow. Not for this movie, though! Here’s why it stands out to me.
After considering four other sites for its production, the Robert Stigwood Organization settled on the Boardwalk and was granted permission to prep and film between July 25, 1975 and August 11, 1975. Primary activity occurred August 4th through 8th. A technical crew of about 60, reinforced by various prop, equipment and actor-support vehicles, traversed to and fro streetside along the Boardwalk. Unsuspecting visitors easily saw that Hollywood had come to the Boardwalk! Several off-Boardwalk properties were used as well.
Background, B-roll and incidental shots were generally filmed in the mornings and in roped-off sections of the Boardwalk in the afternoons, under the public’s gaze. Primary all-day filming that week occurred for two days in front of the old Marini concessions (cigar & news stand, taffy, cotton candy and apples store, and beach sundries and dress shop) and the colonnade entrance to the Casino Arcade (from the old Entry 1 to the arcade entry). Some filming activity occurred on the beach. My family’s black & white ice cream concession next to the Haunted House was used for a short segment one day. The Ferris Wheel, beach bandstand and Giant Dipper were featured in prominent scenes.
I remember one early morning shot that required the Boardwalk be crowd-worn. So, I provided the prop master with popcorn, cups, napkins, straws and other “garbage” that he could scatter over a section of Boardwalk recently cleaned ahead of that day. Cotton candy props were needed for the foggy morning shoot. The damp air caused the floss to bead up and melt, which necessitated a constant stream of fresh floss for each shot.
The big filming day was Thursday, August 7th. Press releases called for 500 local extras to come to the Cocoanut Grove at 7am “dressed to the teeth in their best 1940s finery.” Period swim suits and summer casual wear with baggy pants were the order of the day. Plenty of folks responded. My mom and little sister Margie took part in the excitement and were selected. Some impressively attired men arrived with their 1970s hair much too long for a 1940s look. Some of those “budding young stars” gingerly submitted to having their locks shorn by a barber on set. Others could not bring themselves to that indignity, so a frantic call was made to the active military at Fort Ord, and several dozen off-duty, fuzzy headed soldiers showed up to balance the look of a summertime mob. The extras were not paid, but given discounted Boardwalk tickets for their efforts. Many more gawkers showed up, too, in their contemporary “Pepsi generation” duds. It made for quite a mix of beach attire that day.
The set decorator was challenged to transform the present-day Boardwalk overnight to replicate WW2 years – right in the heart of tourist season. He camouflaged current equipment “for the war effort” using patriotic rolls of red, white and blue crepe paper. Some skill games had the faces of Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini superimposed on targets. Posters with war bond messages hung in strategic places. 1944 prices were added to some food concession signage. The use of strategic camera angles made the effect come off quite well. The Boardwalk’s long-time and eminent promoter, Skip Littlefield, was quoted, “I was here in 1944 and I remember what it was like. What the movie people did to this place could have fooled me – and that’s going some!”
Boardwalk management may have second-guessed their decision once the scope of the filming became apparent, but a lot of early morning scenes proved less disruptive to operations than had been imagined. Responding to the filming notoriety, many more guests came to the Boardwalk to behold the week’s happenings – much to management’s delight.
Seaside Co Vice President, Charles Canfield, and General Manager, Dana Morgan, were invited to the Dream Inn every evening to view the “rushes” of the previous day’s filming. As prospective viewers, they were asked for their assessment for how the scenes played out while the producer, director and actors reviewed and critiqued the un-edited footage.
The Entertainer was the NBC-TV movie-of-the-week on March 10, 1976. I remember watching the flick as many locals did and was impressed by how well the Boardwalk appeared as a backdrop to the story. Sadly, it never re-aired as far as I know. No copy of the movie resides in the Boardwalk’s archives. Our attempts to find a copy have thus far been unsuccessful. If anyone has an idea on how to secure one, please let us know.
‘till next time,