Shortly after World War II, a 130-person production crew from Warner Brothers Pictures arrived in Naples, Florida, having arrived to shoot Everglades action scenes for their feature-length thriller, Distant Drums, and, in so doing, increased the sleepy fishing village’s population by nearly ten per cent. I arrived in Naples as a Yankee child two years later. Though the Warner stars and film crew unit had vanished, the place was still abuzz.
You see, Gary Cooper, the “world’s most handsome man,” had walked among the natives and, they were certain, things would never be the same.
Twenty-five years afterward, I returned to nearby Fort Myers, Florida after living and working in Texas. Having never quite forgotten the fuss that the Naples citizenry (read, women) had made in Naples decades earlier, I drove to Naples and began to research Hollywood’s momentous visitation. After discovering in microfiche archives an odd but intriguing coincidence concerning two female Warner extras—they were, apparently, sisters—I was inspired to write a novel about two fictional sisters I very well may have known.
Sunny Side Up! to be released in March of this year, is the resulting lighthearted, retro-romance based on those fleeting days in Naples during which Hollywood actors, administrators and technicians haunted its restaurants, bars and environs, set in the imaginary town of Vireo, Florida.
From the Introduction of Sunny Side Up!
Per the old, Collier County News, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday morning in April of 1951, Hollywood arrived in little Naples, Florida. A shining caravan of buses, vans and equipment trucks arrived that day to conclude the shooting of Warner Brothers Pictures’ feature-length adventure film, Distant Drums.
Not much more than a semitropical fishing village on Florida’s lower Gulf Coast, sleepy Naples discovered itself host to a “company of 130 actors, cameramen, and technicians.” (The 1950 US census credits Naples with 1,465 full-time residents; thus, the arrival of the huge production crew accounted for a nearly 9 percent increase in Naples’ population.)
Soon after Warner Brothers’ arrival, the News reported that director Raoul Walsh stood on a canopied hotel porch in town and welcomed nearly one hundred “Neapolitan” males—farmers, fishermen, clerks—who had answered the movie-maker’s call for “rugged extras,” would-be soldiers, scouts, and Seminole Indian warriors anxious to appear in the film for the opulent sum of fifteen dollars a day.
At roughly the same time, coincidentally, a film crew from Warner’s Hollywood rival, Paramount Pictures, also came to Naples to shoot a 10-minute, Technicolor short film (all traces of which appear to be lost to posterity) entitled, I Cover the Everglades.
In Sunny Side Up! that Paramount project has morphed into a short, travel documentary touting fictional Vireo, Florida and its spectacular flora, climate and growing enclave of super-wealthy residents who had begun to winter in the lavish waterfront development, Royal Quay, much like the real millionaires who, after World War II, flocked to Naples’ exclusive harborage christened Port Royal.
Though memories of the Korean War, three-cent postage stamps and bountiful off-shore mackerel runs survive to this day in Southwest Florida, they often pale beside the energy and fascination once evoked by remembrances of the breathtaking five-weeks during which a Hollywood film crew and Gary Cooper himself, “the world’s handsomest man,” descended from the Olympian heights of Beverly Hills to comingle with mortals in Naples on the Gulf.
To the delight of every local who saw (or claimed to see) Gary Cooper in the flesh, Cooper portrayed Captain Quincy Wyatt in Distant Drums, slogging through nearby swamps and swales for cameras by day and, it was irresponsibly rumored, haunting local bars and the municipal fishing pier by night.
Based on events of the 1840s Second Seminole War, Distant Drums featured only two female actresses, Mari Aldon and Angelita McCall. The Collier County News reported that Aldon and McCall’s action doubles were Florida girls named Peggy Ann Mixon and Margie Mixon Alday, from St. Petersburg.
The fictitious sisters Emma and Myra Rosenquest in Sunny Side Up! owe nothing to Peggy Ann and Margie, who may or may not have been sisters, other than their gratitude for the inspiration provided the author by their common, Mixon, name.
Though none of the characters in Sunny Side Up! portray real people, Myra, Emma and their fictional family admittedly derive many of their quirks, mannerisms and biases from the author’s frenetic relatives who lived and worked in his grandfather’s six-unit motel and restaurant in Naples in the early 1950s.
Keller’s Diner was located on Highway Forty-one between 9th and 10th Streets in Naples, on Fifth Avenue South where the Tamiami Trail turns east toward Miami. The diner was razed years after the movies arrived and was replaced by a new structure housing its successor, Baroni’s Restaurant. Later still, another restaurant Southwest Floridians may remember, St. George and the Dragon, occupied the same building.
Nothing remains of the original 1950s site. Asphalt has replaced the old pier-and-beam motel that housed too many Kellers. Also gone are the property’s countless stray cats and random, weed-like profusions of wild dill, citrus, banana and papaya trees, a flourishing vegetable garden and Grandpa Keller’s tiny, prized patch of impractical Zoysia grass (over which he hovered continually in hopes of keeping it green).
Though this story’s accounts of Warner Brothers’ activity in fictional Vireo are somewhat faithful to the company’s actual pursuits while filming in Naples (as reported in the microfiche archives of what eventually became the Naples Daily News), some circumstances have been gently warped and others wholly contrived not only for the greater cause of entertainment but also to indulge the author who, as a six-year-old Yankee newly-arrived in the semi-tropics, witnessed the afterglow of Warner Brothers’ brief invasion of Naples two years after the whirlwind had passed.
Sunny Side Up! will be available in March, 2017
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Read a sample chapter.