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Small Arizona town inspires movie

‘Jake’s Corner’ aims for ‘Greek Wedding’ magic

Richard Tyson (left, with Tony Longo) plays Johnny Dunn, a Heisman Trophy-winning player for the University of Arizona.

Richard Tyson (left, with Tony Longo) plays Johnny Dunn, a Heisman Trophy-winning player for the University of Arizona.

Talk about total immersion in his subject. Filmmaker Jeff Santo wanted to write a movie script about eccentric characters living in the minuscule community of Jake’s’ Corner, about 70 miles north of Phoenix. So Santo moved there for three months.

“I was living in the trailer park behind the bar,” he says. “I’d work on the script all day, then go hang out at the bar at night.”

That went so well, Santo became a part of Jake’s Corner, population 56. He got to know the people. Many make appearances in the crowd scenes of his new movie, “Jake’s Corner.” One of them, a playful drifter named Clint, made such an impression he became a character in the story. Danny Trejo plays the part.

“We took over the town for three weeks,” says Hollywood Heard, the film’s producer. “Everything you see in the movie really exists. It’s still up there. The bar, the store, the trailer park. Everything.”

Friday marks the opening for “Jake’s Corner,” an all-Arizona production that will play simultaneously in the new Harkins theater here plus seven Harkins theaters in the Phoenix area.

“We played it at the Phoenix film festival and the Sedona film festival and it was so popular every seat sold out,” Heard says.

That box office success got the attention of Harkins executives, who saw the film and immediately booked it. Heard and Santo are hoping this weekend fills so many seats, the weekend box office reports listed online Monday will attract the attention of some national film distributors.

“They will keep playing it as long as there is an audience,” Santo says. He compared the strategy to another low-budget independent film, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

That picture started out with small screenings in Greek communities. It caught on and, of course, the rest is history. Santo and Heard hope their movie will catch on, too.

The story of “Jake’s Corner” began in 2004 with Santo’s documentary about his father, Ron Santo, the popular play-by-play radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs and a former All-Star third baseman for the club.

That picture (“This Old Cub”) was so beloved, a fan named Wild Bill Holden began walking from Prescott to Wrigley Field to honor the elder Santo.

Santo the younger was so impressed he wanted to meet Holden in person. The ardent fan said, “I’m walking toward Jake’s Corner. Meet me there.”

The little community is about 20 miles southwest of Payson. If the adventurous Holden had been walking to Payson, instead, Santo would have had a very different movie.

Like every screenwriter with a successful film behind him, Santo was searching for his next story. One look at the rustic wood front of Jake’s Corner Bar and the ideas started swirling.

Santo already knew it would be a story set in modern times about a great athlete who left the game early after both of his parents died in a tragic accident. Though Santo grew up in the Chicago Cubs locker room and at picturesque Wrigley Field, he wanted to make the main character a football player. His name would be Johnny Dunn. He would have received the Heisman Trophy and he would have played for the University of Arizona.

Fans of the university’s football team will chuckle at that. Santo is chuckling, too.

“I felt that Johnny would go to an underdog school, so I made it the U of A,” explains Santo, who lives in Scottsdale. “Especially since ASU has a somewhat higher profile in football these days.”

But don’t get too upset, Wildcat fans. Santo wants to be all-Arizona. He made the movie’s most obnoxious character a frat boy from ASU who tries to steal Johnny’s Heisman Trophy. The frat boy’s demise isn’t pretty.

Richard Tyson (“Black Hawk Down,” “There’s Something About Mary,” Kindergarten Cop”) plays Johnny, a blue jeans and T-shirts kind of guy with greasy, tangled shoulder-length hair. He owns the bar at Jake’s Corner and uses his Heisman Trophy for the doorstop at his office.

Diane Ladd is cast as an eccentric lady in the trailer park. Grammy Award winner B.J. Thomas plays Doc, a Vietnam vet who entertains in the bar each night. Trejo provides comic relief as the good-natured Clint, who isn’t allowed to start drinking before 5 p.m.

Providing the plot’s catalyst is 11-year-old Colton Rodgers from Peoria, Ariz., as Spence. After the lad’s parents are killed in a car crash, he is sent to live with Johnny. As the suspicious Spence and the hard-edged Johnny come to terms with each other, both find a new meaning to their lives.



Rating: PG (thematic elements, language)

Length: 93 minutes

Playing at: Opens Friday at Harkins Tucson Spectrum 18

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