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Dade City chosen as movie's backdrop

Filmmakers work on the movie Florida City today at a Dade City auto and parts shop they made look and feel like 1941.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000

DADE CITY -- "Hollywood East" is coming to east Pasco.

A cooperative film venture of veteran producer Paul Sirmons and Valencia Community College's film production department is scheduled to make an all-day stop today at Cecil and Sons Autos & Parts as they tell the story of pre-World War II Florida.

Dade City's small-town feel and Cecil Southern's vast collection of antique autos and parts lured producers to the 14th Street business as the Orlando-based operation films Florida City, a movie expected to reach local theaters in the spring or summer of 2001.

"One of the big challenges, the big difficulties, in shooting a relatively low-budget or medium-budget film that's also a period piece is finding all the things we need to make everything look like 1941," Sirmons said. "We have to find or create all the things we need to give the film that look. . . . There's nothing like this in Orlando; everything's been torn down and paved over."

With less than $1-million to spend on the movie, producers have had to work to find the right settings and props, said film publicist Steve Prevesk.

The crew got lucky when the Fantasy of Flight attraction allowed them to film at its 1930s-style airport last week, and they got lucky again when a location search turned up Cecil and Sons.

"Dade City happens to have this wonderful guy, Cecil, and he's just got tons of old cars over there," Sirmons said.

Robert Southern, a "Son" in the operation, said his family is pleased to be part of a movie, but not overly excited. Work will go on through the day as normal, he said. Southern said his father may appear as an extra, and Sirmons said he expected to ask Cecil Southern to drive one of his antique trucks in a parade scene in another Florida town later during filming.

"We're not the film stars in this," Robert Southern said. "It's the cars they want."

Cecil Southern, in business at the same location for 23 years, said he has watched with interest in recent weeks as student filmmakers "age" his old shed, painting on rust, hauling in old gas pumps and pulling vintage auto parts from the piles of supplies he has collected over the years.

"I just watch them," he said Tuesday. "I let them take out whatever they want."

Prevesk said Florida City will tell the true story of a series of disappearances in a small Florida town that led a police chief to discover Florida's role in the attack on Pearl Harbor and uncover evidence that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the sneak attack was coming.

Miami-based writers Stephen Bowles and Peter Zorn Jr. employed a variety of secret sources to piece together the story, according to news releases on the film.

During production, professional filmmakers and stars will work with Valencia students, who get real-life experience in exchange for their work. The film production program at the community college is aimed at turning out graduates who are ready to work in the central Florida film industry, Prevesk said.

Prevesk said that while more film and television production comes to Florida, it's still a long way from becoming a real mecca to the industry, but when that day does come, trained professionals will be available.

"The decisions in the industry, they're still made in Los Angeles," he said.

Sirmons, a native of St. Petersburg, has worked on such television programs as The Waltons, Quantum Leap, Falcon Crest and seaQuest DSV. Last year he filmed the movie The First of May entirely in Florida. Featuring Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Rooney and Charles Nelson Reilly, The First of May is set for release in theaters this summer.

In Florida City, Sirmons is working with actors Jeannetta Arnette, who has had roles in the recent movie Boys Don't Cry as well as The Deliberate Stranger, a television movie about serial killer Ted Bundy.

Sirmons also is working with leading man James Bates, a star linebacker on the University of Florida's 1996 national championship football team.

Florida City is directed by Ralph Clemente, who has led the Valencia Community College film program for the past eight years and pioneered the concept of putting students together with professionals on an actual movie instead of focusing on strictly student-produced works.

The film also stars actor Zen Gesner, who recently starred as Sinbad in the syndicated television show The Adventures of Sinbad and has acted in movies Kingpin, Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary and played the character Braden in the ABC soap opera All My Children.

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