Tuesday, February 10, marks the 30th anniversary of my favorite summer camp movie as a kid, the made for TV movie Poison Ivy.
While a lot of people point to Meatballs as the defining camp movie of their youth, Poison Ivy is much closer to my experience growing up as a camper in the late ’80s and early ’90s. While I’ve grown to appreciate Meatballs only seeing it for the first time as an adult, I’m still partial to the boys at Camp Pinewood mostly because the movie focuses more on the campers than the counselors and would have little to say about the counselors at all if not for the rivalry of Adam Baldwin as Ike Dimick and Michael J. Fox as womanizer Dennis Baxter, who pursues camp nurse Rhonda Malone (Facts of Life star Nancy McKeon).
To pay tribute to this wonderful movie on the anniversary of its debut as the Sunday night movie on NBC, I’ve compiled a list of 16 things you may not know or remember about a classic summer camp movie that unfortunately has to share a name with an early ’90s seduction movie starring Drew Barrymore.
Camp Pinewood, Clifton, Maine
The fictional Camp Pinewood is located in the real town of Clifton, Maine. Boy Scout camp Camp Roosevelt is the only camp listed as in Clifton, Maine on Google Maps. The camp they attend in the movie is an eight-week session for boys only. Camp Chickawanna, across the lake, is a girls camp.The boys are divided by age groups in a cluster of cabins that go by the names Sequoyah, Oak and Shrubs. Tall Timbers is a rival camp in baseball and the camp Disbro lies about his brother attending (the real story: his brother had to stay home in Philadelphia to do summer school). The movie was filmed at Hard Labor State Park in Rutledge, Georgia. The 1980 summer camp movie Little Darlings was also filmed at Hard Labor State Park.
How Not to Pack For Camp
The movie opens with an unidentified camper packing for camp, unattended as his mom yells up instructions. He ends up packing trail mix instead of vitamin C, a Nutso comic and Chik magazine instead of Great Expectations, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and jelly beans stashed inside a stationary box, Billy idol, Go-Gos and Cyndi Lauper tapes and replaces his tube socks with his dog.
When Poison Ivy debuted, audiences didn’t yet know Marty McFly, who would go on to be Michael J. Fox’s most iconic character. Back to the Future only hit theaters five months later. At the time, Fox was still best known as Michael P. Keaton on the show Family Ties.
Camp Cucamonga Connection
Writer Bennett Tramer used a similar formula – cast a bunch of well known TV actors in a summer camp film – five years after Poison Ivy with the TV movie Camp Cucamonga, starring Jennifer Aniston, Jaleel White, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano, Sherman Hemsley and more in a movie set at the fictional Camp Cucamonga. It’s too bad network TV movies aren’t really a thing anymore. It would be cool to see the formula recreated with some of the stars of today’s sitcoms.
There’s that Wade’s Wintergreen Ad Again
Jerry Disbro (Joe Wright) can be seen reading a fictional girlie mag called Mystique Magazine at the train station and in the bunk with a back cover ad for Wade’s Wintergreen, a commonly used fictional gum brand in television shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Married with Children and many others.
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Camper
Brian Firestone, the nerdy camper who ends up writing camp letters for everyone as part of Disbro’s PX ticket gambit, subscribes to Reader’s Digest and is a fan of Proust. He asks his mom to forward his Reader’s Digest and to send any poetry that appears in the Times while he is away at camp. When his mom tells him not to spend all of his time indoors, he says “Mom, do you think Proust wrote in a canoe?” As he leaves camp he references his memoir The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Camper in a voice-over (a reference to James Joyce’s first novel The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)
“I look forward to making friends with my bunkmates but I know I can’t expect to be too well liked,” he says before camp starts. “Poets usually aren’t appreciated until they’re dead.”
Best Bar and Peter’s Candy Bars
The fictional Best Bar and Peter’s Milk Chocolate candy bars are popular items at the camp’s PX.
A mix between John Candy, Oliver Hardy and Jackie Gleason
Camper Toby Kaplan (Matthew Shugailo) is an aspiring comedian who brags about his dad’s connection to Jackie Gleason on the train (his dad does catering for a lot of comedians and supposedly knows Gleason. “I see myself as a cross between Jackie Gleason, Oliver Hardy and John Candy.” John Candy had not yet made it big as a movie actor in 1985. He had a memorable bit part in National Lampoon’s Vacation two years earlier and been in Splash in 1984, but his best movie work (Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Great Outdoors, Canadian Bacon, Spaceballs, Uncle Buck) was still to come. Toby gets a chance to show off his comedy during a picnic on Parents Day and he bombs pretty spectacularly. “If you think it tastes good now, you should have tried it Thursday when it was cooked,” referencing the food with his opening joke and getting not even a courtesy laugh.
Timmy’s From Ohio?
Timmy Mezzy (Cary Guffy), the character who spends most of the movie devising clever schemes to run away form camp, is supposed to be from Ohio, but his thick accent sounds more southern than Midwest. It makes sense since Guffy is from Georgia, but didn’t really make sense for the part. Guffy is best known for a part he played when he was only five, Barry Guiler in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Color War First, Friends Second
As it is at a lot of real camps, Color War is a really big deal at Camp Pinewood. So big it’s almost scary. Director Big Irv Klopper (Robert Klein) gives a speech that captures just how off the rails he is about it where he basically tells the campers to forsake friendships they’ve worked to build all summer for competition. “Don’t talk to that boy next to you, he could be on the blue team. Don’t share your toothpaste with that other one, he could be on the grey. Color War is declared, your friend could be your enemy.” One of my favorite things about Color War in the movie as a kid was the headquarters for each of the teams and how Disbro recruits one little camper (with a bowl haircut very similar to my own at the time) to pretend he’s having nightmares so he can secretly take photos at the other team’s HQ. The Color War consists of many events but the ones they show include the Oak Apache Relay, a 50-word essay contest, Counselor Hunt and the Oak Medley Swimming Relay.
Like a lot of camps, especially ones in movies filmed in the ’80s, Camp Pinewood has its own scary stories about a possible mass murderer loose in the woods but he turns out to be a real person named Walter who despite being eccentric is completely harmless. When Timmy’s friend find his sneaker covered with what they believe is blood they fear the worst but discover that it’s only red paint from one of Walter’s Jackson Pollack-esque paintings.
Martin Blair, MD-to-Be
The awful fiancé of the woman the main character of a movie is in love with is pretty well worn territory even for ’80s movies, but Martin Blair might be the absolute worst. Rhonda’s man is a medical student who can’t shut up about himself and the fact that he’s in an elite summer program for future doctors. We assume he’s pretty dull and not right for Rhonda before we even meet him but once he shows up for Parents Day he becomes a perfect target for the old move him and his bed to the swimming dock prank. The sleeping pills Dennis puts into his hamburger make the trick all too easy to pull off to perfection.
Bobby Really Likes the Yankees
Camper Bobby Novak (Derek Googe) is really good at baseball. So good Disbro manages to con Big Irv into providing PX tickets to keep Bobby from holding out from playing against rivals Tall Timbers (Disbro’s tall tale about his brother going to Tall Timbers because he was sick of losing helped seal it). Bobby wears a Yankees cap and jacket in the movie, but he can’t exactly be considered a front runner since at the time the team from the Bronx was eight years into an 18-year World Series drought (they won 87 games and finished in third place the previous season). “It’s a honor to play for the Yankees but Dave Winfield still cashes his checks,” Jerry Disbro tells Bobby when trying to convince Bobby to let him negotiate a deal with Big Irv.
Stay true to Pinewood
The Camp Pinewood song is set to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey,” a fact that once made me think that Poison Ivy and Meatballs were the same movie because the song that goes “on top of spaghetti all covered with cheese I lost my pour meatball when somebody sneezed” is set to the same tune. The words that I can make out from the movie are “We’re men of Camp Pinewood, we stand tall and proud, And we think it feels good to sing it out loud” and the song ends with “We’ll stay true to Pinewood the rest of our lives.”
Dennis Baxter Will Say Anything to Get A Girl
Dennis Baxter lies about being from Indianapolis, studying child psychology in college and some other things I’m forgetting. To a girl he’s trying to charm on the train ride to camp, he waxes poetic about his love for romance, trains and Woody Guthrie. “I’m a sucker for trains, the adventure, the style, Woody Guthrie, the romance,” he tells her. That Rhonda can see right through his act makes him even more intrigued by her. When he lies to her about studying child psychology, she asks him if he’s read a book she makes up on the spot called Strips and Pads: Understanding The Child From Oedipus to the Prom. When he says he’s read it she catches him even further in the lie asking, “Do you think they’re right about the phenomenon of the eidetic imagery affecting the cognitive functioning and psychosocial development of the pre-adolescent child?”
Unlike Alex P. Keaton, Baxter Has No Career Ambitions
When Rhonda asks Dennis what he’s really planning to do after college – clearly child psychology isn’t in the cards and certainly not medical school like Martin – he gives her a line about how he’s making the most of college and not really thinking much beyond that.
“College is four short years,” he tells her. “Now do you think I wanna miss all the fun getting ready for a profession. There’ll be time for that later.”