Real Florida: The return of the Gill Men!
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published November 23, 2003
WAKULLA SPRINGS - 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 gills!
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 mood.
"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 Picture offerings, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman.
"Creature was the last of the great monster pics," Wester says. "It really holds up as a film."
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, collectCreature 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 minutia - 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 rich resume.
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 says.
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're-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 now."
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, looking menacing.
"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 (Fangora). 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 $20 each."
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 Studio 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 very seriously."
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 stuff."
The photographer smiles nervously.
Browning poses grudgingly.
"If that picture appears in the paper I'll eat my hat," he says.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
- Research librarian Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.
- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 say.
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."
Photoplay: "Short on science, the picture is long on excitement."
New York Times: "This adventure has no depth."
Gill Man on the Internet
Ken Ratliff's Web site address is www.monsterlandtoys.com
The Web site for soundtrack samples from Creature From the Black Lagoon is here.
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