Brushes with GR8Ness™: For such a small place, Greater Jacksonville has had more than its share of contact with the famous and the infamous. Some even admit to being born here. Your Greater Jacksonville Examiner merely reports what she finds – GR8Ness™ where you least expect it.
One might argue that Jacksonville is the birthplace of funny, tacky Florida tourism.
Students of history will know that the world’s first alligator wrestler Warren Frazee, inventor of theme parks and citizen scientist, is from Jacksonville.
Twenty years after Mr. Frazee was born, fellow gator lovers established the St. Augustine Alligator Farm & Zoological Park.
Then, of course, there’s Marineland® and the role it played in bringing undersea creatures to the big screen.
So many of Jacksonville’s entanglements with film and TV arise from encounters with the local exotic wildlife.
It was inevitable that movie fame would come to River City in the form of a B-movie monster.
A giant, irradiated walking catfish, in fact.
That’s right, sports fans!
The guy who created ‘Zaat!’ is from Jacksonville.
Don Barton, movie monster maven
The party line on Don Barton is that he is one of the founding fathers of the Florida film and television industry.
An independent filmmaker who also produced industrial training films and TV commercials, Barton garnered several firsts in the Florida film industry:
- His film company was the first in the state to process and print 16mm black-and-white film.
- He is the co-founder of the Florida Motion Picture & Television Association.
- He wrote and produced the State of Florida’s very first national TV commercial for tourism – with an emphasis on northeast Florida – using an all-Florida crew.
Co-founder of the Russell-Barton Film Co. (now Barton Productions, Inc.) in 1955, Barton is less well-known for his numerous awards for excellence in documentary production –
- His documentary ‘Jacksonville Story’ was selected by the US Dept. of State and NBC as the only film about an American city at the American Exhibit in Moscow. He also received a Freedom Foundation Award.
- CINE, the Council on International Nontheatrical Events which choses American films for foreign festivals, selected ‘Man Returns to the Sea’ for screening at the Berlin, Edinburgh and Venice Film Festivals.
- His 1976 bicentennial documentary ‘Florida on My Mind,’ won several national awards for excellences and was selected by the United States Information Agency (USIA) for world-wide distribution.
- In 1980, Barton won a CINE Golden Eagle Award for ‘Fitness Fever,’ featuring broadcaster Pat Summerall. ‘Fitness Fever’ represented US documentary filmmaking at international film festivals around the world.
He is even less known for his very overt philanthropy, serving as St. Vincent’s Hospital Vice President of Marketing for years, his life as a husband of 57 years and father of nine children.
The man & his monster
By his own admission, Barton found the germ of his idea for the monster in ‘Zaat’ in an ‘National Geographic’ article about walking Asian catfish which had invaded Florida’s waterways by way of the pet trade.
In his imagination, walking catfish grew into seven-foot-tall scaly rubber costume covered in green fake fur that he built in his garage (where it still lives after 45 years).
Barton had decided that he wanted to make a feature film.
Monster movie became his milieu, blockbuster his goal, money his object.
In 1970 it made sense.
Creature flicks with scantily-clad women and teenagers for monster bait were all the rage, and Barton knew he could make a good product on a very slim budget.
In one month, with a budget of $75,000 (allegedly the same budget for the monster costume for ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’) using a professional film crew from Miami and Greater Jacksonville locals who had never acted before, Barton brought ‘Zaat’ home on time and on budget.
Filmed entirely on location here in Greater Jacksonville – Marineland®, Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, Green Cove Springs, and Switzerland, Fla. – ‘Zaat’ is the story of a scientist driven mad by professional rejection who turns himself into a giant, irradiated catfish-man and schemes to lay waste to Greater Jacksonville and the rest of the world, too.
Catfish-man takes as his half-fish bride a beautiful international agent, and at the end of the movie, they walk back into the ocean at Marineland®.
In short, ‘Zaat’ had everything you could want in a monster movie in 1971 – special effects, lovers, bikinis, hippies, spies and international intrigue.
It is, as many fans and other cultists have remarked, a lot of movie for 1971.
Enough of ‘Zaat’
Don Barton was finished with feature films almost before ‘Zaat’ fizzled at the box office.
Enjoying a wide regional release – from Arizona to the Virgin Islands – ‘Zaat’ was a particular favorite in the southeastern US, particularly at drive-ins.
It was not, however, the blockbuster he’d wanted.
Most of all, he was plagued by problems with distribution as he tried to grow and build an audience by more than one distributor who declared bankruptcy and the prints he’d already paid for got tied up in court.
Later would come overt acts of piracy by professional colleagues who released the movie under unauthorized titles.
He and the industry considered ‘Zaat’ over and done.
Then fans in Jacksonville stepped in, and now – 42 years later – ‘Zaat’ has new life as a cult classic with runs on Turner Classic Movies, a stint on ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000,’ a recent re-lease on DVD.
When he died in June, Barton finally had – kinda sorta – the acclaim he felt he’d earned with ‘Zaat.’
Maybe that’s why he’d made plans for a sequel that would tell the rest of the story about the walking-catfish-man and his she-creature.
Or maybe he just got bored.
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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: email@example.com