“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
—Chief Martin Brody, “Jaws”
One of the big topics of conversation when guests arrived at the Summer House this summer was, “Wow, there is so much news about sharks off the Cape. Do you guys have sharks at your beach?”
Sharks! Sharks! Sharks!
It’s like “Jaws” all over again. We assured our friends in Vineyard Sound that we may have sand sharks but no great white sightings.
I remember as a kid that summer of 1975 when “Jaws” came out lining up in front of the Elizabeth Theater on Main Street waiting with great anticipation to get in. The night I went was eerily foggy and you could hear the Nobska foghorn bellowing in the distance.
As we were all ushered into the theater, we were all in for a big surprise. As soon as the opening credits rolled and the John Williams score began, we were glued to the screen—not knowing that by the end of the movie our relationship with the water would be changed for that entire summer, having a profound impact on all.
For me, even swimming to the big green raft in front of the snack bar at Surf Drive would become a daunting experience, as I would scan the water for any possible fins before I took the fateful plunge.
As for all of us water-skiing, only the bravest would dare to jump off the side of the boat into the dark sound.
Leaving the yacht club in our Beetle Cats, we envisioned big fins swimming alongside us. And night swimming that had always been fun? Well, forget that, too!
The audiences at the Elizabeth Theater played to capacity that summer and they were not alone. The country was swept up in “Jaws” Fever.
The film was supposed to be released during Christmas 1974, but because shooting went way over schedule, the studios were forced to open it in early summer. In 1975, this was something studios never did. Only the “worst films” received summer release dates, as they knew everyone was outside enjoying the summer.
On June 20, 1975, “Jaws” officially opened in theaters. “Jaws” was so great, more than 67 million people went when it was first released, making it the highest-grossing film (over $100 million) and the first-ever summer “blockbuster.”
There were many local people we all knew who were extras in the movie. They got huge applause and their names would be yelled out when they appeared. Extras got paid $64 a day.
Being shot in the Vineyard made it extra-special as we all knew the locations so well. As kids, during trips to the island we would all jump off the “Jaws” Bridge. The familiarity made it that much more real and horrifying. We grew up in these waters!
In the film, Hooper, the Richard Dreyfuss character, mentions the actual shark attacks of 1916 off the Jersey Shore. Steven Spielberg mimicked those sequences of attacks in the movie: the swimmer in the surf, a dog, a leg of a man in a tidal slough and a boy being killed.
Speaking of the boy, here is a bit of “Jaws” trivia. Many decades later, Lee Fierro, who played the distraught mom, Mrs. Kintner, whose son, Alex, was killed by the shark, went into a seafood restaurant in Sandwich. On the menu, they had an “Alex Kintner sandwich.” She commented that she was the mother in the movie. As she left the restaurant, a man ran out after her. It was Jeffrey Voorhees, the owner of the restaurant, who played Alex, her son! They had not seen each other since filming the movie.
Part of the reason the Vineyard was picked for Amity Island was because being 12 miles out to sea the sandy bottom was 30 feet deep and it allowed the mechanical shark to function.
Before “Jaws,” the average number of visitors to Martha’s Vineyard was 5,000. After “Jaws” it jumped to 15,000.
To this day, it is always a fun summer movie night to gather around and watch “Jaws.” For me, it is always best on a foggy night, as the foghorn at Nobska blows just like the first night I saw the film in 1975.
Peter Benchley wrote the book “Jaws” that inspired the movie. Mr. Benchley passed away in 2006, but for many, many years before that he became an advocate for sharks, a misunderstood species.
When the film came out shark frenzy ensued. Writers have long depicted sharks as the ultimate evil of the sea. Mr Benchley stated, “Since the movie there are more and more young people that want to study sharks and understand them. As knowledge has grown with study, there is less impulse to go off and kill them.”
He blames the media for sensationalizing sharks as a destructive scary species. “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today, sharks don’t target human beings and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”
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This column is dedicated to my brother Bill and his friend Duncan who, since seeing the movie in 1975 at age 12, still know every line of Quint and Hooper 45 years later and, yes, every little song, also.