Sharks and storms and whales -- oh my!

Postcard ... Massachusetts

June 25, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

Here on the coast of Massachusetts, the water is scary. It is full of sharks. It is full of storms. It has seamen who eat each other.

But the tourists keep on coming. For here in Massachusetts, disaster sells.

On Martha's Vineyard this summer, they are celebrating the silver anniversary of the opening of "Jaws," the movie that put the island on the map and forever defined the "summer blockbuster."

In Gloucester, locals are debating what this week's opening of this summer's blockbuster -- "The Perfect Storm," about the death of some of their neighbors in a freak gale -- will do to, and for, their town.

And on Nantucket, a local museum is drawing tourists fresh off the ferry boats to see a display on the 1820 sinking of the whale ship Essex by a crazed sperm whale and the subsequent cannibalism by the crewmen adrift for three months. Attendance has been spurred by a new best-selling book on the incident by a Nantucket historian. Can a movie be far behind?

It's enough to make you wonder why Lloyd's of London doesn't get into the chamber of commerce business.

Steven Spielberg started it in 1975 with "Jaws."

People were afraid to go into the water. But that didn't stop them from filling Martha's Vineyard's inns, restaurants and even the beaches to see where Richard Dreyfuss acted and Bruce the mechanical shark chowed down.

The island's year-round population tripled. Real estate and rentals became scarce. Folks liked turf with their surf.

Vineyard locals who lived through the filming of "Jaws" still wince slightly when the topic comes up, with some unable to decide whether the economic benefits (higher property values and those $40 residual checks that still roll in every couple of months) outweigh the inconvenience of fame.

That's exactly what the people of Gloucester and surrounding communities on Cape Ann, a hundred miles up the coast from the Vineyard, will have to decide.

The Chamber of Commerce wasted no time in producing a brochure trumpeting "The Perfect Cape." The tourism office ran an etiquette workshop for residents on how to be nice to the visitors.

A big shindig at the harbor last weekend got things rolling, with tourists gawking at actors George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, who play two of the local fishermen lost in a freak 1991 storm off Nova Scotia. Boats ferried the visiting media around. And it was elbow to elbow at the Crow's Nest, where the doomed fishermen had spent their pay on booze.

Several locals interviewed by the media said they would gladly give up their parking spaces on Main Street for a better local economy. But the local paper editorialized about the "inexplicable behavior from pilgrims visiting the Crow's Nest bar" and the chamber's efforts.

"Sure, we'll smile at the tourists and answer the questions of reporters who have never been here before and won't be back," the paper huffed. "And when the avalanche is finally over, the city will still have its battered dignity, its traditions and its unbreakable spirit -- those are not for sale."

Across the Nantucket Sound from Martha's Vineyard, the folks who run the Peter Foulger Museum and Nantucket islanders are watching all of this, knowing they could be the next to grapple with the liquid gold that is Massachusetts sea water.

The museum is enjoying an unusual level of popularity this summer with its display that plays off the latest disaster best seller, Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex." Tourists who normally use the Foulger as an escape from a rainy day or a crowded ice cream shop are making the museum a destination.

The Essex story line is a great draw: boat rammed by berserk whale, 20 men left adrift for three months in the Pacific, a deserted island, more drifting, the casting of lots to see who would be killed and eaten next.

Herman Melville loved the tale. He stole it for "Moby Dick."

The Essex whale didn't have a name, but it probably will by the time Hollywood gets finished making the mechanical version.

The irony is delicious.

In "Jaws," the mayor of Amity, the movie name for a town on Martha's Vineyard, refuses to close the beaches, fearful the news of shark attacks will ruin the tourist trade.

Good thing he didn't succeed. It would have been a disaster for Massachusetts.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.