George Washington Junior High’s
Key Support Role in:
~~ AND ~~
shot on location in Tampa, in 1992
First, virtually all former students of the old school located at N. Highland Ave., in Tampa Heights have heard at least one story or another from a former Hillsborough High School, or later Jefferson High School, alum who went to school there years ago, and boasted that the old building on N. Highland Ave. was their high schools’ first home, as both sides will tell the story. Likewise, it is also safe to say, that virtually all of these same former students were also forced to listen to the same wistful graduate go on and on about how they will always regard the long abandoned site as either the first Hillsborough High or the first Jefferson High, proudly indifferent to any notion that the old school building has been used and occupied by other institutions of learning for quite some time since. And, both sides have a point. However, despite the infinite claims of these over zealous alums and their memory loss that yet a third public school occupied the building up until it’s final closure in 1980, the former faculty, staff and students of George Washington Junior High School will always fondly remember the N. Highland Ave. building as their final permanent home.
Like the two high schools that occupied the building before it, George Washington Junior High School also outgrew it’s original lodgings and was forced to move into a bigger lodgings. Only in this case, GWJH moved from it’s original building, built in 1915 and located at 707 E. Columbus Dr. in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, into the N. Highland Ave. digs in Tampa Heights, not vice versa. So, in the minds of all those who attended GWJH, the school remains the last home of “George Washington!” And, believe me there are quite a few former faculty, staff and students of “George Washington” rooting and hoping to live to see the day when that old school building on N. Highland Ave. or another building exaclty replacing it, if need be, opens somewhere between Ybor City and Tampa Heights as the next “George Washington Middle School -home of the “Fighting Tigers!” Because, the George Washington “Fighting Tiger” alums are a proud bunch as well! And, I am sure that if they have it their way, that day will come!
Sibling school rivalries and local history aside, the purpose of this article is to report that the old N. Highland Ave. building was again heavily used in a movie shot in Tampa, in the summer of 1992, entitled “Cop & A Half.” The movie “Cop & A Half” was a kids comedy, directed by Henry Winkler, which starred Burt Reynolds. Also, I wanted to make sure that credit is given where it is due.
First, I believe any on-screen credit for the use of the N. Highland Ave. building as both the operational building and as a shoot location for numerous scenes in the movie “Cop & a Half,” starring Burt Reynolds, should identify the site and shoot location as George Washington Junior High School, if for no other reason than posterity. And, since GWJH was the last public school to occupy the building, and evidence of GWJH’s past, i.e. ... trophy case, uniforms, photos, awards, and relics remain strewn throughout the two buildings during its use in the shooting of the movie, I believe it is only fitting.
In 1992, I happened to land two small parts that “made it” on-screen in “Cop & a Half.” First, I landed on screen as an “extra,” when the movie was shooting near the HCC Campus in Ybor. Later, I happened upon a shoot location in Tampa Heights near my house, and was cast, on the spot, this time to be an on-screen “photo double.” In both shoots, I had a great time. I also got to meet Burt Reynolds and Henry Winkler and converse very briefly, within the guidelines of being an “extra,” with other cast members as well. The rule is that, “extras” cannot speak to the “talent” unless the “extra” is engaged in conversation by the “talent” first.
When it was time to pick up my checks, I was told to go to the Washington Center on N. Highland Ave. I was excited to hear that the building was being used again in some way for the film. But, I had no idea how much the school was being used until I got there. The first thing I saw climbing up the front stairs to the main floor was the trophy case and that great bronze bust of George Washington that sat inside and all of those trophies “GWJH,” we, had won over the years were still in it. Including the trophy’s “GW” won in track at the relays, when I was on the team running; the mile, the half mile, and the quarter on a third mile medley team, we ran that year. Man, we had speed! We had the “jets!” I got “goose bumps” just looking at it.
After, picking up my checks in what once was the library. I managed to sneak around a little and see the rest of the old school as only a former student could do without being caught. I went by all of my old classrooms, now empty, with no sign of life in them! And, then I had flashbacks, remembering what they once looked like, back in the day. I went by Mr. Beronda’s -History class room, and did an impression of his classic entry” opening the door quickly as I could, pausing a little, and then slamming it right behind me, and after another pause letting out the old “aloe!” aloe!” aloe!” Then, I passed by Mr. Nemo’s -Math class room, a.k.a. the “after school detention room” on the third floor. And, I even passed by Ms. Crosby’s -Art class room. She was a great art teacher! And, then on to the auditorium I went, where I discovered that the stage was being used as the inside of Burt Reynold’s apartment in “Cop & a Half!”
Here’s a little secret. I only told a few, the entire interior of Burt Reynold’s apartment, that you see in the movie and the hall outside it was all built onto the auditorium stage at George Washington Junior High. It was so cool! A lighting grid was rigged above the set on the stage, and the daylight you see coming in his window in the movie was directed from out in the seating areas of the auditorium at GWJH None of the scenes of the interior of Burt’s Ybor apartment were shot in Ybor City! The reasons?... Well, you see the rooms and hallways in those buildings on 7th Ave. were too narrow for the talent, cameras, crews, and boom operators to work and still get the shooting angles and shots they wanted.
I even got to carefully walk through the apartment set, and look at all of the FSU memorabilia and props on the set, including the living room, all under the watchful eyes of some working technicians of course. And, if you look real close in the film. Many of the sports pictures on the wall in his apartment were borrowed from Hillsborough High School. They used the now famous school pictures of HHS’s varsity baseball teams; from the ’81 State Sectional squad of “Doc” Gooden, to the ’80 State Finals’” team led by Vance Lovelace and Floyd Yoemans. I know this, because I went to school with them, at HHS. They even hung the HHS football teams ‘80 District Co-Champ photo and I believe the ‘81 State Decathlon Championship team photo as well. All of the photos were blended in amongst the FSU memorabilia, which I was told was Burt’s. So, I didn't touch it! So, I guess Burt Reynold’s character “Nick McKenna” was supposed to be a Tampa Detective who graduated from HHS and FSU.
And, by the way, a while back, I remember someone bragging out load somewhere that they were paying a “hefty price” to live in the apartment over looking 7th Ave. in Ybor City that was used as Burt Reynold’s in “Cop & a Half!” And, the first thing that came to my mind was “sucker!” I know, what you all are thinking! And, I thought about it! But, I just couldn’t burst his bubble! But, that cafe owner from L.A was brutal to do that to the guy!
Also, the old cafeteria at “GW” was converted into the interior of the police station headquarters. And, the bathroom across the hall in the police station scene still had that same old “antique” soap dispenser, that I remembered. And as you all know the movie shot all over the interior and exterior of the school. It was a fun look around, and I got escorted around to see the classrooms they used, as well.
One sad part of my wanderings was when I went over to the gym building. At that time, it was run down. Vandals had broken into the locker rooms and snagged most of the football gear. I went by my old locker and, went back to the room where the football team would try to go over the play books, before coach Spack and coach Woods would get frustrated, and cut out half the plays because the guys weren’t catching on. And, there, on the floor was my old jersey number. It was a home color “orange ” jersey, so I kept it. O.K., so my number wasn’t a popular number then! As, I played on defense and special teams. And, I didn’t get to pick the lower numbers. But, I was proud of it, even if it was the last jersey left behind, and not even the vandals wanted to take it!
But the worst, was seeing the band room door open and hearing pigeons up in the band room on the third floor. I was also a band student at George Washington. And, Mr. Leone had a great band and chorus program! He did it all! Running three bands, beginning, intermediate, and advanced, a chorus, vocal ensembles, and the popular “Fighting Tigers” Marching Band. The marching band appeared in the Gasparilla Parade and the Ye Mystic Crew Night Parade annually, where we shined as the junior high band that performed all of the favorite latin tunes of the Ybor City faithful, such “Oye Como Va”, “Marcarena”, “Tarantella,” and “La Cucaracha.” George Washington often marched ahead of several high school bands in the night parade, which was considered a privilege.
By the time, I got to the top of those narrow steps I could smell the mold, mildew, and bird droppings. The windows had been left open and vandals had sacked it. as well. Choral robes and those great marching band uniforms that we raised money to get years earlier, were destroyed from mold and mildew and droppings. Picture frames of all the bands and choruses that hung on the walls were broken and the pictures torn up maliciously. All that I was able to salvage was a lone band photo with frame still intact, of the band the year before I was in it, at GWJH. I still have that photo and I look forward to one day presenting that to the next GWJH band director, should there be one!
In the end, I can say that the main building provided office spaces for the administrative, payroll, and production staffs of “Cop & a Half.” And, I can also say that the old school played a key role in meeting the production needs of the directors: to set up a sound stage; to accommodate Burt’s apartment set; and to provide the classrooms and exterior locations that fit the “on screen look” they were aiming for, which was eventually portrayed on screen in the film. Overall, the old school delivered what was needed! And, as far as I am concerned, every former “George Washington Junior High School” student can take some pride in that as well.