By Dean Blinkhorn
The tickets went out only two weeks prior to the March 2 event at Club Blue and Hollywood 16. John Travolta was going to hold his first public event in Ocala since moving here. At only $200 apiece, and with a limited guest list of only 200, this was the hottest ticket in Marion County’s history.
Sort of like Willy Wonka. Minus the Oompa-Loompas.
And it was all for charitable local causes: to resuscitate the embattled film commission and to help restore the Marion Theatre. A separate pre-show motorcycle ride benefited the victims of Lake County’s devastating tornados.
Leave it to John to find the humility in an event designed to be all about him. No, he didn’t disappoint his fans. The night was a phenomenon, indeed.
JOHN AND HIS WIFE, KELLY PRESTON, were all smiles — literally — for hours. With thousands of flash bulbs going off in their faces, hundreds of “I love you” shouts coming from the crowds, and an equal number of hugs and autographs, this was the night Ocala had been waiting for. Our most famous resident had finally accepted the invitation to his coming-out party.
“We love living in Ocala,” John told me during a brief Q&A in the media tent outside Club Blue. “We feel like this is our novel, and we get to live our life the way we want. Ocala is a little different than Hollywood — in a good way. We love acting like regular people.”
The last point is a refrain I heard often from John and Kelly that night as other media lined up for their opportunity to talk to the celebrity couple. Through it all, they never rushed their answers or seemed bothered by all the fuss. Actually, they seemed to revel in it, soaking in the cheers and well-wishes with good-natured aplomb.
“The people in Ocala deserved this,” John said. “It’s a great place to bring your family up.”
The Travoltas’ late-night and early-morning excursions in Marion County have become somewhat legendary — spontaneous visits to Cold Stone Creamery, the Paddock Mall, Wal-Mart on SR200. Everyone in Ocala seems to have a John Travolta story, most of them more animated than a Big Foot sighting.
“We like to go to Denny’s at three in the morning, Target for shopping, Tony’s [Sushi] for Japanese food, and the movies,” John admitted, chuckling a bit. “Sometimes we get our own showing after everything’s closed down, which is kinda nice. I’m telling you, this is the place to live.”
His last statement revealed a trace of a once-thicker New Jersey accent, not unlike that of Vinnie Barbarino, the character that launched his three-decade-long career.
“Everyone has been wonderful,” he told Ocala Style Publisher Kathy Johnson, who was attending the media event and the VIP party. “We’re well-protected and safe. At our house, we have a great setup for the family and for my love of planes.”
Another part of local legend is John’s generosity with the area police and fire departments. He’s been known to buy dinner for whole shifts at a time.
“I was brought up in a special way,” he told me. “I look at the police as my friends because they’re here to protect us, so I want to take care of them, to go out of my way to be really nice. The people that wear the uniform every day should be treated special — and not just by me.”
John was in good spirits the whole evening, seemingly propelled by a mission to do something good for his adopted community and fueled by an enthusiastic crowd of fans.
“I love you,” he shouted to the masses at one point. “Thank you for coming out on this rainy night. Kelly and I love living in Ocala; we love all of you.”
His enthusiasm never flagged with members of the media either. One television reporter asked John a question and as he answered, the camera shut off. John playfully asked him, “Should we do that again?”
Another reporter asked him if he was planning to dance on the red carpet again like in his iconic film, Saturday Night Fever, from 30 years ago.
“No, I’m going to ride that motorcycle, take pictures with everyone here, and sign lots of autographs for my fans,” John replied to loud applause from the onlookers as he waved and flashed his million-dollar grin. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
John’s casual approach to the evening peaked with a very special member of the media, Renee Claire, from WTRS 102.3FM and Big 92.9FM. He knew something was up when she introduced herself by saying, “Hi, Johnny, welcome to Ocala.” (See story on page 106.)
Old friends growing up in New Jersey, the pair chatted and reminisced about common friends and funny stories from their times as schoolkids, oblivious to the crowd of people around them. John was in no hurry to rush this impromptu reunion, though, asking Renee what brought her to Ocala. Renee finally said, laughing, “But you’re interviewing me. We’re supposed to be interviewing you.”
Of course, my questions followed hers, so it was like having to trail a really good opening act. John, however, never missed a beat, answering my question about how the event came about, all the while keeping Renee involved in the conversation.
“I was on the road promoting Wild Hogs when the tornados hit,” he recalled. “I was there the day after it happened, so I knew I had to do something. To do a premiere where we were able to donate money to such a good cause was the motivation behind holding this event in Ocala.
“The only day in my schedule that I had open was the day that the movie actually opened,” he continued, “so I said, ‘Why not in Ocala?’ It turned out to be a great success. We’ve raised a lot of money — $15,000 at the bike rally, which Kelly and I matched — and we’re going to raise even more tonight. Making movies and making people happy is what I do.”
John also talked at length about the importance of the film commission and the historic Marion Theatre. All told, the premiere would raise $15,000 for each of them as well.
“I love old movie theaters,” he said, “and Ocala has a beautiful one. I think what Brian and Tava [Sofsky] are doing is wonderful. We’ve enjoyed helping them tonight and being a part of that.” (See related story on page 104.)
Speaking of movie theaters, John was also promoting his latest film, the biker comedy Wild Hogs, co-starring Tim Allen, William H. Macy, and Martin Lawrence, a surprise hit that earned almost $40 million in its opening weekend.
“The movie’s basically about four guys who hang out on the weekends on their motorcycles as a hobby,” John described. “They want to do something different, something exciting, so they decide to hit the road — except the road hits back. At the end of the day, we become better friends because of the experience and we appreciate our lives a little bit better. We become more honest with each other, too. ”
DESPITE THE OVERCAST CONDITIONS and the occasional rain, nothing could put a damper on the evening. For the bikers who met at the Marion Theatre for an exclusive motorcade to Club Blue with John, this was the thrill of a lifetime.
“I ride frequently,” said Marion County Commissioner Jim Payton. “We didn’t anticipate the weather, though.”
As he straddled his oversized motorcycle, the always-gregarious commissioner balanced his brush with celebrity with his role as a local leader.
“Anytime you have a celebrity of John’s status in the community, that has to be a positive influence,” he said. “It tells the world that we have a viable, hospitable community. I’m really impressed. I’m glad he’s happy here and feels he has a good quality of life.”
Commissioner Payton also voiced an opinion on our harried local film agency. The Marion County Commission voted to deny its funding for the year at a February meeting.
“The film commission has struggled for years, but [film commissioner] Jude Hagin hasn’t been willing to give up,” he said. “John’s willingness to participate in something like this is special. I think this event will add a lot of credibility to what they’re trying to do.”
As the bikes rolled out, two by two, roaring away from downtown towards the club, the rest of the crowd hurried under umbrellas to meet them there, an impromptu road race of sorts.
Outside Club Blue, Mayor Randy Ewers also discussed the possible outcome of the evening.
“I’m a firm supporter of the film commission and what they’re trying to do,” he said. “Of course, we are truly honored to have John Travolta and Kelly Preston here tonight for the premiere of Wild Hogs. He could’ve done this anywhere, but he said he wanted to do this here, in his hometown.”
Later, as he gave the couple the key to the city, Mayor Ewers’ face grew more animated, his grin threatening to jump off his face.
“As the mayor of the city of Ocala,” he told John and Kelly, “I am truly thankful for what you’re doing. This is special to me.”
THE NIGHT WAS ALSO SPECIAL for thousands of the celebrity couple’s fans. Most had lined up much earlier in the afternoon, braved the inclement weather, jockeying the others for a prime position, all in the hopes of spending a few fleeting moments with John and Kelly.
Carmen Betts, who had come straight from her job at Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, was like most of those around her. She was excited to have just talked to John and Kelly, getting a photo and an autograph.
“I think it’s fabulous’” she said between nearby screams. “He doesn’t do many public appearances, especially here in Ocala.
“I’ve waited a long time to see John,” she added, noting that Urban Cowboy “is my favorite movie.”
Samantha Bulman, 13, a student at Fort King Middle, was even more animated. Her wide grin revealed a full set of braces that lit up her face.
“To be able to get his autograph and some pictures has been very cool,” she said, beaming, “This is really exciting.”
While preferring John “as a good guy,” Samantha was really looking forward to seeing him in a comedic role.
“I haven’t seen Wild Hogs yet, but I really want to see it,” she said. “In the commercial, I like the part where he’s on his bike and gets hit in the face by the bird.”
Another fan, Sonia Bravo, prefers John as a movie villain. She’d been standing outside for almost four hours to get a glimpse of our local celebrities. She had no umbrella and was soaked to the skin, but had no regrets.
“I’ve been a fan of John’s for a long time,” she said. “When I found out about this, I knew I’d have to be here. He’s a wonderful man to do something like this.”
Of course, like Samantha, she also wanted to see John “get hit by the bird” in Wild Hogs.
For Maureen O’Connor, who lives just three miles from the Hollywood 16 theater, the night was about far more than just getting a chance to meet John.
“I think he’s grateful for his success and wants to be around everybody who loves him,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ve lived here for 25 years and it’s grown so much. People are moving here from all over the place, so John’s come just like lots of others. I think Ocala was ready for something like this.”
And what’s the one thing she said to John?
“Thanks for being so nice.”
Bringing Hollywood to Ocala
By Karin Fabry
When word of the Wild Hogs release date became known, John Travolta expressed interest in doing something special in his hometown of Ocala. It would be his first “official” public appearance since moving here five years ago.
And it all started with a conference call between the Sofskys and John’s attorney. “John is proud of his hometown and he wanted to showcase his latest movie here in Ocala,” Tava says.
Tickets for the event went on sale at noon on Friday and by noon on Saturday, they were gone.
“John went above and beyond to make this event special,” Jude says. After tallying up the costs associated with hosting this event, the film commission and the Marion Theatre will each receive $15,000.
“This money will be used to pay bills and maintain the commission,” Jude says. “We’re here to give advice and assistance to young people who are interested in film — whether it be as actors or behind-the-scenes crew people.”
The Marion Theatre, which has been undergoing a major renovation, will use the funds to begin steps for upcoming programming, as well as pay for a portion of the costly restoration.
“We want to provide a venue that’s diverse and offers programs you wouldn’t normally have in Ocala,” Brian says. “We plan to make unique events available to the citizens of Marion County.”
The pre-premiere motorcycle ride raised another $15,000, which John and Kelly matched. “This event was a huge success,” Jude says. “John is arguably the best-loved movie star and he lives right here in Ocala. As a community we’ve allowed him to live in our city and we’ve honored his privacy. As a film commission, we’re here to serve and assist him. We’re delighted to have a relationship with John and Kelly.”
“There wasn’t a better time or a better event to showcase that Ocala can shine,” Brian adds. “John and Kelly gave us the opportunity to bring a little bit of Hollywood to Ocala.”
Wild Hogs event photographs are available for purchase by visiting www.themariontheatre.org
Welcoming Back Johnny
By JoAnn Guidry
To most people, John Travolta is an international movie star. But to Renee Claire, he’s Johnny, the kid from New Jersey that she knew when they were young and had big dreams. Renee (pronounced ree-knee) is from Demarest, just a few towns over from Travolta’s hometown of Englewood.
“When you were a young person growing up in New Jersey,” she recalls of the time in 1969 when she was 19, “the thing to do on the weekends was to go over to the nightspots in upstate New York. That’s how I met Johnny’s sister, Annie.”
Over a few drinks and a few sing-alongs with the jukebox, Renee and Annie quickly realized “we shared a penchant for musicals and a love of performing.” And as Renee would soon discover, so did most of the Travolta clan, including Annie’s younger brother, Johnny.
“I was an only child, so I was sort of adopted into the Travolta family by their mother, Helen,” says Renee, whose real last name is actually Schilizzo. “She even put a childhood picture of me in the curio cabinet with the rest of the family. I was very touched by the gesture.”
Renee, Annie, and Johnny all had aspirations of being in the entertainment industry. “We had big dreams and I guess Johnny had the biggest dreams of all,” she says. “Even then, he was so full of ambition and hope.”
The trio of friends all sang and acted, and Travolta took dance classes in New York. They went to auditions and put on productions in the basement theater that Travolta’s father, Sam, built.
“We had a great time,” says Renee, whose voice would be her ticket into a future career in radio and voiceover work.
Renee also witnessed the just-as-early beginnings of Travolta’s love affair with flying. “The flight path for Newark Airport went right over the Travolta’s house,” says Renee. “We would pile into my cranberry-colored Volkswagen convertible and I would pretend to be airport announcer saying which planes were arriving and departing. Johnny would just love that.”
Travolta’s first big break came in 1970 when the three friends were cast in a dinner theater production of Gypsy.
“Annie and I won parts as singers and Johnny was a dancer,” remembers Renee. “We made $50 a week and the show lasted a month.”
When that show ended, Travolta got a part in another production at Club Bene. “And when an agent friend, Bob LeMond, of another actor came to see him perform,” recalls Renee, “he came away instead very impressed with Johnny.”
A month later, Travolta called LeMond. It was the beginning of a career than endures to this day.
Renee stayed in touch with Travolta for many years, garnering an invitation to the New York premiere of Saturday Night Fever and attending the after-party at Tavern On The Green.
“I remember sitting in that movie theater and being so blown away by Johnny’s talent, stardom, and success at that point,” Renee says. “Of course, it became harder for us to stay in touch.”
Flash forward 25 years.
Somehow the two old friends from New Jersey both ended up in Ocala. Travolta, who dreamed of becoming a pilot as a young boy, did indeed become one. He moved to the aviation community of Jumbolair in nearby Anthony just so he could park his plane right outside his front door.
Pursuing a career in radio, Renee worked for a while in the Tampa/Clearwater market before moving to Ocala in 2003. She is currently the marketing consultant for WTRS 102.3FM and Big 92.9FM, specializing in sales and copywriting, as well as regional and national voiceover work. Her current ambition is to move into audiobooks narration. Like everyone else in the area, she knew Travolta lived in Anthony, not but a few miles from her first home there. She never made any attempt to contact her old friend, however, knowing his world was now vastly different than hers.
“But when I read about the Wild Hogs movie premiere here in Ocala,” says Renee. “I just knew we were going to meet up again.”
And indeed they did. Renee was there at the event, waiting for Travolta as a member of the press.
“When it was my turn to ask him a question,” says Renee. “I said, ‘Hi, Johnny, welcome to Ocala.’”
She watched as a “wave of recognition washed over him.” The old friends hugged and chatted for a bit and then Travolta’s wife, Kelly, came over and introduced herself, adding, “I’ve heard so much about you, Renee.”
“It was our little moment,” says Renee. “Then before he walked off, I said, ‘Johnny, you really made it,’ and he said, ‘No one had a voice like yours, Renee, that’s for sure.’ That was very special to me.
“To everyone else, he’s John Travolta, the superstar,” she continues. “But to me, he’ll always be Johnny, the kid from New Jersey with big dreams.”
By Dean Blinkhorn