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In 1937, a Russian Immigrant had a novel idea. He wanted to build a new kind of aquarium just south of St. Augustine. His name was Count Ilya Tolstoy and he had a couple of things going for him. First, he was a count. Americans have always been enamored of nobility. Second, he was the grandson of Leonid Tolstoy, author of “War and Peace,” one of the most famous novels of all time. We are equally enamored of famous writers. Tolstoy attracted the attention and support of a man named Pratt and another named Whitney. Both were descended from a long line of wealthy industrialists. Together they planned to open the “World’s First Oceanarium.” It would be more than just an aquarium. The facility would also serve as a film studio.

Marine Studios opened for business in June of 1938 and was an immediate success. Thirty thousand people showed up the very first day, snarling traffic on A1A for miles in both directions. Prior to the imposition of beachfront black-outs, Marine Studios was one of the most brightly lit properties on the Florida coast. So bright were the lights, that a famous German U-boat commander used the lights as a landmark as he hunted for prey off our shores. For the next several decades, barring a three-year shutdown during World War II, Marine Studios was the most popular tourist attraction in the state. Visitors came from all over the world. They came to see the dolphin show. So many people came to see the dolphin show that in 1948 the Times Union called the man who starred in the show, Mitch Lightsey, “the most photographed man in America.” He may well have been! 

People also came to see celebrities. A number of famous writers hung out at Marine Studios. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, our area’s most famous author, who wrote “The Yearling” was there regularly. Her husband, Norton Baskin, operated the Moby Dick Bar and Grille on the property. Other authors like John Dos Passos and especially Ernest Hemingway liked to drink at the Moby Dick. The bar was shaped like the bow of ship and was fitted with a revolutionary hydraulic system that made it rock as if it were at sea. They say that when the crowd got too rowdy, Norton would speed up the hydraulics to make his inebriated guests seasick.

In 1961, Marine Studios changed its name to Marineland. By then, it had already lived up admirably to its original name and purpose. A number of movies and TV shows were shot there, most notably “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and its sequels. “Return of the Creature” was shot largely at Marine Studios and in Palatka. Clint Eastwood made his first credited movie appearance in that film, in a scene shot just outside St. Augustine. Many episodes of the TV series “Sea Hunt,” starring Lloyd Bridges were also filmed at Marine Studios. When it was built, Marine Studios was a modern wonder-of-the-world as iconic in its time and place as the Great Sphinx or the Washington Monument. 

Today, another group of visionaries is seeking to build a new, state-of-the-art aquarium on the banks of the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville. When it is built it will be with a tip-of-the-hat to Ilya Tolstoy and the others who blazed the trail.

Scott A. Grant is President of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at

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