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Florida’s bizarre old tourism films, explained

Local chamber of commerce films lured visitors with sandy beaches, mermaid circus shows, cobra milking and more.
Beckley Films camera crew films footage for a promotional movie in St. Petersburg Beach. Bill Beckley produced several films for the St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s, including "The Adventures of X-14" and "Unusual World of Florida."
Beckley Films camera crew films footage for a promotional movie in St. Petersburg Beach. Bill Beckley produced several films for the St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s, including "The Adventures of X-14" and "Unusual World of Florida." [ FRED PARRISH | Times (1964) ]
Published Oct. 20, 2020
Updated Oct. 21, 2020

The story starts with an alien.

A shaggy, one-eyed creature has landed to spy on the people of St. Pete Beach. It watched the humans skimboard along the shoreline, sit poolside and glide across the gulf in powerboats. It follows them as they visit museums and play golf. It transforms into a kitten, then a pelican, then a porpoise, to blend in.

A frame of an alien character from "The Adventures of X-14," a 1965 short film produced by Bill Beckley for the Florida Development Commission and the St. Petersburg Beach Chamber of Commerce.
A frame of an alien character from "The Adventures of X-14," a 1965 short film produced by Bill Beckley for the Florida Development Commission and the St. Petersburg Beach Chamber of Commerce. [ State Library and Archives of Florida ]

That’s the plot of a 1965 film commissioned by the St. Petersburg Beach Chamber of Commerce called The Adventures of X-14. The tale of a shapeshifting alien is like the many postwar tourism films: designed to show off Florida’s pristine beaches and whimsical tourist attractions.

For decades, local municipalities poured money into hiring filmmakers to create short films like this. Travelogues were filmed in Florida, then sent off to Northern TV stations to lure viewers down to the gorgeous, sun-baked South.

These bizarre old Florida promos show a snapshot of what cities used to look like. But we can learn from what they included — and who they left out.

Let’s take a trip back in time, for better or worse.

The title frame from the 1965 short film "The Adventures of X-14."
The title frame from the 1965 short film "The Adventures of X-14." [ State Library and Archives of Florida ]
• • •

In the 1980s, David Shedden was a graduate student at the University of South Florida. One day while working part time at the library, he found a pile of rusty tin cans in the corner. He realized he had stumbled on a time capsule — dozens of St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce films from the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Shedden spent the next year sifting through the old films, finding survivors among those that had crumbled over time from heat, humidity and rust from the metal cans. Once he found a 16-millimeter film projector to borrow, he finally was able to see the images from the past.

A travelogue is essentially an infomercial with an entertaining bent, explained Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida’s Special Collections.

“It wasn’t just a host standing there telling you things. They would show you,” he said. “It would be a highlight reel and it could be anywhere from five minutes to half an hour. Some of them were really elaborate and had stories and everything. Some of them were much more simple.”

Florida’s early travelogues were pioneered by the Frohocks, a husband and wife duo who teamed up on St. Pete’s first promo film.

In 1937, Joe Frohock, the St. Pete Kiwanis Club president, traveled to Billings, Mont., to visit Kiwanis International president George Snell. The pair decided to make and exchange films about their own cities. Frohock got $200 to make a St. Pete film from his club and wrote a script for Fun in the Sun.

The 15-minute silent film was sent to the Kiwanis clubs in Billings with a narration script for a local club member to read. It was such a big hit that clubs in other cities wanted to see it. The warm reception prompted the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce to create an entire promotion department in 1939. Frohock was named director.

Photographs of Joe and Joan Frohock from a 1953 St. Petersburg Times article titled “Salesmen for Sunshine.”
Photographs of Joe and Joan Frohock from a 1953 St. Petersburg Times article titled “Salesmen for Sunshine.” [ Times (1953) ]

His wife, Joan, learned how to operate the movie projector while he read from a script to narrate the footage. The couple traveled to 22 states that summer to show off St. Pete’s scenes. Then they repeated the process with a second film, Life Under the Sun, in 1940.

“William Davenport, who was the head of the Chamber of Commerce at that time, claimed that St. Petersburg was ‘the first resort city in the world to tell its story through the medium of television,’” Shedden said.

Before television was widespread, travelogues were shown in private screenings, like Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, or played along newsreels in small theaters.

As television became more widespread in households following World War II, St. Petersburg sent copies of films to television stations across the country. Most stations were small, Shedden explained, with little content to air. After live programming, stations played tourism films as public service programming.

“Film was a whole new kind of visual universe,” Huse said. “This is a way to draw people to your location.”

After airing on television, copies of the tourism films were often passed to schools across the country. Local historian Gary Mormino remembers watching sunny scenes from his Illinois classroom.

The Florida Development Commission and Florida State Advertising Commission, predecessors of Florida’s Division of Tourism, would go on to produce a number of films for local municipalities. New filmmakers emerged, like Burrell Smith, who created short pieces about spring training and greyhound racing, and Bill Buckley, the producer behind The Adventures of X-14.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, television had taken hold of America and almost every household had one, Mormino said. Tourism films continued to pop up in broadcasts.

Dozens of shorts boasted about Florida’s weather, with titles like Sunny Skies, Liquid Sunshine, Sunny Journey and Christmas in the Sun. There were films about the zoo and the county fair. One of the most popular films, Sunny Days, follows two characters named Ma and Pa Sawyer as they leave the chilly North behind for a blissful retirement in St. Petersburg. Some had their own jingles, like the 1970s short When You Need It Bad We’ve Got It Good.

Watching in 2020, the films function as a window to the area’s past. You can see the way the streets looked, how people dressed, what there was to do. There’s St. Petersburg’s long-gone green benches. The sponge docks at Tarpon Springs. Cuban bread and cigars in Tampa. The same themes show up over and over again: Sunshine. Citrus. Baseball.

There were also several things missing.

“These portraits of St. Petersburg and Florida are really whitewashed,” Mormino said.

“They’re obviously ignoring the Black community, who can’t sit on the green benches. They’re ignoring impoverished areas of St. Petersburg. Interestingly, in Adventures of X-14, no old people were shown. It’s always young people.”

Related: St. Pete’s iconic green benches: Their legacy is more painful than you think

“Definitely it’s going to be very white, very middle class,” Huse said. “Because that’s the people they are trying to reach.”

• • •

Shedden had the films transferred to videotape and later DVD so they could become part of a permanent exhibit at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Today, many travelogues can be viewed on the Florida State Archives website, floridamemory.com, or on YouTube.

There’s Care and Feeding of a Mermaid, a 1961 film that shows how women became Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids that breathe, smile and perform underwater, and Have Circus, Won’t Travel, depicting a circus-themed underwater mermaid performance at the park.

Ski Champs in Action, a film from 1958, stars Cypress Gardens water skiers coasting across the water in matching outfits. The city of Tampa’s Buccaneer Conquest! features Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla firing cannons and invading the Hillsborough River on pirate ships in the 1950s. Unusual World of Florida, filmed in 1964, shows gator wrestling, swamp buggy racing and cobra venom milking.

And, of course, there’s The Adventures of X-14, perhaps the strangest film made for the St. Pete Beach Chamber of Commerce. The chamber hosted an “Adventures of X-14 Dance” in January 1965 to celebrate the release, featuring orchestra music and “out of space” decorations.

For Shedden, now the special collections librarian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg library, the films still play an important role.

“I used to say that they were created to sell St. Petersburg," he said. “But now they are helping to preserve the history.”