Gasparilla Film Festival 2009: Bill Grefe
I have known Bill Grefe for close to ten years but in all that time we had never met face to face. We exchanged a few phone calls and plenty of E-mails, even a few letters, but we never managed to be in the same place at the same time. Last month, Mr. Grefe was honored by the Ft. Lauderdale Film Society with a screening of his film Mako: Jaws of Death. I had every intention of attending this event but when I finally navigated through their website to get the pertinent information, I was already committed elsewhere on that date. When I received word that he would be a guest of honor at this year’s Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa; I knew I had to be there.
When Andy Lalino passed the good news on to me that Bill Grefe would be following in the footsteps of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman (see Blood Bash in PCR #415: http://www.crazedfanboy.com/npcr08/retropcr415.html) as an honored Florida exploitation filmmaker this year, I had some major plans that needed to be revised. The 2009 event fell on the same Saturday as this year’s Megacon in Orlando. I had already made plans to attend Megacon, and hate to miss it, but since the Gasparilla event was at night, it wasn’t inconceivable to do both.
Cutting my Megacon / Orlando visit short, I left town after lunch and passed on most of the post-convention shopping we usually do while we are in the area. Having been out of town for work the week before, my wife Cindy was only too happy to meet me Saturday evening at a hotel in Tampa. Due to a communications error with Andy, I did not find out about a planned dinner with Bill until about an hour before it was to take place. Since I was in route from Orlando to Tampa at that point, I knew making the dinner was out of question. Unfortunately just about any pre-event plans were also out of the question due to traffic complications leaving Orlando and again entering Tampa. I ended up with just enough time to run to my hotel room, change clothes, grab my wife and head for Channelside where the event was being held.
After parking three blocks away and walking to the mall, Cindy and I got to the theater about ten minutes before show time and found Nolan, Chris Woods, John Miller, and Joel Wynkoop already waiting for us. We signed in and exchanged greetings with the gang before making our way to the front of the theater to hang out until the doors opened. Lonnie Dohlen, who had also made the run from Megacon earlier in the day, joined us there and Andy popped by to greet everyone before we went in.
There was no reception for Mr. Grefe as there had been last year and the event started with the film. Prior to the screening, Bill Grefe was introduced to the audience of about fifty film fans assembled. I took this opportunity to finally shake hands with a gentleman I have admired for many years and was surprised when he recognized me from a distance. Our exchange of pleasantries was brief though because the movie was about to start.
The film chosen for the screening was Death Cures of Tartu, a wonderfully campy reworking of the old Universal mummy movies by way of the Florida Everglades! The 1966 shocker stars Doug Hobart as a Seminole medicine man entombed in a cave deep in the swamp. When an archeology professor and his students disturb the burial ground, the irate Indian returns from the happy hunting ground to pound some palefaces. According to Grefe, this film came about because Thunderbird Films wanted a co-feature for his earlier film they had purchased, Sting of Death. After researching the market place they decided it would be more lucrative to fund a new film rather than buy an existing one.
Sadly this year’s presentation was done with a DVD and a video projector rather than the awesome 35MM print treatment we received last year. The image was soft and routinely sticky, the sound was tinny, and viewers got to look at a giant watermark from Something Weird Video in the lower right corner for the whole movie. If events like this one are carried over for future festivals, we can only hope this doesn’t happen again.
About fifteen minutes in to the screening, as I was finally relaxing for the first time in about fourteen hours, I decided to head out to the snack bar and see what I could find to drink. As I exited the theater, I noticed Bill Grefe holding court with a couple of Gasparilla staff members on a bench in the lobby. When I asked him about his early exodus, Bill replied that he had already seen the movie and couldn’t handle the awful sound. I told him I had seen it too so we sat in the lobby for almost an hour talking film and reviewing some of the memorabilia I had brought with me. As I sat there enthralled by stories from the glory days of exploitation filmmaking, I realized that the trek I had made to get to this point was more than worth it.
About ten minutes before the end of the picture, Bill and I reluctantly returned to the theater and took our seats. Following a horror themed short film, St. Petersburg Times movie critic Steve Persall hosted a question and answer session between Grefe and the audience. Unfortunately, no one had thought to secure a microphone for the duo and the crowd had thinned to no more than about twenty people. After a few brief questions and difficult to hear answers, the remaining Fanboys congregated at the front of the theater with Mr. Grefe in a less formal but more enjoyable atmosphere.
I took a few photos with Bill Grefe and the gang and visited for a little while but I knew it was time to make a retreat. Not relishing the three block trek back to my vehicle at 11PM at night, I made my apologies and Cindy and I headed out. We did make one stop in the theater lobby to talk to Andy’s wife Sandy but then it was back to the hotel and some well deserved sleep. I am extremely grateful to Andy, Film Ranch, and the Gasparilla Film Festival for making 2009 the year I finally got to meet my long time pen pal Bill Grefe. I sincerely hope that events like this one will be continued as part of the festival but hopefully future ones will be better organized like the inaugural year.