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Island sinks teeth into Jawsfest

30 years after hit movie made waves, Vineyard to celebrate starring role

EDGARTOWN -- Of all the movies that a resort island might want to promote, ''Jaws" is probably not the one. The tale of a shark gone wild on vacationing swimmers is hardly the stuff of a chamber of commerce's dream.

But 30 years ago, Martha's Vineyard was the setting for the great fish tale. And now, with brave face and eager anticipation, the island is preparing for a full-blown celebration of the anniversary of the movie that made millions afraid to go back in the water.

The island has planned a three-day party, dubbed Jawsfest. From June 3 to 5, stores will sport Amity Island signs used during the shooting; tourists will be able to visit the sites of key scenes from the movie, which will be marked on a map; ''Jaws" will be screened on the beach at Owen Park; and a clambake, sans shark, will be served up in Vineyard Haven. Through it all, ''Bruce on the Loose," a replica of the model of the great white shark used in the movie, will show up at various events.

Some 25 members of cast and crew plan to return for panel discussions and autograph signings. The film's biggest names -- director Stephen Spielberg and actors Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider -- will not be there. But Peter Benchley, who wrote the book the movie is based on, will be there, as will Will Pfluger, currently the Edgartown assessor, who on camera in 1974 told Dreyfuss's character, ''Yeah, I got a paddle."

Pfluger, now 52, is among dozens of locals who were recruited to be extras in the movie. It is a factor that helps make the 30th anniversary an islandwide reminiscence. Just about every longtimer has tales to tell of the summer when Hollywood came to Nantucket Sound and Spielberg, who was then 27, was known as the kid making a movie plagued by a mechanical shark.

For a certain set of film buffs, ''Jaws" was a seminal event, a thriller that set the standard for action blockbusters to come, including ''Star Wars." Its fans are loyal: To this day, locals who acted in the film get knocks on their doors from autograph-seekers.

''There's just a cult of 'Jaws'-a-philes," said Edith Blake, a longtime Vineyard resident who photographed the filming and later wrote a book about it. ''I meet sensible people who say they didn't go swimming for years."

The celebration has drawn interest from fans the world over, some of whom are compared with Trekkies, diehard fans of ''Star Trek," for their fervor for all things ''Jaws." Visitors are flying in from as far away as Australia and Europe to mark the anniversary of a film that for some marked the beginning of a love of movies that bewilder, terrify, and inspire.

Stephen Boyd, 41, and his brother, Michael, 38, of Edinburgh will make the transatlantic trip.

''Our trip is like a pilgrimage," Stephen Boyd said in a telephone interview. ''I want to see everything, every part where the movie was filmed."

The island has never embraced the movie as it is planning to for the 30th anniversary. The 25th anniversary passed quietly. But this time, chamber officials are reveling in their island as the setting for a movie that on some levels is a send-up of summer island culture, featuring a mayor who insists on keeping beaches open for the big Fourth of July weekend, even as more victims fall prey to the shark.

''When the idea was conceived, we did think: Will people associate Martha's Vineyard with shark?" said Rebecca Rabeni, the program director for the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. ''But then we thought: There's sharks everywhere. People understand that it's a movie."

The chamber is intent on capitalizing on the event and allowing no one else to use the Jawsfest name.

''Oooh, that's not licensed," said Susan Sigel Goldsmith, the cochairwoman of the festival, as she spied a T-shirt touting Jawsfest hanging from the ceiling of the Edgartown Hardware store, the location of the scene where Scheider's police chief and his deputy buy supplies to make signs warning Amity Island bathers not to swim.

Universal Studios, which made the film, is helping to promote Jawsfest, though it is not a participant in the event. On June 14, Universal plans to issue a 30th anniversary DVD, which includes two hours of footage on the making of the movie.

Luckily for Jawsfest organizers, the island remains much the same as it was three decades ago. There are more houses on the island, some owned and rented by celebrities including Carly Simon, Meg Ryan, and Ted Danson, who have flocked here in recent years, according to Rabeni. But most houses are not visible from byways, leaving the landscape a tableau upon which visitors can imagine the movie's making and plot.

Many of the weekend's events are free and open to the public, including the screening of ''Jaws" on the beach. Others, like the clambake and the ''Amity Ball," will be open to purchasers of $75 tickets or holders of weekend passes, which cost $495 for a gold pass. Platinum passes, at $695 a pop, are sold out. Chamber officials say that so far they have sold some 400 tickets to events.

Plenty of local businesses are getting in on the celebration. John Potter, who operates a charter boat out of Oak Bluffs, has planned sunset cruises to movie filming sites; the Saturday night trip is already booked.

''I had no idea that people were so out of their mind about this movie," said Potter, who has fielded calls from Seattle, Los Angeles, Tampa, and Dublin.

Longtime island residents remember the filming fondly. But they also remember it as an introduction to the realities behind the magic of Hollywood. Chele Reekie, 45, an assistant administrator at Edgartown National Bank (Amity National Bank in the movie), was among the dozens of extras in the Fourth of July beach scene.

''We couldn't stop laughing when they'd say there's a shark in the water," said Reekie, who was 13 at the time.

The extras were freezing, she recalled. As the filmmakers struggled to make the balky mechanical shark swim, the extras were instructed to go in and out of the water repeatedly, all in pursuit of what she says many expected to be a phenomenal flop of a movie.

''We couldn't imagine it would be successful," she said, with a laugh.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

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