You would be hard-pressed to find an Islander, vacationer, or much of the general public who doesn’t know about the connection between the movie “Jaws” and the Island. I saw this very first summer blockbuster when I was 15 years old, and what I remember most is that I air-lifted out of my seat into my friend Lisa’s lap when the great white shark burst out of the water with its gaping mouth open wide.
Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen the film since its debut in 1975. Interestingly, most of what I remembered were not the scenes of hunting the mammoth shark but how the Vineyard was transformed into a fictitious location. And that’s exactly what the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s exhibition “Jaws: Creating Amity Island” is all about.
The show is, in fact, an appetizer to the larger one the museum is planning for 2025 to celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary. Despite its small size, this exhibit is bursting with interesting and, in some cases, eye-opening information and visuals.
The first section has great early souvenirs, followed by one focusing on the Vineyard premiere, including a ticket for the first show, proceeds of which went to support the hospital; the movie poster; and a photograph of the Island Theater, with the Amity Town Hall sign hanging at the entrance and a crowd of filmgoers waiting to get in. Of the many quotes that heighten the behind-the-scenes perspective throughout the show include one by the unofficial photographer from Edgartown, Edith Blake, who said of the event: “All winter I had been dreaming about the film’s release … But practically everyone at the premiere was chattering away so excitedly one could barely hear a word … Not that it mattered. I was too busy thinking things like, ‘Oh! So that’s what they did with that scene,’ or ‘When did they film that?’ I was seeing it as all the little bits and pieces I had watched being shot out of sequence and all over the place.”
Referring to these numerous quotes that add fabulous tidbits, Kate Logue, associate curator of exhibitions, who organized the exhibit, says, “I think it is interesting to hear how Islanders who had been swept up in the process of making the movie responded to seeing the finished film. For them, it was a very community-based experience, but in the rest of the country, it became a much bigger thing.”
The show is filled with great photos that include the mechanical shark “Bruce” hanging in Oak Bluffs Harbor, where they stored him every day after shooting. We also see 26-year-old director Steven Spielberg in the water, sitting in the director’s chair, preparing to shoot the second beach panic scene, where what seems like hundreds of Island extras pour out of the ocean. There is one that captures the barge teeming with the technical crew, preparing to film the final shot of the sinking of the Orca. But my favorite is of a crew member kneeling on the bow of a small boat scrubbing the shark’s nose with a brush between takes.
There are Vineyarders in many of the photographs who were key to the film, working behind the scenes to assist the location casting director in identifying and persuading locals to appear in the movie as supporting cast members as well as extras, building sets and props, and operating the boats and barges that made filming at sea possible. “As I was doing my research, I really loved reading about just how involved Islanders were in the film,” Logue says. “There was an interesting dynamic between the professionals from Hollywood and the locals. Sometimes they totally confused each other and caused one another problems, but then at other times they really enjoyed each other and worked together really well.”
Logue comments about the behind-the-scenes quotes and information, “I thought both people familiar with the film and not (and those who know the Island well and those who are visiting for the first time) would enjoy learning these stories. Also, spotting familiar faces and places in a major motion picture can be really fun, so I was trying to give visitors an opportunity to do that.”
The exhibition ends with homemade footage shot during the filming. Curator of exhibitions Anna Barber, who will be putting together the anniversary show, says, “This part is particularly for die-hard ‘Jaws’ fans who know everything, seen everything. It’s a fun little piece.” There will also be a QR code for people to share memories. “We really want the 2025 exhibition to be community-generated, because there are so many stories,” Barber says.
“Jaws was the first summer blockbuster, and is still popular today, and it introduces people to the Island and draws visitors here,” Logue adds. “My hope is that people enjoy seeing this intersection of Hollywood with the Island that we all know and love. I think seeing how Spielberg used Martha’s Vineyard to create Amity Island is a great way to introduce newcomers to the Vineyard, and gives those of us who know it well a fresh perspective and appreciation for what we have.”
“Jaws: Creating Amity Island” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through March 2024. Contact Anna Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have possible items for the 2025 exhibition.