In the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, Florida was a glorious hotspot for independent film production. Local filmmakers like William Grefé, Harry Kerwin and Brad Grinter directed a slew of ‘exploitation independent’ productions in Florida, Bob Clark got his career off the ground there, and the region was freckled with productions by such lesser-known figures as Bob Favorite, Thomas Casey, Don Barton, and Richard S. Flink. So how did Florida end up being such a significant filmmaking hub?

The clue is in the nickname. Filmmakers looking for blue skies and warm weather found “The Sunshine State” irresistible. Everyone from gore film pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis to the producers of the James Bond films headed down to the region with their cameras and crews. With approximately 1350 miles of coastline, Florida offered all the sun, sea and sand one could ask for, while the Florida Everglades gave you jungle or swamp country without the need for a long haul to South America. There were sub-tropics in the South, caverns in Marianna, river-hugging foliage Amazon-style along the St. John’s River, a coral cay archipelago (the Florida Keys) off the southern coast, open plains in the Everglades that could stand in for Africa at a squint, plus cattle ranches, orange groves, pine woods; all of these visual temptations awaited the adventurous location scout. Topping it all off was the fresh clean sea air, which appealed to Hollywood cinematographers seeking relief from the smog-laden skies of Los Angeles. As one industry insider told a Palm Beach newspaper, “You can’t shoot scenic color through petroleum fumes, and every day a crew sits round trying to find the sun, it costs the producer thousands of dollars.”(1)

The number one success story in Florida filmmaking was Ivan Tors, whose 1963 hit movie Flipper, about a super-intelligent dolphin and his friendship with the son of a Florida fisherman, cost about a half-million to make and grossed between five and eight million on first release. In early 1964, Tors bought the single-stage Thunderbird Studio and renamed it Ivan Tors Studios, a $2.5 million venture which became the cornerstone of the Miami film and TV industries. By 1965 his studio employed approximately 150 people, and in 1966 he added two more sound stages, making it the biggest American studio complex outside of California.

With Tors showing that good investment and driving ambition could make things happen in Miami, others soon tried to follow his lead. In 1966, David L. Brady and his brother Ray set up a rival operation called Studio City in North Miami, and to begin with they did pretty well, snaring production of Tony Rome, Gordon Douglas’s private detective thriller starring Frank Sinatra (distributed by 20th Century Fox). Further bookings did not keep up the pace, however, and the studio quickly fell into decline. By the time it was being used as a location in the Miami production Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (shot as Don’t Spank Baby in 1971), it was a graffiti-covered dump, surrounded by scrubby waste ground and crude hand-painted signage.(2)

The prize for the most intriguing film studio in Florida, however, must surely go to Empire Studios, run by one of the most neglected and under-exposed pioneers in Florida filmmaking: Luke Moberly. In the fourteen year lifespan of Empire Studios, Moberly directed three feature films himself – The Horse Killer, Little Laura and Big John, and Sweet Talker – and rented studio facilities to many others, including films by such varied figures as René Cardona Jr., Juan Orol, Joseph P. Mawra, Thomas B. Casey and William Grefé. Sadly, Moberly’s herculean efforts have been all but forgotten today. As of 2017, only one of his feature films (Little Laura and Big John) has an entry on the IMDb website, an indication of just how far out of view his work has slipped in the last forty years. This article aims to set the record straight, and give due credit to the efforts of a man who quite literally built his very own movie empire in the deep green Florida marshes.

“A Grade-A character [who] practically defies description. A warm friendly cracker-barrel type who calls himself ‘hill-billy’. Luke is a wild combination of sharp intelligence, incandescent smile and 10% proof enthusiasm – an absolutely electric personality.”

--“The Florida Filming Scene,” Cinematographer magazine, June 1973

Luke Moberly was born in Richmond, Kentucky

Luke Moberly was born in Richmond, Kentucky in 1925, the child of two Baptist Sunday School teachers. He was raised in Ludlow on the river-border between Kentucky and Ohio, and after leaving college he quickly set up in business, designing and furnishing doctors’ offices and waiting rooms. He moved to Florida in his twenties and found himself a job in shop-front design, but he soon expanded his range, conceiving and constructing Christmas displays for local businesses, including lavish grottos, painted hardwood displays and life-size animated figures. His experience in constructing these fantasy environments set him on course for his life’s work: the creation of cinematic illusions…

Christmas displays designed and built by Moberly
Christmas displays designed and built by Moberly



In February 1964, Moberly approached council officials in the city of Davie, near Fort Lauderdale, with a hugely ambitious plan: to build an eight acre film production complex called Empire Studios on a dense woodland plot bounded by tall melaleuca trees, lush foliage and a small lake.(3) Moberly excited the local authorities with his vision for the project: “We will do everything possible to bring your industry to Davie,” he was told, at a meeting to agree the necessary building permissions.(4) With municipal endorsements ringing in his ears, he began construction of his first soundstage in June 1964.

From the start, Moberly’s approach was heavily design-driven. Each of the four proposed studios was allotted an aesthetic template: Studio East (featuring Japanese set design) was the first to be constructed, followed by Studio West (for movie westerns). Studio North (a standing set of a children’s fantasy North Pole) was next, with Studio South (offering a Polynesian jungle set) bringing up the rear. Rather than build a ‘tabula rasa’ studio and then wait for visiting productions to ask for specifics, Moberly created standing sets in anticipation of certain popular genres, the western in particular. He also created a detailed facsimile of a Fort Lauderdale street from the early 1900s, allowing his fascination for local period detail to dictate what the studio had to offer.

LUKE MOBERLY: I built “Studio East” with an Oriental design, with a bridge across to an island and a big Buddha statue in front. Inside there was also my office and a star dressing room. Next, I built “Studio West,” with three dirt streets behind it and false fronts. I copied all the original storefronts of downtown Ft. Lauderdale in 1915, the year it was incorporated. I planned to build “Studio North” next and make the interior a children's Fantasyland. Then I would film Timmy and Tammy in Toyland and have it all open for tours…


Characteristic of Moberly’s approach was his statement to the press, before construction had even begun, that he intended to open up the studio to the public, proposing the standing sets as a tourist attraction á là Disneyland in California.(5) A specially landscaped waterway would double as a production resource and tourist boat ride, while a horse stable and corral would also serve as an attraction for paying visitors. And to attract even more people to the premises, Moberly successfully built and opened a restaurant there, run by his wife Mondalee.

In 1966, with two sound stages built and a third one under construction, Moberly was burning up money but seeing very little production coming through the gates. Most of the producers and interested parties who’d expressed interest in the first year of Empire had disappeared before a deal could be signed. Moberly’s original intention, to act as studio leaseholder or co-producer for visiting productions, was beginning to seem inadequate. Almost reluctantly, he decided that the only way to guarantee film production at Empire was to direct a fully-fledged feature film himself.

And so, in August 1966, Moberly began shooting The Horse Killer, from a script by Thomas Casey, future director of that bizarre Florida opus Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971). Based on a real-life spate of gruesome horse mutilations which occurred in Davie in 1964, The Horse Killer was directed by Moberly and co-produced with former Cincinnati theatre owner turned fellow Broward County resident Louis Wiethe. Stressing that he had complete control over script, production and casting, Moberly explained to the press, “The most important thing is to get a quality movie made here in Davie. When it’s on film, then we’ll have something to show. I build the sets, cast and direct, then Mr. Wiethe will take the film for distribution.”(6)

Shooting began on 10 August 1966, with exteriors filmed in the Davie and Fort Lauderdale area, after which the production moved onto sets at Empire’s Studio East. With filming due to finish around 25 September, Moberly told a local newspaper that no one except himself had seen the material shot so far: “I think the rushes are great, but I haven’t shown them to anyone, including the cast. I want them to keep on doing the good job they’re doing without being distracted by the rushes.”(7) Scoring and editing took place in January 1967, and a completed version of the film was shipped to New York some time between January and April for screening to potential distributors.

The Horse Killer starred Shane Erickson, Stephanie Harold, and Palm Beach radio host Gordon Sanford Diem, with secondary roles filled by Blanche Wallace (a local nightclub entertainer), Clint Cullen (a local character actor) and the town of Davie’s detective lieutenant Phil Philbin. Most notable among the cast, in view of her pivotal future role in cult shocker The Last House on the Left, was young actress Sandra Peabody. Interviewed by David Szulkin for his book Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic, Peabody had this to say about Luke Moberly’s debut feature: The Horse Killerwas actually based on the true story of a man who castrated horses! It was a really bizarre story, but it wasn’t like Last House, with sex and murder. It was more of a mystery, where these incidents were happening and they were trying to find this weird guy who was doing it. I was playing the girlfriend, and we had a lot of scenes riding horses.”(8)

LUKE MOBERLY: The first movie I directed was a Tom Casey script--The Horse Killer--and Lou Wiethe put up only $50,000 for my budget. I built all the sets free, directed and edited it. I shot it in black and white. One day a real nice man, Rene Martinez, and his son Rene Jr., came in my office and said they would like to take it to Mexico to screen it and set distribution in the Latin market. I let them take a print. They returned with good news that everyone wanted the suspense thriller and it didn't even need to be in Spanish. Then they said they could get my prints made in Mexico for a fraction of the cost of our labs, if I would let them take the negative there. I have never seen them or my negative since.

By March 1968

By March 1968, with the addition of a sound recording and dubbing studio, Empire now offered almost everything required to make a feature film (the only thing missing was on-site film processing). Moberly now claimed to employ 35 technicians full-time, and his studio was fully unionised (a step apparently triggered by some fractious experiences during the production of Peligro!...mujeres en acción – see filmography). Fortune, however, was reluctant to smile on his enterprise. A change of studio name in 1969, from Empire Studios to Moberly Studios, suggests financial difficulties around this time, possibly due to loss of The Horse Killer. (As a legal entity, Empire Studios Inc. was dissolved by proclamation in June 1971).

Two years after The Horse Killer had been ‘stolen by bandits,’ Empire Studios was once again host to an honest-to-goodness feature film directed by Moberly himself. Little Laura and Big John (first announced as Too Late to Laugh, Too early To Cry) got under way on 10 March 1969, with shooting taking place on location in Stuart before returning to Empire Studios on 30 March. The story of a pair of childhood sweethearts who become bank robbers in turn of the century Fort Lauderdale, it was based on the real life case of the Ashley-Mobley Gang, but was probably inspired, at least in part, by a sideways glance at the stupefying profits raked in by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Moberly, however, held back on the red corn syrup and gunshot wounds, a decision which may have cost his film success on the drive-in circuit. Cast in the leading roles were Karen Black, soon to hit the big time with roles with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and pop-star-turned-actor Fabian Forte. Black, who received $1000 a week for five weeks of shooting, apparently told Moberly after the shoot that she was “fed up with movies” and was thinking of looking for another line of work.(9) Just as well that she changed her mind, as her career was about to go stellar…

Three years later, life had changed dramatically for Karen Black, who in 1971 won the New York Critics Circle award and the Golden Globe for best supporting actress, for her role in Five Easy Pieces. All the more frustrating then, that Little Laura and Big John should still have been looking for distribution in 1972. Though not by nature a volatile man, Moberly was struggling to make ends meet – and the stress was beginning to show. The flashpoint came in May 1972 when he attempted to turn his on-site restaurant into a cocktail bar and private members club, a plan which met with stiff opposition from Davie Town Council, who refused him a liquor license. Moberly told them he needed the licence to establish his “Movie Makers Club”, membership of which was open to local businessmen looking to invest in film productions. The plan was to sell membership of the club (which would convene at the Moberly Studios restaurant) at $1000 a pop. The funds would go into moviemaking: members would be credited as ‘associate producers’ and receive a share in the profits. This didn’t cut any ice with the town council, and in June 1972 Moberly lost a further hearing. Furious, he stormed out of the meeting, threatening to sue the town.

Afterwards, Moberly was defiant, telling the press: “I’ve got more good things going for me than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m bitter about being denied the license, but I don’t want to make a stink about it. I’ve made nine deals in the last two weeks – more than I’ve made in the last eight years.”(10) However, for the first time he also revealed he was thinking of selling up, indicating that investors in New York and California had expressed an interest in either backing him or buying him out. That Moberly was prepared to mention this in the press suggests that he was reaching the end of his tether.

Luckily, help was at hand in the form of a local investor, Edwin Gordon, who offered to fund his next movie, which Moberly described to the press as “a satire of the Jesus movement as seen through the eyes of Holyrollers and atheists.”(11)

The result was Sweet Talker, which began its journey to the screen under the working title “Old Time Religion”. Moberly explained the premise to the press: “With kids so uptight about so many things they are exploring – religion has got to come good. If I’m right with my religion thing, it could make me $50 million. I’m shooting for an ‘R’ rating – it won’t make any money otherwise.”(12) Declaring that filming was scheduled for November and December, he put out a casting call for “a 45-year old crop duster turned revival preacher, a sexy young girl, a pretty Sunday Schoolteacher between 30 and 40, a young long-haired rock group, two sexy go-go dancers, Paul the poet, motocross bike rider, cowboys, prisoners, guard, cab driver, police, two drunks, 200 Mexicans, and thousands of hippies”. (13)

Soon, all the required spots were filled except one: leading man. Undaunted, Moberly took the plunge and starred in the movie himself, making him the first and only director/producer/star/studio-owner/set designer ever to work in the movies! Shooting began on schedule in December 1972, with location filming taking place in Fort Lauderdale until March 1973 and further shooting in Yazoo County, Mississippi, in September. The story centred on a Mississippi crop-duster called Clay Teeter, married to a domineering preacher’s daughter, who runs off to Florida with his girlfriend Pearlene and becomes a phoney revival preacher. He travels around in a 1929 biplane, conducts his revival meetings from an old tent with a choir and a rock group called ‘Flying Gospel’s Rock Revival’, employs two hot ‘sisters’ to brandish the collection plates, and despite himself becomes something of an inspirational youth leader in the process.(14)

In the summer of 1974 Moberly settled on a new title, Sweet Talker, and a premiere screening was booked for 19 July in his home town of Ludlow, Kentucky. A second ‘premiere’ took place on 4 September 1974 in Yazoo, Mississippi, the town where half of the film had been shot. Moberly and his wife attended both screenings. Back in Davie later that month, Moberly announced yet another change of title: the film was now called Sweet Talker - A Devil With Wings. It played under this title in Greenwood, Mississippi (from 15 November 1974); Blytheville, Arkansas (from 15 January 1975); Statesville, North Carolina (from 19 January); and Anniston, Alabama (from 26 March 1975) before opening in Florida (Fort Myers) on 25 April 1975, with Moberly once again in attendance. Sadly, this seems to have been the end of the line for Sweet Talker. Currently ‘missing from the vaults’, it was never released on video, has not turned up on DVD, and is not even listed on the Internet Movie Database.

If Jaws made you afraid to go in the ocean, you might as well give away your picnic basket before you see this one.

--Luke Moberly(15)

Horror films are the evergreen choice

Horror films are the evergreen choice for low budget film producers, and in March 1975 Moberly unveiled a plan to shoot a monster movie about the Florida Everglades’ very own version of Bigfoot: The Skunk Ape! A fearsome hominid over seven feet tall, with dark hair covering most of its body and exuding a powerful skunk-like odor, the creature was reputed to haunt the south-west fringes of the Everglades, near Davie and Cooper City. “The script is all written and the sets are all built and ready to go,” said Moberly to the Florida News-Press, “But I won’t tell you what happens in The Skunk Ape. We want it to be good suspense. Just like the movie Psycho makes people afraid to take a shower, we hope The Skunk Ape makes people afraid to walk outside at night.”(16)

Promising “95 minutes of fright” with a cast of hundreds and a budget of $200k, Moberly seemed to be reveling in his brash new filmmaking persona: “Frankly, I want to scare the hell out of people!”(17) The film would begin, he promised, with a nude Indian maiden hiding in a tree, who would be murdered by the ravening Skunk Ape in the first of many terrifying attacks. The film was also set to feature a fake Skunk Ape, a marvelous notion (with shades of Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla) that could have delivered a classic scene in which the real monster rips the guts out of a prank-playing man in a costume…

Moberly claimed that he first got the idea for the film when his nine year old daughter’s pony was found with its throat torn out: a local cop suggested it could have been the work of the Skunk Ape. (One suspects, however, that the runaway success of Charles B. Pierce’s Legend of Boggy Creek may also have given Moberly’s imagination a helpful nudge or two.) Whatever the impetus, the Skunk Ape project reinvigorated Moberly, who was full of the joys of the scare-’em trade as he talked up the project to the press: “I think the good Lord just struck me with a bolt of lightning and said, ‘Here’s the end of your rainbow’. What I’ve found is what everybody in this business looks for. I think we can get rich on this one picture.”(18) For the role of the monster, Moberly found 34-year-old local bit-part actor and horror ‘road-show’ performer Don Lyddane. At six foot ten he was a natural for the role, although the Skunk Ape’s reported height of seven-and-a-half feet would still have required him to venture into the Everglades on stacked heels. Warming to the challenge, Lyddane told reporters, “The skunk ape isn’t an ape. One man who saw it said it was a hunchbacked creature with long gray hair and a wrinkled face. He said it looked like a huge hairy old man who had been wallowing around in the mud.”(19)

You might think that this description would make investment irresistible, and in a perfect world The Skunk Ape would now reside in horror film collections alongside Creature from Black Lake, Night of the Demon and Shriek of the Mutilated. But it was not to be. Despite Boxoffice (8 September 1975) announcing that “[The Skunk Ape] started shooting recently in the woods around Moberly’s studio…”, the film was never completed. After two years in limbo, the project re-emerged in the hands of one ‘Brad Bond’, described by the Fort Lauderdale News as a “self-styled movie mogul … who bills himself as an actor, writer, producer, director, camera man and editor”(20) Who was this potential saviour? None other than Brad F. Grinter, director of Flesh Feast and Blood Freak! “You can make any picture with amateur talent provided you get some kind of a performance out of them,” he continued helpfully, before summing up his pitch with the immortal line, “I think I can make anyone look natural for thirty seconds.”

Again, it was not to be. Grinter couldn’t raise the budget and the film was never made. In 1978, with The Skunk Ape having failed to clamber out of the pre-production swamp, something finally snapped for Luke Moberly. He left Florida and headed back to Kentucky, where he spent time caring for a sick relative. Even then, he could not tear himself away from the passion that had dominated his life. In 1981, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story that will sound very familiar:

“If Luke Moberly has his way, a parcel of land near the convergence of Boone, Kenton and Grant Counties in Kentucky may soon be known as ‘Hollywood East’. Moberly, a Kentucky-born movie producer, has purchased about 65 acres in Crittenden for a movie studio and vacation resort. His plans call for four film and sound studios, a 1925 town setting, a fantasy-like set, a jungle set, a motel and several vacation bungalows, a restaurant, a theater, a swimming pool, tennis courts and hiking, horseback-riding and jogging trails.”(21)

Moberly was once again buzzing with enthusiasm: “If I had dreamed in my most fantastic dreams the most perfect location for a movie studio-resort, I couldn’t have come up with anything better … The market is hungry for low-budget movies, especially in Europe. And that’s why small studios are cropping up all over the country. Just look at some of the big moneymakers of the last few years, like Halloween, The Lords of Flatbush, Macon County Line and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaw for example, had a $150,000 budget and grossed $10 million.”(22) Moberly’s first project, should he get the planning permission to build his studio? Why, The Skunk Ape, of course…

LUKE MOBERLY: I tried to create a film industry in Florida with no money or knowledge of the business. I became a self taught writer, producer, director, editor, and built all of my studios myself with one helper. With the advice of Robert Rehme in Cincinnati, I went all across the country and to Mexico, and set up my films in distribution. Too many people tried to take advantage of me and I finally gave it up.

Sadly, the ‘Hollywood East’ project foundered due to lack of investment. Moberly was unable to get his Kentucky studio built, and although he did manage to strike a contract to buy the Crittenden land, as months and then years dragged on he couldn’t afford to keep up the payments. The land reverted to its owner, and the dream was over.

Purely in terms of film production, this was the end of the Luke Moberly story, and one has to say it’s not surprising that he gave up when he did. The industry had not been kind in the 1960s and 1970s, so what chance the 1980s, when the territory carved out by independent moviemakers was being ruthlessly land-grabbed by the major corporations? Everything that Luke Moberly managed to achieve in Florida was clawed out of the earth and built with his bare hands, and despite a string of bad experiences in the shark-infested waters of independent filmmaking, he toughed it out for fourteen years. It’s a testament to his energy and passion that he still had the balls to try again. If he ultimately failed to realize his dream of becoming an established studio owner to rival the dream factories of Hollywood, it was definitely not for the want of trying.

Empire Studios Filmography

EMPIRE STUDIOS FILMOGRAPHY
A work-in-progress


1964

Timmy and Tammy in Toyland

Format: TV special/pilot

Status: announced but never begun

The first production touted by Moberly in the press was this proposed half-hour children’s film, a whimsical adventure to be filmed on the Studio North soundstage “with ice cream mountains, toy shops, deer, elves, ice-skating penguins and other North Pole fantasia.”(23) As late as July 1970 the project was still being mooted as a TV special in the making. Although it was never made, one can see from the photos of Moberly’s Christmas displays that he would have aced the visual side of such a project…


1965

Country Music aka Try It Western Style aka Country A Go Go

Format: one hour TV music show
Director: Luke Moberly
Announced February 1965
Camera: Mario DiLeo
Status: started but probably never finished

In February 1965, Moberly began working with cinematographer Mario DiLeo, shooting exteriors in Davie for a project called Country Music. In charge of production was Albert Gannaway, veteran producer of low budget westerns. Note: According to TV listings, a show called Country A Go Go was screened in the New Jersey area in January 1965, a month earlier than Florida press reports claimed shooting was taking place on the Gannaway-Moberly project.

LUKE MOBERLY: Country Music was a project of Al Gannaway’s and he wanted me to update it, so I created Country A Go Go. Al was the first person to film the Grand Ole Opry on 35mm film and he did it for a whole year. He had been filming westerns in California before coming here. I only have one picture in Studio East of me shooting one episode. I'm sure he did something with it. He wrote a story for a film about me and wanted to do it starting with me standing in my parking lot talking on the phone fastened to the telephone pole out front, with a cement trowel in my hand and a stack of concrete block behind me, asking the bank if I could borrow $50,000 to finish my first studio. I didn't know anything about the movie studios or making movies but I designed all the buildings and built them with only one helper to mix the cement or carry the boards, and he got a kick out of that.

Go-Go-A-Go-Go

Format: music film
Director: Luke Moberly
Producer: Albert Gannaway
Camera: Mario DiLeo
Scheduled to end 7 August 1965
Status: unfinished

Also jumping at Empire Studios circa 1965 was a musical project called Go-Go-A-Go-Go. Set in the Fort Lauderdale region and described by one contributor as a “songs, boys, girls and beach type opus,” it was shot with an eye for possible television sales. Moberly expressed the hope that it might also snag a few Florida theatrical showings. In charge of production was Albert Gannaway (see “Country Music”) who set up an office at Empire Studios in the hope that Go-Go-A-Go-Go would lead to a TV series. If it had, he would have needed a new secretary: the female lead was Linda Syer, a college girl from nearby Cooper City who’d been working part-time as Gannaway’s secretary. Singer and local policeman Ray Teager wrote twelve songs for the film, while adding a touch of beat verisimilitude was a British group called The Robin Hoods, who’d recently signed to Mercury Records and settled in Chicago. (Before relocating to the USA they’d been called The Klan, but for obvious reasons that monicker had to go…) Pete Shelton of The Robin Hoods recalled, “We filmed in Miami in a Rock Musical with Dion and The Belmonts, Brook Benton and a few I can't remember.”(24) Go-Go-A-Go-Go was due to finish shooting by 7 August 1965, for release in the aGangwayutumn, but six months later (in a feature dated 28 February 1966) Ray Yeager said the movie was still awaiting release. Some contemporary references suggested the film was completed, but Moberly himself does not include it in his feature directing credits. It seems that the footage Moberly shot was taken away for future assembly by Gannaway, who never completed the project.

Misfit aka The Misfit

Format: feature film, colour
Director: unknown
Producer: Youth Films (later known as Gospel Films)
Status: completed, shown in churches
1st screening 16 September 1965 (Fort Lauderdale)

In April 1965, Empire Studios hosted production of a Christian morality tale called Misfit (“The Misfit” during production). A dire warning against the evils of drug-taking among high-school dropouts, it offered ‘Christian alternatives’ to a life of crime, drugs and debauchery: prayer, celibacy, bible-reading and other fun-filled activities. It was produced by Youth Films (later Gospel Films), an evangelical company based in Muskegon, Michigan, whose president, Billy Zeoli, would go on to serve as White House chaplain to President Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s. (Zeoli remained active into the 2000s, producing Creationist DVDs for children.) Misfit starred a handsome young Fort Lauderdale actor called Warren Day, fresh from a guest spot in the Flipper TV series and on his way to a supporting role in the Soupy Sales comedy Birds Do It, shot in December 1965 at the Ivan Tors studios. His girlfriend in the saga was played by local girl ‘Sandy Peabody,’ and if you think you recognise that name, you’re probably a fan of the 1972 shocker Last House on the Left: ‘Sandy Peabody’ was none other than Last House’s Sandra Peabody (who played ‘Mari Collingwood’ in the Craven film using the pseudonym Sandra Cassell). Peabody, who was brought up in Miami, was cast in the film when another girl got sick and had to be replaced.

“Cinebox” and “Colorama” shorts

Format: short promotional films for pop Records

Director: Luke Moberly

Status: unknown

A brief source of revenue for Moberly was the short-lived vogue for Cinebox and Colorama: jukeboxes with screens on top which showed film clips along with the records. Perhaps hoping to become a music mogul as well as a film producer, Moberly duly registered a music publishing company, The Empire Recording Label …Cinebox was an Italian invention, launched in 1959, which arrived in the USA in the spring of 1963. It was renamed Colorama in 1965, and then redesigned and rebranded in 1966 as Cinejukebox. By the summer of 1965 there were just over six hundred films available for the Cinebox machines. However the device never gained traction compared to the market leader, Scopitone, and as a result the Cinebox films are now hard to find.

LUKE MOBERLY: I was asked to make films synced to the songs on the Cinebox jukeboxes. I made a bunch of them, then someone either bought them out or changed the name to Scopitone, but I still made all of them. I guess I made the original music videos.

The Devil’s Sisters

Format: feature film
Director: William Grefé
Status: completed and released

December 1965 saw Florida’s low budget dynamo William Grefé at Empire Studios, filming his punchy whorehouse drama The Devil’s Sisters. The film was produced by South Floridians Juan Hidalgo and Joe Fink (the latter of whom was the owner of the Hiway Drive-In Theatre in nearby Dania).


1966

The Horse Killer (aka The Horse Killers)

Format: feature film
Director: Luke Moberly
Producer: Louis Wiethe
Status: completed but unreleased
Running time: 86m

cast: Shane Erickson. Stephanie Harold. Sandra Peabody. Gordon Sanford Diem. Kathleen Stanley. Julio Cesare. Bud Irwin. Bob Burns. Blanche Wallace. Clint Cullen. Phil Philbin.

Gavilan (aka Gavilon aka The Ballad of Gavilan)

Dormat: feature film
Director: William Jugo
Started shooting 21 March 1966, for a month
Status: completed but unreleased

Starring Christopher George, Dave Blanchard and Patricia Rainier, this western-style adventure set in Venezuela was shot on location in Immokalee, Florida, and at the Empire Studios lot. It was never released.

LUKE MOBERLY: For Gavilan I built all of their sets in my studios and in the town of Immokalee. I was in a couple of scenes and I built big sets there, with only the help of a couple Mexicans bringing me loads of tree slabs to build the cowboy's barracoon (house) and stores. I did it on a total deferment of thousands of dollars to help Bill out and I never got a dime. He passed away a few years later. Just another screwing I got for being a nice guy.

Contrabandistas del Caribe

Format: feature films
Director: Juan Orol
Status: completed 1966; released 1968
Filmed in colour.

Antesala de la silla eléctrica

Format: feature film
Director: Juan Orol
Status: completed 1966; released in the USA 1970
Filmed in black and white.

In 1966, Juan Orol, a Mexican producer/director, shot two Spanish language features at Empire Studios: Contrabandistas del Caribe (Caribbean Smugglers) and Antesala de la silla eléctrica (Prelude to the Electric Chair). Orol, sometimes referred to as ‘the Mexican Ed Wood’, first turned up in Florida in 1964, when he filmed La maldición de mi raza (The Curse of My Race) at Miami’s “Studio 10” TV studios. The films he made at Empire scored a few scattered playdates in the USA’s Spanish-language theatres: Contrabandistas del Caribe played in Santa Fe from 17 November 1968, in Detroit from 2 November 1969, and in Tucson from 18 June 1972; Antesala de la silla eléctrica played in Del Rio from 10 May 1970, in Phoenix from 13 August 1970, and in Los Angeles in October 1971, plus numerous showings in New Mexico throughout 1970-71.

What’s especially interesting about these two films is that not only does Moberly receive full screen credit for his set design and studio facilities (something which did not happen very often), but the studio exteriors themselves are featured in the stories! Parts of Antesala de la silla eléctrica take place at a movie studio, and Moberly’s ’Studio East’ complex, with its pagoda-style entrance arch and Buddha statue, is used for these sequences, giving us a unique opportunity to see the studio in its mid-sixties glory. Contrabandistas del Caribe also features some of the studio buildings, and sets a number of scenes at the ’Studio West’ area. Both films can be viewed (albeit with terrible picture quality) on Youtube.


1967

Ride, Roxie, Ride

Format: TV show
Director: unknown
Status: unknown

In April 1967 Moberly claimed to have recently completed a half-hour television show called Ride, Roxie, Ride, based around rodeo events in Davie and the city of Homestead (a major suburb of Miami). Some sources list Moberly as director.

Luke Moberly:Ride Roxie Ride sounds familiar but I have no idea if someone shot it here.”

Shanty Tramp

Format: feature film
Director: Jose Pietro
Status: completed and released

“During the two and one-half years Empire Studios has operated, seventeen movies have been made in this area. The two latest are Shanty Tramp and Danger, Women in Action. - The Bennington Banner, 30 September 1967

The trashy and beguiling Shanty Tramp, directed by Jose Pietro (not Joseph Mawra) and produced by K. Gordon Murray, was shot at Moberly’s studios in June 1967. According to Boxoffice magazine it was completed just a week before its opened on 21 June. A lengthy interview with Florida actor Bill Rogers (Love Goddesses of Blood Island) in the fanzine Ecco (#19) confirmed the booking, although it placed the film’s shooting period a month or two earlier: “Rogers’ next film was the first ‘filmed in Florida’ production from his old boss K. Gordon Murray, who had decided to shoot drive-in movies at Luke Moberly's studio in Davie. Shanty Tramp was filmed in the spring of 1967…” Note the plural: ‘drive-in movies’. It seems that Murray may have shot other features at Empire…

Peligro!...mujeres en acción aka Danger Girls aka Danger: Women in Action

Forma: feature film
Director: René Cardona Jr.
Status: completed, and released in Mexico 17 July 1969 (no US release)

Cast-member Jack Novicki aka John Novak told David Wilt in 2007: “When we were shooting in Miami an interior set of a submarine was built in the studio of a commercial production house … The use of their non union workers probably was what caused the union problems that the production had … The film was to be partially shot in Ecuador. I heard that they could not get permission but I think they just ran out of money after the Miami scenes were shot … The production was having problems with the tech unions in Florida and they were picketing some of our locations. I spoke to a few of the guys and told them that the actors were working under a union contract and we had no control over the non-union production personal. We shook hands and I never saw them again.”(25)

Savages from Hell

Format: feature film
Director: Joseph Prieto
Shooting June 1968
Status: completed and released

In the Skin With Me

Format: short film
Status: probably finished but unreleased

A twenty minute short about skindiving starring Cooper City pool lifeguard and ex-Vermont resident Rick Wagar. A report in the Bennington Banner (Vermont, 30 September 1967) described the film as “already shot” and Moberly told the paper the editing and music would be completed “this week.” It was filmed at the John Pennekamp Underwater State Park in the Florida Keys, and Fort Lauderdale Beach. Filed with seven underwater cameras and a submarine vehicle. Music was by Dennise Norwood, from her ‘concept album for skin-divers’ “In The Skin With Me” (Dennise Records, DDA-101).

LUKE MOBERLY: Dennise brought me her album and I wrote a script for the film. I edited her music to the film, like my Cinebox music videos.


1968

That Nice Boy

Format: feature film
Director: unknown
Producers: Vidacrome (Canada)
Status: probably finished but unreleased

In June 1968, a Canadian production called “That Nice Boy”, starring Italian-American comedian Pat Cooper as a psychiatrist, and Warren Day (star of Misfit) was shot at Empire Studios. A production listing in Billboard (23 November 1968) stated that the film was due for January 1969 release. By 20 August it was still allegedly in production at Empire, with Moberly himself helping out when pre-production was suspended on his own (unmade) film The Liberators.


1969

Little Laura and Big John aka Too Late to Laugh, Too Early To Cry aka Easy Little Laura Girl aka The True Story of the Ashley-Mobley Gang

Format: feature film
Directors: Luke Moberly and Bob Woodburn*
Status: completed and released (April 1973)

* Although Moberly received sole directing credit onscreen for Little Laura and Big John, the movie’s poster listed editor Bob Woodburn as co-director. Speaking in the Fort Lauderdale News in May 1973, supporting actor Ken Miller claimed: “Luke Moberly is the kind of director who has his ideas in his mind. He’s not an actor’s director. That was fine for Karen and myself, but Fabian has always been directed by strong men who knew exactly what their actors were supposed to do. It was difficult to adapt to Luke’s style.” Miller then stated that Bob Woodburn had taken over direction of some sequences: “Bob is more of an actor’s director. He’d have conferences with his performers, and he’d spell out what he wanted in a scene. He was in tighter with the actors. It especially helped Fabian.”(26)

Moberly, however, draws a very different picture, of a divided production team and betrayal in the ranks: “Eddie Gibson, the director of photography, and two others in my Nabet union crew had made commercials together for years, and I didn't know that. Bob Woodburn had always wanted to make children's movies but did nothing but commercials. He wanted to write lyrics and his friend wrote and recorded the music. Fabian knew I didn't like him for the part of a bank robber, and I knew he thought I wasn't ‘big time’ enough for him. I could have had Burt Reynolds – he called me from Jamaica and asked me to come to where they were filming Skullduggery and said he should play John Ashley. I flew there to see him. His mother was a full-blooded Indian, like John. He said he would even help me direct it and help raise more money if I needed it. I had already found my star, Karen Black. Lou Wiethe picked Fabian, who I didn't want, but Lou put up all the money with his friends, and money is the boss.”

Things took a turn for the worse after principal shooting: “When I edited the movie, I rented a theater and invited the cast and crew to come see it so far. I got on the stage and told everyone this was my first edit. I realized we could finish the rest of the shooting with only a small second unit crew – and I didn't need Fabian or Karen anymore. But Eddie and Bob had planned to grab my film and finish it themselves before they ever saw it, and they talked Lou Wiethe into taking the film from the theater. All they added was the mother and her boring “Where did my little Laura go?” scenes, and totally ruined my film. Then Bob wrote some terrible lyrics and his friend played some terrible music, like “Everyone Likes It Up at Raiford.” I hired a studio arranger and writer to write the music for me, and he also wrote the title song, “Little Laura.” He hired musicians from The Jackie Gleason Show to play it, and it was really great. Needless to say, those people never worked at my studios again, but I swallowed it and went on and made Sweet Talker.”

Moberly categorically refutes Miller’s allegation that Bob Woodburn stepped in to direct the film’s leading man: “My wife Mondalee and I just rewatched the entire film and neither of us could see any place that Bob directed Fabian.” As for the suggestion that he was unsuited to working with actors, Moberly ripostes: “Karen Black not only took my directions, she asked me to say her lines with my accent so she could copy it. She went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in Five Easy Pieces, playing the same character as in my little film and talking like me. Watch my film – compare Woodburn’s directing with the mother and her little daughter Laura, to mine with Karen in the hotel scene, and make your own decision.”


1970

The Separation

Format: feature film
Director: unknown
“in production” July 1970
Status: unknown

The Swamp Doctor

Format: TV series pilot
Director: unknown
“in production” July 1970
Status: unknown


1971

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things aka Don’t Spank Baby

Format: feature film
Director: Thomas B. Casey
Status: completed, unreleased theatrically, released on video/DVD/Blu-ray


1972-1974

Riding the Pulpit

Format: feature-length docudrama
Director: unknown
Production company: Gospel Films
Producer: Billy Zeoli
Status: completed, shown in churches (1st screening 16 April 1972)

This film told the life story of Dr. Jess Moody, founder of Palm Beach Atlantic College in West Palm Beach. It was apparently shown to church groups around the world. The term ‘riding the pulpit’ is a boating term for riding at the prow of a boat during rough weather.

Sweet Talker aka Sweet Talker - A Devil With Wings aka “Old Time Religion” aka “That Old Time Religion” aka “Clay Teeter”

Format: feature film
Writer/director/producer/editor: Luke Moberly
Executive producer: Edwin F. Gordon
Director of photography: Minervino Rojas
Started shooting: November 1972
Released: 19 July 1974
Running time: 92 minutes
Rated: PG

Cast: Luke Moberly (Clay Teeter). Patti Pannarella (Pearlene). Heather Hughes (Edith Teeter). T. Tommy Cutrer (Rev. Logsdon). Elaina Miller (Sarah). Terra Ward (Agnes). Jack Horner (Fuzzy). Charlie Seal (Charlie). Red Payne (Red). Lookout (‘The Gospels’). Buck Overly (elderly prisoner). Wally Adams. Bill Brown. Belinda Moberly. Carlie Taylor.


1975-77

The Skunk Ape

Format: proposed feature film
Director: Luke Moberly [and/or Brad F. Grinter]
Status: never made


1978

The Osceola Story

Format: documentary
Director: unknown
Status: unknown

The last known filming hosted by Moberly’s studio in Florida was “The Osceola Story”, reported in 13 July 1978. It was about Chief Osceola, a Seminole warrior whose statue stood guard at the highway frontage of Veterans Memorial Park in Osceola County. Presumably some sort of short drama-documentary, it starred James Craig as the famed Seminole chief.


Also announced, but never made:

“Skin Deep”

Format: feature film
Producer: Herbert L. Caudle
Scheduled to begin: 1 December 1964

32 Films by Richard Rackcliffe

Format: feature films
Production company: Space Age Films
Scheduled to begin: 1965

King Crocodile

Format: feature film
Producer: Mark Hanna
Announced: August 1964

Unnamed TV series to star Robert Preston and ‘Chief’ Fala Alailima

Format: TV series
Announced: August 1965

The Amazon Trader

Format: TV series
Announced: October 1965

Hurricane Party aka Psychedelic

Format: feature film
Writer: Edward Jacobs
Camera: Mario diLeo


Scheduled to begin April 1967 / June 1967

The Liberators

Format: feature film
Associate producer: Luke Moberly

Florida

Format: feature film
Announced: November 1968


Fun-Tier City

Format: pilot for a children’s Western TV series
Announced: August 1970


The Scandal aka Palm Beach Scandal

Format: feature film/TV pilot sequel to Sweet Talker
Announced: November 1974


After writing for the seminal British horror fanzine Shock Xpress, Stephen Thrower launched the film periodical Eyeball in 1989. His books on the cinema include Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (1999), Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco (2015), and Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007). With his partner Ossian Brown, Thrower is also the founder of the avant-garde music group Cyclobe. As a solo artist, Thrower scored Pakistan’s first gore film, Zibahkhana aka Hell's Ground (2007), contributed electronic music to Down Terrace (2010) by Ben Wheatley, and was commissioned by the BFI in 2012 to score three silent short films by the pioneering director of gay erotica Peter De Rome. Thrower’s idea of heaven is his very own time tunnel: destination 42nd Street, dateline the 1970s.


FOOTNOTES

(1) Palm Beach Post, 14 November 1965
(2) A year later, Ivan Tors withdrew from production in Florida and sold his studio, after a debilitating series of personal and professional tragedies. In the mid-to-late 1970s the place was semi-derelict, although its fortunes perked up for a while in the 1980s when one of the sound stages became the base for the TV series Miami Vice.
(3) Located at the end of SW 54th Terrace in Davie, the area today is a combination of bird sanctuary and wetland preserve.
(4) Fort Lauderdale News, 20 February 1964.
(5) ’Walt Disney World’ in Florida wasn’t built until 1971.
(6) Fort Lauderdale News, 20 September 1966.
(7) Fort Lauderdale News, 20 September 1966.
(8) Quoted in David Szulkin, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic, FAB Press, 1997.
(9) Independent Press Telegram, 20 July 1975
(10) Fort Lauderdale News, 7 August 1972.
(11) Palm Beach Post, 13 June 1972
(12) Palm Beach Post, 13 June 1972
(13) Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, 14 October 1972.
(14) Weird Christianity seems to have been in the air in the early seventies, with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971), Brad Grinter’s Blood Freak (1972), Walt Davis’s Evil Come Evil Go (1972), Fredric Hobbs’ Alabama’s Ghost (1973), Albert T. Viola’s Preacherman Meets Widderwoman (1973), and Henning Schellerup’s Sweet Jesus, Preacherman (1973) merrily mixing exploitation and revivalist satire.
(15) Fort Lauderdale News, 24 August 1975
(16) Florida News-Press, 22 April 1975
(17) Orlando Sentinel Star, 13 August 1975
(18) Fort Lauderdale News, 24 August 1975
(19) Fort Lauderdale News, 24 August 1975
(20) Fort Lauderdale News, 28 August 1977
(21) Cincinnati Enquirer, 26 July 1981
(22) Cincinnati Enquirer, 26 July 1981
(23) Fort Lauderdale News, 17 July 1964
(24) http://www.manchesterbeat.com/...
(25) http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~dw...
(26) Fort Lauderdale News, 11 May 1973