"Jaws" still churns waters off Martha's Vineyard

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Massachusetts (Reuters) - After 35 years, people haven’t tired of talking about or watching Steven Spielberg’s quintessential summer movie “Jaws.”

“Beware of Sharks” sign on a storefront in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, which served as the fictional resort town of Amity Island in the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster “Jaws.” REUTERS/Lauren Keiper/Handout

The shark-in-the-water thriller remains competitive on the Hollywood blockbuster list, having raked in over $470 million at box offices worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the number would be around $1.9 billion today.

Composer John Williams’ ominous two-note “shark” theme is known by kids and adults of all ages, whether they’ve seen the movie or not.

The movie flooded theaters for the first time in June 1975, and the buzz around it remains particularly strong on the original “Jaws” movie set -- the beaches and towns across Martha’s Vineyard, which portrayed the fictional Amity Island in the 1975 film based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel.

On the Vineyard, it’s almost as easy find a resident who played an extra in the flick as it is to buy an ice-cream cone.

Most extras were kids back then, and paid $5 a day to swim in the ocean, play on the beach, and most importantly, run screaming from the water when Jaws -- more affectionately known by those involved with the movie as Bruce, a mechanical shark -- was approaching.

“It changed scary movies completely,” said Tina Miller, a lifelong resident of the Vineyard, who was an extra in the movie alongside her father and brother.

Tom Smith, now a police officer in the Edgartown neighborhood, was a third grader when he was an extra in the original “Jaws,” again in junior high when he was cast for the sequel, and he took a week from college to do special security for “Jaws: The Revenge,” the fourth film in the series.

“The people who were involved in the movie are proud of that,” he said. “It’s part of the identity of those people.”


“Jaws” is also part of the Martha’s Vineyard brand. The lore surrounding the film draws fans from across the globe for a glimpse at the beach where young Alex Kintner was snapped from his raft, or the empty plot in the sleepy fishing village of Menemsha where crews built shark-hunter Quint’s cottage.

Martha’s Vineyard, a 45-minute ferry ride off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is known for its low-key, private style and remains a sought-after vacation destination.

Scenic beaches, spectacular sunsets and vacationing U.S. presidents have long been a feature, but “Jaws” has contributed steadily over the years to an economy reliant on tourism dollars.

There are no stands hawking “Jaws” t-shirts near the ferry dock, nor billboards pronouncing it the home of the famous Great White shark. There isn’t even an official tour of filming locations.

But if prompted, local taxi drivers will eagerly offer anecdotes from the summer of 1974 and point out “Jaws bridge,” where the giant shark famously swam into the pond.

The most widely publicized celebration to date was five years ago, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the movie’s release. The island hosted JAWSfest 2005, a three-day celebration with an open air screening that attracted more than 4,000 visitors and island residents.

Fans are clamoring for another such event. And island businesses, eager to recover from a dip in tourism during the recession, would be eager for the boost.

Joe Badot, general manager at The Harborside Inn in Edgartown, said occupancy during JAWSfest climbed to nearly 90 percent, when a typical June would fill just half of his 90 rooms.

Susan Sigel Goldsmith, co-director of JAWSfest, would like to see the next “Jaws” event as a tribute to the cast and crew. “These people have changed our lives, our island, our culture,” said Goldsmith.


Documenting the impact of the film on island history has been a full-time job over the last two years for Matt Taylor, who is polishing a 300-page account of how “Jaws” was made.

The book, titled “Martha’s Vineyard Remembers Jaws,” includes about 800 never before published photographs of the production snapped by islanders, and 65 interviews with those closest to the filming. It is set for release this fall.

Taylor said readers will be surprised to learn about the impact island residents had on the film’s success, pointing particularly to contributions from Susan and Lynn Murphy.

Lynn Murphy, a Vineyard marine mechanic, was hired to help run the special effects in the water.

“They were having a terrible time with it until Lynn came along and set everything straight,” said Taylor. “Lynn, and his knowledge of how to do things on the water, really saved the production.”

The photos in his book were compiled by “Jaws” fan and memorabilia collector Jim Beller who, despite technology advances that make some of the “Jaws” special effects look rudimentary 35 years later, isn’t worried the movie will lose its luster for the “Avatar” generation of fans.

“If you love a good suspenseful movie, a movie that has everything, or you are a Steven Spielberg fan, see it,” he said. “If you like swimming -- think twice.”