Sun Haven Studios

Sun Haven Studios

Sun Haven Studios was a movie company located on Weedon Island in St. Petersburg, Florida during the early 1930s. It produced only 3 movies: "Chloe", "Playthings of Desire" and "Hired Wife". All of the actors were pretty much Hollywood unknowns. Buster Keaton did come to the studios to work on revitalizing his career but left before making any movies. The studio was closed shortly thereafter.

My dad, William G. Wiley, wrote in his "A Matter of Opinion" column, an article in the now-defunct St. Petersburg Independent. It reads as follows:

We were sitting around the table the other night recalling the screwy events that have occurred in St. Petersburg, and outside of the real estate boom of the twenties, I could think of nothing that caused more of a sensation than the brief visit of the movie industry to the city. For a few months back in the depression-ridden years, nearly everyone in the city believed that St. Petersburg was about to steal the film industry from Hollywood. And for that brief period the city went off the beam, and you might have thought gold nuggets had been found on Central avenue or an oil well had come in off the pier.

In those desperate years of busted banks, phony money and bread lines, St. Petersburg was grasping for something to pull it out of the bog of economic despond, and when a fast-talking promoter from California hit town with his proposal to move the film industry to St. Petersburg he didn't have to talk very loud to convince the populace.

I never knew the financial details, but the money came from somewhere, and before any of us realized it, a beaten up and abandoned night club in the wilderness of Weedon's Isle had been converted into what we in St. Petersburg believed to be a movie studio. The venture electrified the town. Everyone was excited by the glamor and intensity of the situation. And when such glamorous but passe film personages as Olive Borden, Molly O'Day, Buster Keaton, Mickey Neilen, Greta Nissen, and James Kirkwood arrived on the scene, the town was so excited it was about to bust a tug.

Officials of the outfit (it was called the Sun Haven studios, I believe) kept the town in a constant tizzy. They released daily stories on the wonders of the city's climate and how well-suited it was for movie-making. They hinted darkly about the high income taxes of California and how they were forcing the movie industry to leave. The great film companies, they said, were ready to come to St. Petersburg if given the word.

Apparently they never received the word, but the possibility tickled the imagination of the city and for a time the population went wild. Almost everyone in town was ready to give the movie company a helping hand and those few cynics who predicted the venture would be a flash in the pan were castigated as reactionaries and killjoys.

The movie "stars" were lionized from all quarters, and many of our citizens took a hitch in their belts to entertain them. Influential mothers who were sure their daughters "simply should be in the movies," tried desperately to pull the proper strings.

Everybody tried to get into the act. One enterprising promoter whose name still appears in the paper frequently got the franchise on the "casting office." He enlisted the aid of a portrait photographer and took no all comers at five bucks a clip. The hopeful movie actor got his picture taken and his name listed "in the studio's files" all for five bucks.

Meanwhile, the studio officials interrupted their publicity bits long enough to start actual works on a picture, an item, I believe, called "Chloe." The town was agog and the daily trek of movie hopefuls and curiosity seekers to Weedon's Island was so heavy it kept the old shell road out there in a constant cloud of dust. Owners of some of our more palatial homes vied for the chance to offer their estates as "location" spots. It was too bad the bubble had to burst--an event I'll have to describe tomorrow.

As I was saying yesterday before I was so rudely interrupted by a lack of space, St. Petersburg was never quite so excited as during that period when we were convinced that the movie industry was about to move en masse to the city. Things were pretty tough during those depression-ridden years and the promise of any kind of an economic stimulant was welcomed with open arms. What could be more welcome than the transfer of the movie industry from California to Florida?

We were pretty gauche about the whole thing. Out on Weedon's Isle where an abandoned night club had been converted into a studio, so many curiosity seekers and movie hopefuls gathered it became necessary to erect a fence to keep them out. At the same time the presence of such movie has-beens as Olive Borden, Buster Keaton, James Kirkwood, Molly O'Day and Greta Nissen in the city created a mild sensation by itself. As I remember from the billboards out on north Fourth Street, Buster Keaton was billed to make a movie called "The Fisherman," but as far as I knew he never got before a camera. He did most of his work in a local bar where, from time to time, he entertained the customers by taking off his pants and sweeping the floor with them.

But the Sunhaven studios managed to get some work done. In fact, things looked so prosperous for a few weeks that a new studio building was financed and constructed. It still stands out there--a gaunt and desolate barn in a sea of palmettos and underbrush.

But as I say, the outfit managed to turn out three films and the city held its breath waiting for the great new prosperity the film industry would bring. As I remember, Olive Borden starred in the first film, an item entitled "Chloe"--a very topical title for that period. The second and third pictures were called "Playthings of Desire" and "Hired Wife." For some reason which was never clearly explained, the second picture was released before the first, and the hullaballoo surrounding the premier showing of that turkey kept the town in a tizzy for weeks. The publicity build-up for the first showing of the picture was terrific. The public was advised that the event was going to be staged with all the Hollywood flavor. Searchlights were to probe the sky around the Capitol theater, notables of the movie outfit, city officials and civic leaders were to speak to radio listeners from the theater lobby. It was to be what was described as a "gala" event. The town turned out en masse and an air of intense excitement pervaded the audience until the operator started the film flickering on the screen.

That did it! Without any question "Playthings of Desire" was the worst motion picture ever produced. It was a combination of lousy writing, atrocious acting, foul direction, dismal photography, and hopeless sound recording. Most of the time the photography was so bad no one could tell what was happening on the screen, which after all was probably fortunate. In one scene an actor fell in a pond of alligators. Supposedly the actor was consumed, but his clothes floated to the surface without a tear in them. I remember a death scene acted by James Kirkwood in which the death rattle sounded like the snorting and growling of the MGM lion. It was horrible.

But "Playthings of Desire" did one thing. It set a standard for lousy pictures, and even today you will hear people describe a bad picture, "Well, it was lousy. But it wasn't so bad as 'Playthings of Desire'".

A short time after the first showing of "Playthings of Desire," the promotors of Sunhaven studios quietly folded their cameras, wrapped up their film and disappeared. Some brutes for punishment who saw "Chloe" and "Hired Wife" have reported that "they weren't too bad." I don't know. I never had the courage to see them.

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