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Legends of Tom Petty: Uncle Earl’s Tale
By Tom Nordlle
Applause — January 25, 1990
Maybe you’ve heard the apocryphal tale of 10-year-old Tom Petty seeing Elvis on a movie set in Ocala — as Tom tells it, an exposure to rock ‘n’ roll cool of sufficient magnitude to focus his entire being on musical pursuits.
The story’s true. In the summer of 1961, Gainesville filmmaker Earl Jernigan worked as a prop man on Elvis Presley’s ninth film, Follow that Dream, which was shot entirely in Florida. Jernigan’s wife Evelyn is Tom’s aunt, on his mother’s side. Mrs. Jernigan thought Tom and his kid brother Bruce (about four years ago) might enjoy the spectacle as the crew filmed Elvis “robbing” the Commercial Bank and Trust at 203 East Silver Springs Boulevard in Ocala, 40 miles south of Gainesville.
Earl Jernigan was only too happy to grant APPLAUSE an exclusive interview, which will commence momentarily. First, a little background on Follow that Dream: It was Elvis’ first comedy, released by United Artists in March, 1962. The film was directed by Gordon Douglas, written by St. Petersburg resident Richard Powell, and starred Elvis, Arthur O’Connell, Anne Helm, Joanna Moore, Jack Kruschen and Simon Oakland. The title was changed several times, from Pioneer, Go Home to Here Come The Kwimpers (which Elvis hated) to What a Wonderful Life to Follow That Dream. Unlike many Elvis pictures, there was no soundtrack album, although one song, “Sound Advice,” appears on the 1965 LP Elvis for Everybody.
The plot has Elvis as Toby Kwimper, the guitar-pickin’ eldest son in a vagabond family who squat on government-owned beach-front land in an unspecified southern state, set in the 1940s. The state has trouble evicting the plucky Kwimpers, and before long, mobsters move in next door and open a tax-free casino, which Toby unwittingly blows up at the end. For a Presley film, it’s pretty funny and intricate, and the scenery will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the gulf coast.
Jernigan describes Elvis just as you’d expect him — polite to a fault, doing karate demonstrations on the set, usually surrounded by his squad of buddies — the “Memphis Mafia.” Once, during a lunch break in Inverness, Elvis was on the street throwing a football around with some guys. A large truck sat in front of a nearby theater. Elvis threw the ball over the truck, smashing a number of neon lights on the marquee. You know what happened — Elvis ran into the theater, apologized, and offered to “take care o’ ever’thing.” Jernigan also mentions a couple of favorite moments from the film: meeting supporting actors Roland Winters (who played Charlie Chan in some films) and Howard McNear (who was Howard Sprague on The Andy Griffith Show); and constructing a whirligig which can be seen atop the house in the film’s closing scene.
APPLAUSE: How did you come to work on Follow That Dream?
Jernigan: I was the business agent for (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) Local 360. I worked on over 25 features; I worked on the Sea Hunt series for three years. And when the production company, Mirisch, came into the area, they notified us and I provided a crew for them. I had 40 men working under me. It was a good, fast show. We worked, I think, close to 40 days on it. The production was bivouacked at Crystal River. Some of the things were done at Paradise Point, at Homossassa, in Ocala at the bank. The courtroom scenes were in Iverness, and the beach scenes with an old road out toward the Gulf (where Elvis catches a tarpon on a safety pin, among other things) were at Crystal River.
I was an outside prop man on that picture. That meant that I traveled all over the state of Florida trying to find things like quart milk jars, a kitchen pump, various things like that. We would go into stores and buy different items for (the Kwimpers’ different levels of habitation. You know, when they first stopped the car, they just dug a whole in the ground to cook on, then they made a little thatched lean-to, then a smaller house, then a five-room house at the end. For each of these progressions we had to buy different things to decorate — props.
Anyhow, we were working on the picture, and my wife usually visited me on the set when she could. Of course, Evelyn is Tom’s aunt, and she brought him and his brother. And I think some other kids came down, too. We’d been working on the bridge in Crystal River, and on this occasion we were in Ocala (Note: research suggests late July or early August as the time-frame).
APPLAUSE: Was the bank scene the only one that was shot in Ocala?
Jernigan: Mmm, yeah.
APPLAUSE: And was the entire bank robbery sequence shot there?
Jernigan: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Everything was done inside the bank. Oh, was it hot in there, because we had so many five-K (kilowatt) lamps and 10-K lamps in the place — of course, the picture was in color, so it required a lot of light.
APPLAUSE: What bank was it?
Jernigan: It was the one on Silver Springs Boulevard. I don’t know if it’s still there or not (it is; now it’s a Sun Bank). We did the stuff with Toby (Elvis) parking the car, letting Holly (Anne Helm) out. She goes in, and Toby drove the car up and found an empty parking meter and then he comes in, and all this was done right there outside the bank.
APPLAUSE: Did that all take just one day?
Jernigan: Yeah, the bank stuff was just one day.
APPLAUSE: And you figured since that was the closest the film would come to Gainesville, it would be a good opportunity for Tom to see the set?
Jernigan: Oh, probably so. I think Evelyn stopped at Silver Springs so that Tommy and Bruce could play around there on their way into Ocala, if I remember right. I think she’s got some eight-millimeter motion pictures of them playin’ around (laughs).
APPLAUSE: Was it your idea to have them come down?
Jernigan: No, I think it was his Aunt Evelyn. We enjoyed having some people down, you know, and I liked to show off what I was doing. By me being in the crew, I was album to get them past the (security) lines, into the area.
APPLAUSE: Do you remember anything specific about seeing Tom and Bruce on the set?
Jernigan: No, I really don’t, because I was busy in the rear part of the bank. The bank was like an arcade. It had front doors and back doors, and most of our work was in the back, because all the action was in the front.
APPLAUSE: From reading interviews with Tom, he made it sound like absolute pandemonium — Elvis drives up in the Caddy, girls faint…
Jernigan: It wasn’t quite like that. Elvis had this big white Cadillac, and I’m not sure how Elvis got to the set that day. I suppose he came up in the Cadillac with the rest of ’em (the Memphis Mafia). We had our trucks and everything out back of the bank, and that’s where the crew assembled. Elvis started from there. But as I remember, Tom was able to see him walking along checking the parking meters, to find one that had some time on it.
APPLAUSE: Did Tom and Bruce ever visit you on another location for another film?
Jernigan: No. Occasionally I would take Bruce, and I think maybe one time I took Tommy, when we were shooting football. They enjoyed Florida football, and of course this was not a major production; this was me shooting sports film of the Florida Gators. But I did take them for that.
APPLAUSE: Do you know if they saw Follow That Dream when it came out?
Jernigan: I’m sure they must have. The film premiered in Ocala, at the old Marion Theater, and I have some motion pictures I made of the premiere. I was representing Channel 12 in Jacksonville at that time, and I covered the premiere as well as wanting to see the activities. Unfortunately Elvis and all the stars were not present at the premiere. But we did have big lights and camers and all that stuff. Later the picture played here, and I’m sure (Tom and Bruce) must have seen it.
APPLAUSE: Knowing how things turned out for Tom, would you do it all again?
Jernigan: Yeah, I’d encourage it. It seems to have given him direction, and that’s important in a young guy’s life.
Earl Jernigan’s nephew, Tom Petty, will perform with The Heartbreakers Saturday at the O’Connell Center. Lenny Kravitz will open at 8 p.m.