Friday, April 19, 2019

The Louisville Film Industry and "Grizzly"

Poster for 1976's "Grizzly."
WARNING: No bourbon content.

I moved to Louisville from Columbus, Ohio, in February of 1978. I moved there for a job, at a local advertising agency. My job was to write and produce television and radio commercials for the agency's clients. Most of the television commercials were shot at the local television stations. When we made filmed commercials there was a local filmmaker we used, we also worked with people in Nashville. We had some clients in New Orleans and worked with some production companies there as well.

Louisville always had a small community of people who could crew such a shoot on a freelance basis. There was also a small community of actors and models, almost all part-time, who we used as talent. I learned about many of these local resources from my bosses, the men who had run the agency since the 1950s.

The group was small but capable, some were outstanding. We called it the Louisville talent puddle because it wasn't big enough to be a talent pool.

As I got to know people in that small community, I began to hear the name William Girdler, a filmmaker who had died about a month before I got to town. Just about everybody had worked with him or for him. One actor we worked with frequently, Charlie Kissinger, had parts in several of Girdler's films.

Girdler, I learned, was a Louisville native who had started his production company, Studio One Productions, while in his early 20s. Right out of the box he was making low-budget features. The first was "Asylum of Satan" (1972), followed by "Three on a Meathook" (also 1972). Both films were shot in and around Louisville with local talent on both sides of the camera. In our small community, everyone had a Girdler story. No one seemed quite sure how he funded his productions but they all made money and after the first two, he was making films under contract to Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures.

Several of Girdler's films were knock-offs of current major studio hits, he made an "Exorcist" clone called "Abby" and a "Jaws" clone called "Grizzly." "Abby" was a 'blaxploitation' film, as was Girdler's next effort, "Sheba, Baby," an action film starring Pam Grier.

After "Sheba, Baby," Louisville's time as a feature film production center was done. Girdler went to Hollywood, but he took some of his Louisville crew along. I heard a lot of stories about "Grizzly." It was Girdler's biggest hit, a virtual scene-by-scene duplicate of "Jaws" featuring an 18-foot grizzly bear instead of a great white shark. The film's star, a real bear named Teddy, was only 11 feet tall, but he played big.

Girdler made two more features. He directed nine features in six years, writing three of them, before dying in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations for his next film. He was 30 years old.

I lived in Louisville for nine years, until 1987 when I moved to Chicago, but I have been involved with the city and with Kentucky ever since, mostly because of bourbon, but the area has so many fascinating stories. William Girdler's is one of them.

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