Uncle Gilbert comes to Little Rock

By Dennis Oxley

Not sure who brought up the idea of procuring a full size Creature from the Black Lagoon (CFTBL) for the Old State House exhibit “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” If I remember correctly, it was in a discussion with the client, Gail Stephens-Moore exhibit director. I ended up sending her some examples of Creature statues available. When she gave me the green light to get together some proposals from some sculptors, I was beside myself. This was the first bone fide time that my penchant for horror/sci-if film had truly intersected with my profession.

Just a smattering of background on The Old State House (OSH) in Little Rock… It was finished in 1842 to be the seat of government for Arkansas. It would be under siege by The Union Army during the Civil War. By 1912 it would give up it’s place as the seat of government, to become state offices, later a medical school, state police headquarters, after a major restoration in 1996 it was named an historic landmark in 1997 and then subsequently a state run museum. It is the oldest surviving state capitol building in the U.S. west of the Mississippi River. A grand building indeed.

Oxley Art Exhibit Group (OAEG) was fortunate to work on the temporary exhibit “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” (LCA!) set to have a grand opening (or ‘premier’) June 7th (it runs till 06.01.15). The exhibit features Arkansans evolved with film making and films produced here or with some Arkansas connection. Oxley Art’s contracted part was originally for some elaborate text panels, decals for the exhibit floor of likenesses of Arkansan Hollywood Walk of Fame stars, celebrity cut-outs, and large wall murals from old photos.

In talking about the exhibit with the client, Mrs. Stephens, it became pretty apparent that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about Arkansas’ connection with the movies. But there was one connection, one name, that I had heard of, but not really knowing her full story… Julie Adams. That’s right, before Princess Laya in the famous slave girl bikini from “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” (but way after the scantily clad Fay Wray in “King Kong” ’31) there was Julie (Julia at the time) Adams. Every kid, not just ‘geeks,’ had seen Julie, unknowingly swimming with the Creature in that well-fitting bathing suit… and squirmed a bit when he reached out with his scaly claw to just barely brush against her feet.

Publicity still from the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" 1954

Publicity still “Creature from the Black Lagoon” 1954

When we started searching for the right way to jazz up the exhibit with a life-size sculpture of The Creature, Mrs. Stephens told me that Julie was invited to the museums grand opening of the exhibit. REALLY?!?! Sheepishly I asked “uh, am I invited too?” “Yes, of course” said Gail. At that point I was having a time containing myself. Horror and sci-if movies make my world go round, especially the old ones. And to have this woman step right out of my past had me a bit star struck and worried that I might embarrass myself if I try and get an autograph. Didn’t want to come off unprofessional.

We looked at a couple of Creature sculptures/sculptors out there. My favorite was Mark Alfrey in California. He utilized the original Universal Pictures mold for the head, hands & feet attached to his custom sculpted body (the molds for the body appliances have been lost). Unfortunately, even after making some price concessions, his product was too expensive for the temporary OSH exhibit. In the meantime, Mrs. Stephens had seen a wildly painted (light green, gray & white with accents of red) fiberglass interpretation of the Creature on EBay. I contacted the seller directly (bypassing EBay, don’t tell anybody), The Painted Rhino (also in California), to see if there were more copies of the statue available and they said yes. After a few weeks of negotiation, we finally got a set price on what I was lead to believe was an existing piece.

The Creature we thought we were getting.

The Creature we thought we were getting.

Mid November 2012 and after getting a green light (and a state p.o.) and purchasing the statue through PayPal to insure some buyer protections (outside of protections available through my credit card account), all that was left to do was to wait. And wait. And nervously wait.

My total outlay on this item was enough to be nervous about, especially when after a few weeks (and the window of my buyer protections were running out), the vendor began being unavailable for phone calls, ignoring voice mails & emails. Of course, my mind started goring to a ‘dark place’, until finally they started responding back on December 4th with some puzzling info… They said they were waiting for the casting to get prepped for painting. WHAT?! Turns out we HAD NOT purchased an existing piece, but one was being created for us. At first I was worried about being misled, but then, I started thinking about that horrible paint job on the one we thought we were getting. I let the vendor know that I wanted to change the paint scheme to a more conventional one based on the 1950s advertising campaign… remember, “Creature/Black Lagoon” was a black and white film. So after agreeing to the moss-green body and yellow belly scales paint scheme (I provided Pantone color numbers), they proceeded to finish up the Creature and crate him up for shipping on the 19th, via the SLOWEST possible truck transport on the planet.

After what seemed like weeks on the road, the Creature finally made it to North Little Rock on January 7th, 2013 for delivery to OSH. So close but yet so far, because of sick drivers and messed up shipping schedules I finally had to call the owner of the local trucking firm to complain. He got a driver to extend his shift to deliver our Creature to OSH on the 9th, some time between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. Circumstances that day put me picking Debbie (my lovely wife) up from her work downtown and me talking her into being there with me when our VIP (or VIC, ha!) arrived. Unfortunately the delivery point behind OSH, is a short cut that many ‘rush hour’ drivers use as a short cut. Not long after the driver backed up to the OSH Exhibit Construction Dept. delivery door, effectively blocking the drive, drivers were honking and actually leaving their vehicles, walking up and angrily confronting us. As I was helping the driver get the crate off the truck, he asked what was in the crate that was so important. I responded The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The expression on his face was priceless.
After getting the crate off, and restoring traffic on the side street, Gail Stephens, Debbie Oxley and myself started opening the crate…

And there he was!

Uncle Gilbert, fresh out of the crate.

Uncle Gilbert, fresh out of the crate.

Of course I wanted to paste his photo all over social media, but Gail wanted to keep his arrival on the “DL” (down low) until the exhibit opened in June. I agreed, but I did post a vague reference on Facebook about the arrival of “Uncle Gilbert”, which was the name The Creature used when he made an appearance on the the 60s TV show “The Munsters”.

There was some subsequent difficulties securing a missing claw and stand assembly from the CA vendor. I also had to figure out with Rick Hall (OAEG’s fabricator) where and how to secure the statue in the exhibit. There where also discussions with the client on a perceived need for some paint alterations. After all these items were worked out, Rick Hall and I worked with the OSH staff and other OSH vendors on getting the exhibit ready for the June reception.

Getting back to my personal angst about meeting Julie Adams… In working up her biographical text panel for the exhibit, it’s mentioned that had a biography out, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections from the Black Lagoon. I thought that would be perfect for me to present to her for an autograph at the reception, so I ordered it, unsigned from her website. It arrived the day before the reception.

Julie Adams' autobiography

Julie Adams’ autobiography

June 7th, 2013 finally arrived, our entourage — my wife Debbie, my mom Charlotte, and our family friend Earlena Sewart (related to the U.S. Sec./Interior that bought Alaska) and myself (all smartly dressed) arrive at the Old State House Museum and their red carpet reception and ‘step and repeat’ photo-op. We work our way through the crowd, passed OSH Museum Associates’ board member Judge Reinhold (“Fast Times/Ridgemont High” ’82), Director Jeff Nichols (“Mud” ’13), and I’m sure many other Arkansas film celebrities towards the 2nd floor hall of representatives, where the reception ceremony was to be held.

On the "red carpet" at the "Lights! Camera! Arkansas!" premiere.

On the “red carpet” at the “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” premeire.

Of course, first things first, we had to ‘wine up’. Then scanning the crowd I see Ms. Adams up toward the dais. I recognize her from a current photo I’d seen. I’ve never been good judging a person’s age, but she seem so much younger than she should be, especially since she was an adult when I was a kid. I can still see “Kay” (her character in CFTBL) in her face, even though she looks shorter than I would have thought she’d be… isn’t that always the case? Her son Mitch and her are receiving folks, all with her autobiography, I might add. Julie and her son Mitch Danton (who co-authored the book) have been marketing the heck out of “The Lucky Southern Star” and they were selling the book in the gift shop… oh well. When it was our turn, we got Julie to sign the outside of her book (thinking I might put it with a poster and some other Creature collectables), I told her real quick that we own three copies of CFTBL and had no idea how many times I’d see it. We got our picture taken with her (I had a real goofy look on my face), and Deb arranged to let me kiss Julie Adams on the cheek… It was at that point that I noticed I was getting a bit emotional about the encounter, which is rare for me. I don’t allow myself to get ‘star struck’ typically, I figure celebrities get enough of that as it is. In this case though, Ms. Adams was so accessible and personable, and she is an integral part of an integral part of my childhood.

Debbie, Julie Adams and a goofy-looking guy.

Debbie, Julie Adams and a goofy-looking guy.

We left Julie and Mitch to go back to where we hard left our drinks. Finished our drinks and I went back to the bar to get some more. When I got back MY entourage was gone. As is so often with these guys, I’m looking around, and then I spotted them back up there with Julie and Mitch talking and acting like BFFs. When I walk up, Debbie’s talking with Julie… I never did find out what they are talking about. I offer to get Julie a refresh on her drink… Sprite, and to get Mitch what he wanted to drink… “any red wine” (ends up with Merlot). Grand, all be it unexpected, time.

Julie Adams in her niche in the "Lights! Camera! Arkansas!" Exhibit.

Julie Adams in her exhibit niche.

After the ceremony where Julie, Jeff Nichols, Lisa Blount (posthumously by her mom) and others received awards, I show my entourage thought the wonderful exhibit. Every time I go to one of these exhibit receptions, it reminds me of just how small my part is in the overall effort by the OSH exhibit staff and other vendors… Even though I am grateful and proud to be a part of them. It is very rewarding work. This one especially, since it contains the intersection of my work and my personal passion, film… AND it contains artifacts and references to a couple of films I had a part in… “The Last Ride” and “Mud”!

Mom clowning with the Creature

Mom clowning with the Creature

One of OAEG text panels in exhibit

One of OAEG text panels in exhibit

OAEG floor decal

OAEG floor decal

"What was that again Mathew?"

“What was that again Mathew?”

After checking out the finished exhibit and watching the wonderful short featuring Arkansas film celebrities in the LCA! ‘theatre’, we ended up in the OSH gift shop, and guess who was there… Julie & Mitch. Still autographing books. Debbie got her to sign the exhibit poster. I did lean in and mentioned that she must be tired sign all these books. She said no, she is always up for giving out autographs for her fans. Obviously, talented as she is, she appreciates that her fans are the ones that ultimately have and will continue to provide her with a wonderful life.

We topped off the night with drinks and appetizers at The Faded Rose, a local favorite restaurant, just a block away from Oxley Art’s original offices… we were dressed up after all.

For weeks following the event, I read Julie’s book. There were a few interesting things about CFTBL, including her lifelong friendship with Ben Chapman who played the original “land” Creature, and her harrowing adventure with Ricou Browning (the “water” Creature) in a diving suit (that’s right, Julie not in a Scuba outfit, but a diving suit with the helmet!). But her career is way more than that. Including working with Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, on a date with Donald O’Connor, a bit of a risqué character in the infamous Dennis Hopper film in Peru, close calls with fires on set, her stage work, and of her years growing up in Arkansas, and her huge leap of faith that landed her in Hollywood, and MUCH more. BTW — She is still working and was recently involved in an episode of J.J. Abrams’ “Lost”. I enjoyed the book very much. It feels like you’re living through the “Golden Years” of Hollywood to the present.

I also had a few short exchanges with Julie on Facebook. As a boy, living in Southwest Little Rock, staying up late to see the Creature, again… How could I ever have thought in my wildest dreams I’d be talking to his girlfriend.

The 'finished' Creature

The ‘finished’ Creature

Then it was time to create the ‘final act’ for “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” which was the traveling version of the exhibit. It turned out beautifully, and of course, we used a photo of our “The Creature of the Old State House” menacing the “Golden Years” section. The LCA! Traveling Exhibit is available to schools & organizations from the Arkansas Humanities Council in Little Rock for free, statewide (contact Robin Phelps at 501.320.5761).

"Side B" of the "Lights! Camera! Arkansas!" traveling exhibit.

“Side B” of the “Lights! Camera! Arkansas!” traveling exhibit.

Anyway, to make a long story just a bit longer… We’ve all heard that whenever possible, try to make your profession something you love, I’m doing that. Of course, when you do that you need another passionate outlet to take a break from your work. When those two come together… it puts a hell of a smile on your face!

Please check out, what is essentially, part 3 of this Halloween 2013 trifecta blogging…

Dennis Oxley artisan “De-evolution of The Creature”.