Forty-five years ago this spring, Steven Spielberg started filming a movie about a fish. Actually, the movie was more about the effect the fish had on the inhabitants of an island on the north-east coast of the United States which is really what made it so affecting. The fish was a great white shark and the island was Amity Island. The production crew built a shark out of metal and latex rubber and stepping into the role of Amity Island was Martha’s Vineyard. It was an Academy Award performance. The movie of course was JAWS.
JAWS was big. Actually, it was the biggest. No, I mean, like ever. And no one felt its bite more than Martha’s Vineyard. JAWS is still considered a classic. You cannot turn on the television in the summer without coming across JAWS and, more often than not, all of its three sequels. On Martha’s Vineyard, at least one of the theatres will be playing JAWS for the entire season. You see, for islanders, JAWS is more than just a great film. JAWS is a piece of their history. It is a living, breathing, family album.
Other than the principle players, almost the entire cast was locals. The doctor in the film was an actual island doctor. The driver of the Chappy Ferry (Amity On Time in the film) was the actual driver. Lee Fierro (Mrs Kintner) was the only local who had the sometimes enviable position of being encouraged to slap tourists. By late August, I’m sure there are several islanders who would pay real money for that privilege. Jeffrey Voorhees (Alex Kintner) is still on-island and managing The Wharf in Edgartown. The list goes on and on. As for the island itself—Amity is still there.
Martha’s Vineyard does a beautiful job of remaining unchanged. I remember listening to JAWS production designer, Joe Alves, speak at JAWSfest—the impetus for my first novel, The JAWSfest Murders—and saying that he “could walk out there and film JAWS today”. For the most part, he was right. The stores of Edgartown Village have changed to be sure, but that’s neither here nor there. The edifices are the same. Amity township is there. Oh sure, they tore down Quint’s shack in Menemsha, but the lot is still vacant. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for Mr Spielberg to come back and make the definitive sequel—don’t even whisper the word “remake” around me. The rest of Menemsha remains unchanged. All the other hotspots are still there as well. The Edgartown Lighthouse, The Gay Head Lighthouse, South Beach, The JAWS Bridge, remain basically the same for the discerning JAWS traveller. Okay, yes, they completely remodelled Chief Brody’s house. If they did it to throw JAWS ‘Finatics’ off the scent, it didn’t work. Somehow, just knowing that it is “The Brody House” is enough.
The beauty and serenity of Martha’s Vineyard relies largely on its ability to survive at a pace that is a little bit slower than the rest of the world. The island has sorted out that life can go on without a single traffic light, even at Five Corners. The islanders pay respect to their heritage. The fantastic Martha’s Vineyard Museum, all of its locations, will teach you everything that you need to know about the island’s part in whaling and the underground railroad. But living and breathing all around you, is Amity Island. You might even think that you catch a glimpse of Chief Brody driving by in his gold and white Bronco—a local has painstakingly recreated that very truck. And just so you know, when you get up the nerve to jump off the JAWS Bridge, when you completely submerge, for a brief moment, it will cross your mind—Bruce, that shark, will irrationally cross your mind—and you will swim just a little faster to the rocks and climb out.