I was 12-and-one-quarter years old when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws made its theatrical debut on June 20, 1975 and lived with my widowed mother, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, in a house in the unincorporated community of Westchester in suburban Miami-Dade County. At the time, it was just us two living at the house on Southwest 102nd Ave; my older half-sister Vicky had moved out a year earlier after a failed attempt at harmoniously cohabiting with us. So, in the Summer of Jaws, life was as good as it could be for a 12-year-old boy growing up under the tutelage of a loving but no-nonsense parent.
School was out for the summer when Jaws – the first true blockbuster in movie history and forerunner of such hits as Star Wars, Superman: The Movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and their cinematic heirs – came out. Universal Pictures (then owned by the Music Corporation of America, or MCA) spent almost $2 million in a pre-release media blitz to promote it (there were 24 30-second TV commercials that aired in prime time during the two days before its U.S. release, an unprecedented campaign). Naturally, everybody and his cousin wanted to see it, even kids who had not read Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel.
Coincidentally, I had read Jaws the year before, albeit in an abridged edition that was published in the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books Volume 90, #2. Mom was a long-time subscriber of that series; she started getting the hardcovers – which were published five times a year – in the 1960s and only stopped her subscription in 1979. I was always looking through them for something new to read, and I often found books that I really enjoyed. And Jaws was one of those.
I remember that I read Jaws more than once before I even knew that Peter Benchley’s thriller was going to be made into a major motion picture. In those pre-Internet times, news of upcoming movies were not as easy to get to unless you read trade publications such as Variety, which is not the sort of thing I read when I was 12.
I also remember that I liked Benchley’s man-versus-great white shark main plot – which is essentially what he and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb focused on in the screenplay – but got impatient with the subplots about Mayor Vaughn’s uber-shady business dealings with local mobsters and a torrid affair between shark researcher Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody, the wife of Amity police chief Martin Brody. (In the book, and per the illustration by a Reader’s Digest artist – the books featured at least four full-page illustrations depicting a scene from the story – Ellen Brody was in her 30s and looked like, to use a 21st term, a hot MILF; per the same illustration, Matt Hooper looked a bit like a low-rent Robert Redford impersonator.)
Naturally, when Jaws mania hit Miami in June 1975, I wanted to see it in theaters. Some of my friends, especially those with older siblings who had cars had seen it at least twice by the second week of that phenomenal theatrical run. Their enthusiastic commentary (“Oh, man, that movie was so cool!”) and the media coverage – especially that of the blocks-long lines that formed in front of (and sometimes around ) theaters made me want to go and see it, too.
Unfortunately for me, there stood a formidable obstacle in front of a desired trip to a Miami-area movie theater to see Jaws: my loving, strict-but-fair mother.
I don’t remember if Mom read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books abridgement of Benchley’s bestselling novel. If I recall correctly, though, she (as the parent and head of household) had first-reading privileges when a new edition arrived in the mail, and I would read it at my leisure when she was done. And because Mom was a voracious reader – she read something every day until dementia robbed her of the ability to do so sometime in 2012 – it is quite probable that she had read Jaws, even though she didn’t talk about it with me.
Mom had learned how to dive in her late 30s during business trips to the Colombian island of San Andres, which lies on the Caribbean Sea (not too far away from Nicaragua), where my Uncle Octavio and Mom co-owned a small business for a while. She had seen sharks on several of her dives with a friend of the family’s, Guillermo Cabo, and although Mom was not a wilting willow, she wasn’t exactly keen on watching a movie that featured a Carcharodon carcharias.
As a 12-year-old kid who lived in a house that was 8.2 miles from one of the big theaters that was screening Jaws in that Summer of the Shark, I didn’t have many options to go see it. I could not, by any stretch of the imagination, walk to a theater on my own: the Dadeland Twin theater was too far away for me to make the attempt to do so, and back then I wasn’t confident (or defiant) enough to even think of trying.
Going by Metrobus never occurred to me; there wasn’t a bus route that ran on SW 102 Avenue (and there still isn’t), so even if I could pool enough of my allowance for a ticket ($2.03 was the average price for one in ’75) and bus fare, I didn’t know anything about routes or even bus stops.
My older half-sister? Fuggedaboutit! Although our relationship back then was not as bad as it is now, she was still upset that she had had to move out of the house the year before; her constant bickering with Mom over adherence to house rules and Vicky’s perception that Mom favored me over her had gotten out of hand. So much so, in fact, that it had affected my behavior in school. (I have zero memory of that, but Mom later told me that I was on the brink of an emotional breakdown.) As a result, a Dade County Public Schools psychologist visited Mom at our house; I wasn’t privy to that conversation, but later I found out (through Mom) that he told her that my teachers were concerned about my well-being.
The psychologist – I don’t recall his name but I still remember his gray suit and professorial look – had spoken to me at Tropical Elementary School and inquired, without being overt about it, about how I was doing and what my home life was like. From these conversations, as well as observations made by my caring teachers, the good doctor discerned that my home environment was not conducive neither to my mental health nor my ability to do well in school. And based on the notes he took during our seemingly casual conversations, he divined that the conflicts between Mom and my half-sister were having a really bad effect on me.
A full account of this sad and sorry chapter of my life is beyond the scope of this narrative, so I won’t delve into it further. Suffice it to say, though, that I couldn’t expect any help from Vicky in my efforts to see Jaws. My half-sister was still too angry that she had had to leave home and rent an apartment, and our relationship, while it wasn’t overtly hostile, was, um, frosty.
So, with no driving-age friends at that age, no easy access to public transportation, and no helpful sibling to go see Jaws with, that left me with one option: ask Mom to go and watch it with me. Or, if she didn’t want to see it, to at least drop me off at the Dadeland Twin (or the Coral Gables Twin Theaters), where she could pick me up afterwards.
The conversation, which took place circa the third week of Jaws‘ original run, went something like this:
12-Year-Old Me: Mami, what are you doing this weekend?
Mom: I don’t know yet. I might do some gardening out in the backyard. Why do you ask?
12-Year-Old Me: Well, you know that Jaws is playing at the Dadeland Twin, so I thought maybe we could go on Saturday.
Mom: Alex, no. I don’t think so. That movie is too scary for you.
12-Year-Old Me: But, Mom, I read the book….it wasn’t that scary.
Mom: Alex, I’m not going to see that movie. I heard that it is too violent and that it has…things that you aren’t old enough to see yet.
(I don’t know if Mom was referring to the naked girl – Chrissy – shown prominently on Roger Kastel’s now-iconic poster [which was originally the cover art for the novel’s paperback edition], or the scenes with simulated blood and/or body parts,)
12-Year-Old Me: But, Mom, all of my friends have already seen it, and most of them are 11 and 12, like me.
(This was hyperbole of the highest order; at the time, I had many friends, both in our Westchester neighborhood and in school, and while some of them had, indeed, watched Jaws, I had no way of knowing, in those days before social media, how many of them saw it. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that quite a few of my friends and acquaintances did not see Jaws in 1975.)
Mom: Well, if your friends saw that movie, that’s a decision that their parents made for them. I can respect that, and it’s not my business. However, I’m your mother, and I’m telling you that I’m not going to sit in a theater to watch a shark eat people.
12-Year-Old Me: Can’t you just drop me off at the theater and pick me up afterwards? I am 12, you know, and I won’t go anywhere outside the theater or do anything to get in trouble.
Mom: (by now getting a bit impatient) No. Ab-so-lute-ly not. I don’t want you to come home after seeing “that movie” and then have nightmares for weeks on end afterward.
(There was, of course, some precedent for that. I had watched Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror, the notorious made-for-TV movie starring Karen Black in three short tales of the macabre, three months before Jaws’ premiere. The first two episodes were not that scary; but the third, Amelia, was. That’s the one where Black’s character has a life-or-death fight with a Zuni doll possessed by an evil spirit, and is the one that most people remember. I had nightmares over the next few nights – not weeks, like Mom said – so….)
12-Year-Old Me: But…but…Mom!
Mom: Alex, I said “No,” and I mean it. Not another word from you, or you can’t watch TV for a week or go out to play with your friends. Do I make myself clear?
My mother was always a sweet person and even an indulgent parent on occasion, and with me, she had patience that would have impressed Job. But she was also, at least during my formative years, the type of parent whose word was the law of the house. And once my mother had made up her mind on a subject, no amount of cries of But, Mom would sway her.
As a rule, I rarely had the gumption to defy my mother; sometimes I did, especially during my teen years, But not on that occasion.
So I meekly said, “Yes, Mami,” as contritely as I could and apologized for trying to argue. As I walked slowly to my room to deal with the reality that I wasn’t going to watch Jaws any time soon, I could hear her dialing the rotary Princess phone to call my friends’ parents – their moms, mostly – to advise them that under no circumstances was I to go see Jaws, accompanied or otherwise.
So I didn’t see Steven Spielberg’s Jaws at the theater, even though a few months later my mom tried to make up for it by letting me go see a re-release of Shark’s Treasure, a Cornel Wilde action-adventure film made as a result of Benchley’s best-seller. She didn’t watch it with me because of its subject matter, but it didn’t have any lasting negative effect on my 12-year-old psyche.
Several years later, after Mom sold the house in Westchester and we moved into a brand-new townhouse in Fontainebleau Park, one of the “cool moms” in the neighborhood invited me over to her house to check out the first videocassette recorder I’d ever seen. Her son Tony was an acquaintance of mine; their house was on the NW 4th Lane side of our block, so I knew him from my walks around the neighborhood. The “cool mom” – Jackie was her name, if memory serves – and her husband (also named Tony) were real estate agents and were well-off enough to buy a VCR, which at the time cost around $900 for a good brand-name machine.
Jackie and Tony, Sr. had a modest number of VHS tapes, but the two titles I remember most were Grease and Jaws. We watched those two movies on various occasions, and neither film gave me nightmares.
Eventually, Jaws was aired as an ABC Sunday Night Movie sometime after I watched it at Tony and Jackie’s house; Mom didn’t watch it with me on that occasion, but I had a black-and-white portable TV in my room. By then, Mom didn’t care what I watched so long as I didn’t stay up all night on school nights.
And sometime around 1990, Universal Home Video released Jaws in a 15th Anniversary Edition, with John Williams’ music score getting a digital remaster. I bought a copy, of course; eventually, I convinced Mom to watch it with me. (By then, she was a fan of Steven Spielberg’s movies and was more agreeable to seeing “that movie.” It never was her favorite effort by Spielberg, but at least she was open-minded enough to give it a fair shake.)
That VHS tape is no longer in my collection; my American Home Video VCR gave up the ghost in 1994, 10 years after I bought it for $400.00 at an electronics store in the Miami International Mall. And Mom’s VCR was unceremoniously claimed by my half-sister a few years after that; Vicky’s player wore out after many years of being used to play Jane Fonda’s Workout, and Vicky, Luddite that she is at times, refused to buy a DVD player to replace it. VCRs were being phased out at the time and new units were difficult to find, so Vicky went to Mom’s room and simply took it. So neither Mom nor I had a VCR to play our videocassettes on, and I gave my VHS collection away.
However, I still have my 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD from 2000, and the 2012 100th Anniversary of Universal Pictures Edition Blu-ray of Jaws.
I don’t watch them often, but when I do, I remember my failed attempt to watch it in 1975…and, of course, I remember that my mom eventually came around and saw it with me on home video.