RETURN OF THE GILL MEN! Series: REAL FLORIDA:[SOUTH PINELLAS Edition]
|JEFF KLINKENBERG. St.
Petersburg Times St. Petersburg, Fla.: Nov 23, 2003. pg. 1.E
Times Publishing Co. Nov 23, 2003
There should be a soundtrack
for this story about the Gill Man. The soundtrack should be scary and dramatic
- maybe with a creaky zither oooweeeoooweeing in the background only to be
replaced, at the unbearably tense moments, by braying trumpets. Well, if
not trumpets, something really loud, a chorus of out-of-tune violins, a kettle
drum and perhaps a threatening oboe.
When Creature From
the Black Lagoon was filmed in North Florida a half-century ago, Hollywood
took its horror movies seriously. Color? Who needed color? The cigar-chomping
moguls knew cheapo black-and- white would suffice. They knew a good story
when they heard one, maybe a story about an expedition gone awry, with
idealistic scientists butting heads with a venal businessman who wants
to exploit the exciting discovery. Of course, there had to be a beautiful
swimsuit-clad woman in peril - in peril not from some computer-generated
yawner of a monster like in horror films today, but a flesh-and-blood
creature in a sturdy rubber suit that looked half human, half ugly toad.
And, for heaven's sake, the monster had gills. Terrible, slimy, pulsating
BAH BAH BAAAH!
What you just heard
were violins and kettle drums and oboes tuning up. It's the cue that
Ricou Browning is emerging from the water.
Ricou Browning is
73 but still looks scary. He has dark, penetrating eyes and big arms
and shoulders. He doesn't smile much. In fact, if he dislikes a question
he'll tell you. If he takes an instant dislike to you - that can happen
- he will not spare your feelings.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ricou Browning played
the Creature 50 years ago this fall. That is, he performed as the Creature
when the Creature was swimming underwater at Wakulla Springs, a few minutes
from Tallahassee. There was another actor who played the Creature during
out-of-the-water scenes filmed in Hollywood. We will explain the two-Creature
controversy a little later. For now, let us concentrate on Ricou.
His head just popped
out of the water in the swimming area at Wakulla Springs State Park.
His broad shoulders come next. Then emerges his goose-bumped torso -
the water is 72 degrees, after all. It's the Gill Man! And he's coming
this way. Will he be in a good mood?
BAH BAH BAAAH!
"Water's cold," he
says amicably. "But it feels refreshing."
What a relief. A good
"This place, it's
still beautiful," he says. Behind him, vodka- clear water boils out of
the deepest, most powerful spring in North America. "I don't think it's
changed since we made the movie."
Dan Wester, director
of the Tallahassee Film Society, conducts what he calls the Creaturefest
every fall. At 39, Wester wasn't around when Creature From the Black
Lagoon was made, but it remains among his favorite horror films, up there
with those other (and more famous) Universal International offerings,
Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman.
"Creature was the
last of the great monster pics," Wester says. "It really holds up as
Creature enjoys a
large cult following among fans of the genre. Internet pages are devoted
to it. Grown men and women, including some who appear perfectly normal,
collect Creature movie posters. A few brave souls manage to make a living
selling Creature toys and photographs.
Several hundred descend
on Wakulla Springs for the annual Creaturefest weekend. They come to
meet kindred souls and to visit the Florida shrine where the coolest
scenes in the movie were filmed. Of course, they hope to meet movie stars,
at least the ones who are still breathing.
Ben Chapman, who played
the monster out of the water, never misses one. At 75, he lives in Hawaii
and eats and breathes his most famous role. He has his own Web page -
it includes a photo of his Universal contract and his life's daily minutiae
- and likes to brag that he, and nobody else, deserves to be called the "original
creature." He's a staple at autograph shows all over the country.
Julia Adams, who played
the beautiful scientist Kay Lawrence, is a good sport, too. At 73, she
is still poised and attractive. In the old days, as a publicity stunt,
her studio insured her long legs for $500,000. Alas, they were hidden
by slacks whenever she emerged to sign autographs at Wakulla. The still
athletic Ginger Stanley, 72, who doubled for Adams in the spectacular
underwater scenes filmed at Wakulla Springs, is a regular at Creaturefest,
too. The Orlando resident persuaded her old friend Ricou Browning to
give it a try.
Browning, who lives
near Fort Lauderdale, had never attended a Creaturefest before. Oh, he's
not embarrassed about making a horror movie - he made an honest $500
a week as Ben Chapman's double. It's just that he is bewildered by the
Cult of the Gill Man: all those fans who argue the merits of a horror
movie in Internet chat rooms and who take sides about which actor, Browning
or Chapman, should be credited as the "ultimate Gill Man."
As fans step forward
to take his photograph, he says, "I'm not sure why I'm even here. Maybe
it'll be fun. Maybe it won't."
Another reason for
indifference might be his personality - a little prickly - and his own
In the 1940s, Browning
helped start the tourist attraction and starred as a "merman" at Weeki
Wachee. During its 1950s heyday he was public relations director at Silver
Springs, where he also performed as the underwater Gill Man in the movie
sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us. In Walt
Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he played an anonymous diver in
Nemo's crew. In Miami, he invented Flipper, writing the movie screenplay
and directing the popular television show. He directed the underwater
scenes in the films Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.
"Only Sean Connery
can be James Bond to me," he says. "He's a very nice man, and he became
a very good diver."
Yet it's his role
as the Gill Man that seems to fascinate. He's always asked why he thinks
the movie remains so popular.
"I have no idea," he
Perhaps it's the Beauty
and the Beast angle, a fan suggests. You know, like in King Kong.
"Could be," he says. "Well,
listen, I need to go take a shower."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Before he can escape,
a couple of guys approach him. They say they are documentary filmmakers
from New York. If you were making a movie, and looking for actors to
play the roles of New York filmmakers, they'd be perfect. They're tough-talking
let's-show-the- Southern-country-bumpkins-what-we'reLine is overdrawn
-all-about-in- your-face kind of guys. In the Florida heat, one even
wears a leather jacket.
They tell Ricou they
want him to give him the opportunity to be in their upcoming documentary
masterpiece: Fifty Years of The Creature.
"Get out of my face
with your (censored) New York ways," hisses Ricou Browning.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
The censored word
isn't obscene. It's just the kind of unpleasant description you might
hear in The Sopranos.
"I KNOW somebody in
the Mafia," says one of the trembling-with- rage New Yorkers a little
later. "If Ricou Browning said that to him, Ricou would be dead right
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ricou Browning was
born in Fort Pierce, grew up in Jensen Beach and went to Florida State
University. He got a job lifeguarding at nearby Wakulla Springs, which
was managed by a Florida legend named Newt Perry, who taught everybody
who was anybody how to swim and dive and breathe air through a hose.
Later, on Perry's
behalf, Browning scouted out a pond on U.S. 19 in Hernando County. "I
dove in and it was full of abandoned cars and refrigerators," he says, "but
we cleaned it up." Mermaids soon were wowing tourists at Weeki Wachee.
As a merman, Browning helped train them to breathe out of hoses and dive
deep without breaking their eardrums. One pretty blond girl, just out
of high school, hated the part of the show when she had to dive to an
underwater cave. That's because a huge catfish lurked inside the mouth,
"One day the catfish
just disappeared," the girl - Creature From the Black Lagoon's underwater
love interest Ginger Stanley - says five decades later. "Ricou took care
of it. Ricou was the kind of guy who took care of problems."
When Hollywood scouts
came to Florida in 1953 to look for an underwater location for an upcoming
horror movie, Ricou was hired to show them around. He took them to Wakulla
Springs, where the Hollywood big shots fell in love with the primeval
forest and river. They wanted to test their underwater cameras and asked
him to go for a swim. They were so impressed with his prowess they offered
him the role as Ben Chapman's underwater Gill Man double. Browning got
them to hire his mermaid pal, Ginger Stanley.
They did two memorable
scenes. In one, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) dives into the river for a
dip. Of course, it's Ginger Stanley who actually is doing the swimming.
Stanley performs a beautiful underwater ballet, her standard Weeki Wachee
act. Unknown to her character, a few feet below, lurks the Gill Man.
Browning mimics her every graceful move.
It wasn't easy. Browning's
costume, which cost $18,000, was heavy and cumbersome. "Like swimming
in an overcoat," Browning says now. He wore no goggles or mask, yet he
had to look through the eyeholes of the costume. "It was like peeking
through a keyhole, only everything was blurred."
At least he didn't
worry about drowning during the ballet sequence. In another scene, the
Gill Man tucks the terrified Stanley under his arm and dives for a cave
50 feet below. "We had to hold our breaths and clear our ears without
letting the audience know we were clearing our ears while I swam straight
down," Browning says. "When we got into the cave, two assistants swam
over with air hoses."
"We did it in one
take," Stanley says, "didn't we, Ricou?"
"One take," he says. "Thank
God. We could have drowned."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ken Ratliff never
misses a Creaturefest. He'd driven all night from Kentucky. "I loved
the Creature movies," he says. He has also figured how to make a buck
out of his passion. He sells monster toys at festivals and mall shows
throughout the South. "I've got boxes and boxes of monsters all over
my house," he says. "My wife says, 'Please, at least don't store them
in the bedroom.' It's an antiaphrodisiac."
Fans flock to his
booth. They flock to booths selling old horror movie posters (Invasion
of the Saucer Men) and vintage magazines (Fangoria). Most fans, everyday
folk, could be your next-door neighbors, maybe even your kindly aunt
and uncle. Others could be cast members from Night of the Living Dead.
They are partial to black clothing, leather especially, and have a love
for tattoos and body piercings. "I came all the way from Gulfport, Miss.," declares
Nick Leon, pierced eyebrows undulating like an eel. "I loved the Creature.
It's a pure horror movie. Good monster."
Johnny Gilbert, 38,
is a titan in the Cult of the Creature. The Arizona resident makes his
living managing parks. But his passion is the Gill Man. "I was one of
those kids who put together those plastic models of movie monsters," says. "I
never missed the midnight horror movies on television. Those old monsters
were our Pokemon. I grew up, but now I'm having my second childhood."
He calls himself "The
Arizona Gill Man." He buys, trades and sells Gill Man items, everything
from photographs to copies of the screenplay. In his spare time, he sculpts
statues of the Gill Man and sells them for $85 a pop.
As he sells his statues,
photographs and candles, Ben Chapman - who jealously guards his reputation
as "the original Gill Man" - is developing a cramp in his writing hand
signing autographs. He has stacks of his own photograph and stacks of
old posters. As he signs, light glints off his pinky ring and its creepy
Gill Man face.
"When the picture
was finished," Chapman says, "the studio asked the major stars to pose
for publicity photos. I was the one who posed as the Gill Man. Just me.
If you have a photograph signed by someone else it is of no value."
Ricou Browning has
his own photographs to sign. They may not have been the official studio
version, but they are stills from the movie, the underwater scenes. And
he has a couple of personal photos showing him posing in his costume
with the monster's head under his arm.
He signs those.
"Uh, Mr. Browning,
I loved you in the movie," an awe-struck fan tells him. "I'd love to
buy a couple of photographs and get your autograph."
"Sure," Browning says. "They're
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ben Chapman is a tall
guy with a rubbery face. Born in California, he grew up in Tahiti before
moving back to San Francisco after high school. Dark, handsome and athletic,
he found work as a nightclub dancer. One day he dropped by Universal
Studios in Hollywood to say hello.
"Somebody told me
to stand up so I stood up. They told me to turn around and I turned around.
The next day they called me and offered me the job of the Gill Man. I
said, 'What Gill Man?' "
Made in 19 days, the
film was released in early 1954. It garnered good reviews, though the
New York Times sniffed, "It's a fishing expedition that is necessary
only if a viewer has lost his comic books."
But it was popular
with audiences. Creature From the Black Lagoon, made on a $600,000 budget,
grossed $2-million by year's end.
"They just don't make
movies like that anymore," Chapman laments. "It was a scary picture,
but it was wholesome and there was a real story. Not like the garbage
today. You know, I just canceled my People magazine. It's full of the
same no-talent celebrities every issue. And you know what? Actors today
look like hoboes. Actresses look like hookers. You want to ask them,
'Don't you have a bleeping mirror?' "
Popular culture terrifies
an old Gill Man.
"Who are those two
you can't escape? Jen? Ben?"
He's talking about
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.
"In 15 years nobody
will remember them," Chapman declares. "But after 50 years, Creature
From The Black Lagoon still rocks."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ben Chapman and Ricou
Browning met for the first time when their costumes were being developed
in California a half-century ago. They hadn't seen each other since.
Dan Wester, the director
of the sponsoring Tallahassee Film Festival, looks around nervously.
"Given all that talk
on the Internet about who's the real Creature, we don't know if we're
going to have a fistfight," he says.
No punches are thrown.
They greet each other, shake hands, maybe not warmly, but politely. No
talk about "who's the real Creature" comes up.
"I think a lot of
that talk has been stirred up by the Swimming Creature versus the Walking
Creature fans," Wester says. "All I can say is some fans take this stuff
A news photographer
shows up. It will be a historic moment of sorts: the first photo of the
two Gill Men together. But neither Gill Man looks enthused. They follow
the photographer outside, anyway.
They amble to the
spring, where the camera man has erected a life- sized cardboard cutout
of the Gill Man. The camera man wants his guys to pose next to it, maybe
shake hands or peer around it.
Ben Chapman, natural
ham, gets into this new role with a mighty grin. Ricou Browning? Well,
Ricou Browning is Ricou Browning.
"You want us to do
what? Pose with that cardboard cutout?" he asks. "You must be into hokey
The photographer smiles
Browning poses grudgingly.
"If that picture appears
in the paper I'll eat my hat," he says.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
Jeff Klinkenberg can
be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8727.
Gill Man trivia
The director of Creature
From the Black Lagoon was Jack Arnold, who made a number of classic science-fiction
films, including The Incredible Shrinking Man and Tarantula.
The movie was originally
released in 3-D.
The Gill Man, according
to legend, can survive out of the water for only a few minutes at a time.
His blood composition
is 35 percent white corpuscles or "halfway between marine life and mammal," according
to Ben Chapman, who played the Gill Man in the out-of-the-water scenes.
Neither Chapman nor
his swimming double, Ricou Browning, received a credit in the film. "That
was the idea of a publicity guy," Chapman once told a film historian. "He
didn't want the audience to see in the credits that the Creature was
a guy in a suit. He wanted 'em to look for that credit, not find it,
and say to themselves, 'They didn't say who played the Creature. They
must've got a real one!' "
The Gill Man is taller
and more powerful than a human.
The Gill Man isn't
violent by nature. But he plays rough when bothered.
The human side of
him wants a girlfriend, who unfortunately turns out not to be a fish.
Lock up your daughters: The Creature falls in love with scientist Kay
Lawrence (played by Julia Adams).
In Revenge of the
Creature, the second film of the series, Clint Eastwood played a bit
part as a lab technician.
The voice of the fan
The first showing
of Creature From the Black Lagoon was a sneak preview in Los Angeles
on Jan. 7, 1954. Audience members were asked to write comments about
the movie on index cards. Here are a few of them:
"I'm a bundle of nerves,
I'll never go swimming in a lagoon."
"As a result of this
picture we have ulcers."
"The spookiest picture
I have ever seen and screamed throughout."
"It's not the kind
of picture a man of my age likes to see."
"Music crescendo a
bit too obvious as crisis approaches from time to time."
The critics have their
VARIETY: "The below-water
scraps between skin divers and the prehistoric thing are thrilling and
will pop goose pimples on the susceptible fan."
HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: "A
good piece of science-fiction of the Beauty and the Beast School. . .
. Lovely Julia Adams reveals a gorgeous pair of gams."
on science, the picture is long on excitement."
NEW YORK TIMES: "This
adventure has no depth."
Gill Man on the Internet
Creaturefest Web site
Ben Chapman's Web
site address is www.the-reelgillman.com
Ken Ratliff's Web
site address is www.monsterlandtoys.com
The Web site for soundtrack
samples from Creature From the Black Lagoon is www.mmmrecordings.com.
First, click on "creature" at top left, then "audio samples" at the bottom.
Ricou Browning, 73,
left, and a smiling Ben Chapman, 75, pose with their alter ego. Browning
performed underwater as the Creature during filming in 1953. Chapman
was the Creature in the other scenes. Fans still debate which actor should
be credited as the "Ultimate Gill Man."
Julia Adams, 73, who
played the leggy scientist Kay Lawrence, the object of the Creature's
affections, signs autographs during Creaturefest.
Malori Langston, left,
and fans wait for autographs. Several hundred visit Wakulla Springs for
the annual Creaturefest weekend. Langston, who works in the park's gift
shop, was getting autographs for fellow employees.
Ricou Browning in
costume during filming of Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The Creature (Ben
Chapman in this photo) never got the girl (Julia Adams) in 1954's Creature
From the Black Lagoon.
From the Black Lagoon, theatrical poster; Ricou Browning, 73, and Ben
Chapman, 75, pose with their alter ego, the Creature.; Malori Langston
and fans wait for autographs at the annual Creaturefest weekend in Wakulla
Springs.; Ricou Browning; in costume during filming of Creature From
the Black Lagoon.; Julia Adams, 73; The Creature (played by Ben Chapman
in this photo) approaches Julia Adams in a scene from 1954's Creature
From the Black Lagoon.; Photo: PHOTO, Universal International; PHOTO,
Photo by REGGIE GRANT, (3); PHOTO; PHOTO, Universal International Pictures