R.I.P. Don Barton (1930-2013)
In the early morning hours of June 8, 2013, the Florida film industry lost one of its pioneers, cult movie fans lost an influential director, and I lost a dear friend when Don Barton passed away at the age of 83. His passing was the culmination of several months of declining health following years of respiratory troubles but everyone who knew him was still hoping he would pull through. People the caliber of Don Barton are rare commodities these days and losing one of them is tragic no matter how unavoidable the circumstances.
Don Barton was best known to most people as the producer and director of the 1971 creature feature ZAAT. While the film involved many talented people, Don Barton was the one who gave it life and took the risk of producing a feature film on his own in North Florida. It was a gamble that ultimately paid off, it would just take the rest of his life for it to do so.
By the time they embarked on ZAAT, Barton Films was already a well-established company with fifteen years of experience producing industrial films and commercials for everyone from the Gator Bowl to the State of Florida. In the process of creating his film business, Barton also helped to build the film industry in the state and worked alongside many influential Florida filmmakers. In 2009, he received a life time achievement award for his efforts from the Florida Film Industry and was recognized by the City of Jacksonville for his significant contributions to local business.
After cutting their teeth on industrial films and commercials, Barton Films moved on to documentaries. They won awards for films like Design for Winning, Jacksonville Story, Man Returns to the Sea, Suwannee Adventure and Florida on My Mind, the latter starring Leif Erickson, an actor with a huge list of credits including a four year run on the popular High Chaparral television series. The documentaries eventually lead to a television pilot called Seminole about a South Florida Sheriff who used an airboat to dispense justice in the swamp. The well-produced pilot, which starred Luke Halpin from Flipper, was described by Barton as “Gentle Ben without the bear”. Unfortunately it was rejected by the television networks but it did ultimately lead to ZAAT.
Looking to take the next step into feature films, Don Barton and his staff wisely decided on a horror film and were inspired by a recent nature article describing the threat of Chinese walking catfish that had been introduced into the Florida ecosystem. Staff writer Lee Larew and the multitalented Ron Kivett concocted a story around this idea that involved a mad scientist mutating himself into a human-catfish creature and polluting the local rivers and streams in a maniacal quest for revenge on his peers who had scorned him. The film was put together from start to finish in 1970 and ready for an early 1971 release on a budget that Barton claimed was less than what Ricou Browning once told him it cost Universal to make the suit for Creature from the Black Lagoon!
ZAAT had trouble finding a national distributor; perhaps due to its 1950’s sensibilities and lack of sex and violence that most horror films were exhibiting at the time, but Belton and Harry Clark of the Jacksonville based Clark Film Company gave it an impressive regional release that stretched from Arizona to the Virgin Islands. As the film was ending its slow but successful run a few years later, it looked like the national release would finally come courtesy of a group out of California called Capitol Films. They renamed the film Blood Waters of Dr. Z just to get the word blood in the title and changed the advertising campaign to an interesting but inferior image to the original. Unfortunately Capitol overextended their budget acquiring films and ended up going bankrupt right on the cusp of Blood Waters’release. This left most of the 35MM prints of the film trapped in a warehouse in California pending a bankruptcy hearing.
The Blood Waters debacle not only left Don Barton with a bad taste for feature films in his mouth, it also cost him money in legal fees defending his film against would be pirates who were distributing ill acquired prints of Blood Waters all over the world. He returned to making commercial films and eventually left the movie scene all together to become the Vice President of Marketing for St. Vincent’s Hospital.
I first met Don in 1999 when I was on one of my many quests for information on something that interested me. I was one of ZAAT’s target audience in the 70’s and had seen it at my local theater when I was six years old. The film made an impression on me and I never forgot it so when I found out it was made in my current backyard of Jacksonville I just had to know more about it, that lead me to Don Barton.
I had met several other people associated with the film by this point who all recommended I talk to Don. The one common thread I was starting to notice was that all of them had a great time making the movie and spoke very highly of him which was not typical of most low budget productions. After a few initial phone calls, Don invited me to have lunch with him at St. Vincent’s so I could get my poster for the film signed. It was here that I first floated the idea of bringing the film back and a short time later the ZAAT 2000project was born.
The next thirteen years saw ZAAT playing to a packed house of 900 at a gala re-premiere that included most of the surviving cast and crew, a limited edition VHS release, and finally, in 2012, a national release on DVD and Blu-Ray in a beautiful, newly restored version. In between their were over a dozen revival screenings both locally and across the country as older fans of the movie found it again and new ones discovered it for the first time. ZAAT was riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and broadcast several times on Turner Classic Movies. The film celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011 and there was even talk of a possible sequel.
It was a fun ride and I was honored to sit next to Don in the passenger’s seat. We shared many lunch meetings together where we discussed everything from actual business to movies in general and even politics and religion. Don was a quiet and thoughtful man who always put others before himself. As much as I admired and respected this, I also realized it was what put him at odds with the Hollywood system which is filled with unscrupulous sorts. I once told Don that if he ever wrote an autobiography about his years in the film industry, he had to call it Don Barton: To Honest for Hollywood.
In his final year, Don was reunited in Jacksonville with another Florida film legend, Bill Grefe, and actor Doug Hobart for a dinner I will never forget. Requests for screenings of ZAAT continued to come in even though Don’s health was preventing him from attending most of them. One that he did want to attend was part of the 75th anniversary celebration of Marineland which had been a major location in the film. It was scheduled on a double feature with another film starring the ZAAT monster’s distant cousin from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature. As the event grew closer, we knew Don’s declining health would not allow him to participate but Ron Kivett and I stepped up to represent him. Ironically, Don would leave us that same day but in a way I felt like he had made the screening after all.
Don Barton was a man who was loved by many and liked by almost everyone who knew him. He was a devoted husband to his wife Shirley for 57 years which is no small accomplishment these days. Together they raised a family of nine great children and he always made me feel like I was number ten. Don was the kind of person this world never seems to be able to get enough of and my heart goes out to each and every one of his friends and family who I know will miss him just as much as I will. It was truly an honor and a privilege to know you Don. The lights at the old abandoned research lab will never shine as brightly again.