published Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Hundreds herd to 'Water for Elephants' premiere

Amber Monson of Atlanta, left, and Amy Powell perform for the crowd in front of the Majestic 12 on Friday afternoon. The red carpet premiere of the new movie "Water for Elephants" also featured aerial performers, a clown and mime, a fire eater, and balloon animals. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Amber Monson of Atlanta, left, and Amy Powell perform for the crowd in front of the Majestic 12 on Friday afternoon. The red carpet premiere of the new movie "Water for Elephants" also featured aerial performers, a clown and mime, a fire eater, and balloon animals. Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press

A fire breather, clowns and aerial dancers entertained hundreds of Chattanoogans at Friday’s “Water for Elephants” movie premiere, but UTC student Vikki Hampstead and her friend only had eyes for Robert Pattinson.

  • Premiere of 'Water for Elephants'
    From WRCB Channel 3
  • photo

“We kept hoping he’d show up, or Reese” Witherspoon, she said, referring to the film’s two stars.

She settled for the Pattinson look-alike snapping photos with fans, and hoped her picture could fool a few friends on Facebook.

Across from the crowds massing along Broad Street, those who managed to score VIP tickets walked the red carpet while waiting for the movie to begin.

“It’s exciting to see Chattanooga on the big screen,” VIP ticket holder Weston Wamp said. “I couldn’t miss the big moment.”

Movie theater employees said the event wasn’t as crazy or as cool as the premiere of the most recent Harry Potter movie — Potter fans outdressed the tuxedos and black dresses of VIPs with their wizard costumes — but it was more entertaining thanks to the performers.

Performer Jimmy Cushingham was a crowd favorite with his fire-breathing and twirling. The Atlanta-based professional said there’s no real trick to fire-breathing, but safety and practice are key to keeping the flames in the air and out of his hair.

“You always have to do it right the first time,” he said. “There’s no second chance.”

Cushingham has had only one serious accident in his four years as a professional — his hair and face caught fire, giving him third-degree burns across his head about a year ago. That accident just made him more careful as he continues the job he’d wanted to do since he first saw a fire twirling performance in high school.

“I saw it and I had to do it,” he said. “If it lights on fire, that’s what I’ll do.”

Also on hand were actors Scott MacDonald, who plays Blackie, and Tracy Lockridge, who was the lead roustabout in the circus scenes.

Working on the set here was one of the better experiences they’d had during a film shoot, the actors said before the screening.

“Everyone here was so nice and heartfelt and genuine,” Lockridge said. “They wanted to say hello and take you places and show you things here. I shot pool at the CBC [Chattanooga Billiard Club] with some people from here. I loved being here.”

He said the only time things got out of hand with the fans involved a young girl who fell out of a tree onto the house in North Georgia where some filming took place. She was not injured.

MacDonald, a veteran actor whose film and television credits include “Jack Frost” and several roles on the Star Trek television series “The Next Generation,” “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine,” said he got a kick out watching the hundreds of fans who waited around the Sheraton Read House in hopes of seeing Pattinson. He also was impressed with Pattinson’s toughness.

“This kid took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’. He got all beat up and never complained,” he said.

One thing fans might want to watch for is a scene with Tai the elephant and MacDonald. MacDonald’s Blackie character is the on-staff knee-breaker for the circus owner August. In the scene, Tai reaches out to Blackie with her trunk while holding some flowers in her mouth.

“I had actually worked with Tai in ‘Carnivale,’” MacDonald said. “Blackie is not a nice person and wouldn’t be playing with the elephant, but she kept reaching out to me during filming.

“I asked the trainer about it, and he said, ‘She remembers you. She’s flirting with you and doesn’t understand why you won’t play with her.’”

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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