The commercials for Timex watches were ubiquitous on TV broadcasts starting in the 1950s. in each spot, Timex pitchman John Cameron Swayze watched as a Timex watch was put through some absurdly rigorous test — say, affixed to the propeller of a boat that subsequently smashes against a ski jump — and then confirmed that it was still working.
Many of those commercials reflected the work of Winter Haven’s John D. Patterson. and after 56 years in the TV and movie production business, Patterson is still ticking.
Earlier this month, Patterson, 77, was one of three recipients of Legends Awards from Film Florida, a non-profit trade association that promotes the state’s film and entertainment production industries. The other awards went to Luke Halpin, who played Sandy Ricks in the 1960s TV show “Flipper,” and the late TV infomercial pitchman Billy Mays.
Patterson’s name is not widely known in Winter Haven, where he has operated Patterson Studios since 1964. in the entertainment industry, though, he is revered as a pioneer.
“Without making him sound really ancient, John was on the ground level of production in the state of Florida,” said Jennifer Parramore, Pinellas County’s film commissioner and a board member for Film Florida. “He is one of the originals.”
Patterson got into the business through persistence and good timing. He spent his childhood in western Pennsylvania, where he enjoyed making home movies with an 8mm camera. during a vacation trip to Florida as a teenager, he visited Winter Haven’s Cypress Gardens, then one of the nation’s best-known theme parks, and saw camera crews filming young women in bathing suits.
Patterson made contact with Al McFadyen, the publicist at Cypress Gardens, and after three years of lobbying landed a job as a cameraman at the park in 1956 at age 21. Within a few months, he became director of cinematography, working under Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope Sr.
Patterson, a man of modest stature with broad shoulders and bulging forearms, oversaw shooting of the first NBC program produced at Cypress Gardens, a black-and-white show featuring announcer Bert Parks. over the next few years, Patterson shot many other TV programs at Cypress Gardens that drew major entertainers of the era — the likes of Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas and Joey Bishop.
Vintage photos from those days show Patterson perched atop a scaffold on a speeding boat, shooting Cypress Gardens’ famous water-ski team, and chest deep in Lake Eloise to get a new angle of the park’s famed Southern belles.
When asked if he could shoot under water, Patterson answered, “Sure,” and pursued training in scuba diving. He used that “whatever it takes” approach later in his career, carrying a camera while on snow skis for Evinrude snowmobile commercials.
Patterson said Williams, Lamas and others urged him to take his talents to Hollywood or new York, but Patterson thought Winter Haven was the right place to raise three sons.
While he was still at Cypress Gardens, Paramount Pictures hired Patterson to make short features shown in movie theaters before the main attraction, assignments that took him to such locations as Wyoming, Rome and Athens, Greece. during that first visit to Wyoming, Patterson adopted what is now his trademark accessory, a pale Stetson hat.
In the early 1960s, Patterson decided he wanted to create his own film studio, and Pope not only offered his blessings but also introduced him to Roy Disney and other Hollywood movie executives. Patterson Studios has a soundstage built to the specifications of the film industry, with a 25-foot ceiling and sound-dampening insulation imported from Hollywood.
The studio, inconspicuously located not far from Cypress Gardens (now Legoland Florida), has been updated over the years with audio and video editing suites.
Patterson’s first client was McDonald’s, for which he shot training films, and before long he was shooting commercials for major national brands, including General Mills. He made a series of TV ads for the likes of Trix, Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Count Chocula, casting his three sons — Johnny, Greg and Shawn — in many of the spots, even though Shawn said his parents didn’t let the kids eat sugary cereals.
Patterson made many other commercials that will be familiar to anyone who was watching TV in the late 1970s or early 1980s. in a spot for Pabst Blue Ribbon, shot at Lake Eloise, a debonair man in a tuxedo steers a speedboat through cypress trees to elude a pair of bandits in another boat, prompting his passenger — a comely woman in a sequined silver gown, to gush, “Give that man a blue ribbon.”
A vintage ad for Wrangler jeans has slow-motion footage of cowboys swinging lassos and directing a herd of galloping horses across a Wyoming valley and through a stream, offset with performances by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Patterson also shot hundreds of commercials for the Florida Citrus Commission when Anita Bryant was its spokeswoman.
Though making commercials was fun, Patterson also had artistic aspirations. His first chance to direct a feature film came in the early 1970s, when he headed to Wyoming to shoot “The Legend of Earl Durand,” starring Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens and a young Martin Sheen.
Patterson’s sons had small parts in the picture, and Shawn Patterson recalled playing with Sheen’s sons — Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen — between scenes.
J. Frank James, who wrote the script for “Earl Durand,” traveled from Arizona to offer a tribute to Patterson at last week’s awards ceremony. Parramore, the board member, recalled James’ description of the hardships of filming the mountain scenes, which involved hoisting equipment at 3,000 feet after the terrain became too steep even for horses and mules.
Patterson directed two other feature films. “Deadly Innocents,” a thriller from 1989, featured Mary Crosby, best known for playing the woman who shot J.R. Ewing on the TV show “Dallas.” “The Spring,” also released in 1989, had a Florida setting and was the first movie with scenes shot at Universal Studios Orlando, Patterson said. The cast included Gedde Watanabe, perhaps best known as Long Duk Dong in the movie “Sixteen Candles.”
Two of Patterson’s sons followed him into the production business.
Greg, 50, now based in California, has worked as a camera operator or lighting technician on such movies as “Last of the Mohicans,” “Old School” and the not-yet-released “The dark Knight Rises.”
Shawn Patterson, 48, joined his father’s company shortly after finishing high school and now shares responsibility for daily operations. Johnny, a Presbyterian minister, died in 2006. Mikie Patterson, John’s wife, handles sales and marketing for the studio.
In recent years, Patterson Studios has expanded its services. The company gets frequent calls to shoot interviews and endorsement photos with such sports figures as Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal. during spring training, Patterson’s company records clips of new York Yankees players that are played on a giant scoreboard at Yankee Stadium throughout the baseball season.
The studio also does less glamorous work, including corporate videos and still photos for local companies. on a recent morning, the Patterson Studios soundstage abounded with jewelry arranged on tables for a photo and video shoot to supply a client’s website.
The business has radically changed since Patterson opened his studio in 1964. He said it used to take 10 days to create a title sequence using a matte technique, and now it takes 10 minutes using digital techniques on a computer. He admitted he misses the more tangible process of film production in the pre-digital era.
“Film was like creating your own child,” he said. “You could feel it; you could touch it. You could move it around and do everything. now all of that’s been taken away and it’s done with a machine.”
Even at his age, Patterson talks about making another feature film. Though he has had surgery in recent years to replace a shoulder and a knee, Patterson scoffs at the notion of retiring.
“This is my life,” he said. “It’s not work to me. It’s fun. It’s good to create. … I still feel like I’m 29.”