Hey Vern! Here's how Ernest Day 2022 will celebrate Jim Varney and 35 years of 'Ernest Goes to Camp'
Attention Kamp Kikakee alums: You can go home again. Thirty-five years ago, Tennessee's own Montgomery Bell State Park turned its historic Group Camp One over to the cast and crew of Ernest Goest to Camp, starring local yokel-turned-national celebrity, Ernest P. Worrell — the signature alter ego of Kentucky-born comedian Jim Varney. On June 11, the park will host the 2022 edition of Ernest Day, a celebration of all things Ernest that's held annually on the same grounds where the character's feature film career took flight. (Varney died of lung cancer in 2000.)
And Ernest Goes to Camp cast member Daniel Butler tells Yahoo Entertainment that while the rest of the sprawling state park has changed a lot in the past three-and-a-half decades, the former Kamp Kikakee site remains preserved in all its ’80s glory. "It's pretty bizarre," laughs Butler, who is returning to this year's Ernest Day after making his first appearance at the 2021 event, which also marked the first time he'd visited the park since filming wrapped in 1987. "The park has a beautiful lodge now, and a bar with its own craft beer. But they've kept the Ernest site the same: the main cabin has photographs and props from the film, and a shrine to every cast member that has passed. Seeing that took me aback, because I thought, 'Oh, my God. My picture's going to be here one day!'"
Ernest Day was the brainchild of Tennessee native Phil Baker, who grew up watching Ernest Goes to Camp — as well as Varney's many other Ernest films — and was always struck by the fact that the Walt Disney-backed movie was essentially made in his backyard. Baker organized the first Ernest Day in 2017 timed to Camp's 30th anniversary, and it's been held at Group Camp One every summer since with the exception of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down state parks across the country.
"It's really been a tentpole event for the park every year," he says, calling out popular Ernest Day activities like a Birds of Prey program, an Ernest lookalike contest and, of course, a screening of Ernest Goes to Camp preceded by a Q&A with some of the people who made it. Besides Butler — who worked on the script and appears in the film as the oddball chef Eddie — other cast members attending this year's event include Eddy Shumacher and Todd Lloyd, who played Kamp Kikakee counselor Ross Stennis and camper Chip Ozgood respectively.
On a more somber note, this year's program will also include a tribute to John Cherry, the director of Ernest Goes to Camp and co-creator of the Ernest character with Varney. Cherry passed away earlier this month after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease, and Baker says that the director will be inaugurated into the aforementioned shrine to the dearly departed members of the movie's creative team. He also plans to contact Cherry's surviving family members to see if they would potentially attend the event in his stead. "I've always wanted to hear their stories and perspectives on seeing the commercials and this movie being made. So we will reach out and invite them, but if they don't feel comfortable, we understand that, too."
Cherry's memorial — along with the rest of Ernest Day 2022 — will be filmed for the upcoming documentary The Importance of Being Ernest, which Butler is executive producing alongside director, David Pagano. "This is the first time I'm going to have an up close and personal interaction with the Ernest fans themselves," Pagano says. "I'm excited to see what that's like, especially given that I've seen photos of the Ernest lookalike contest from previous years! That seems like an incredibly surreal thing that I need to be there in person for."
Speaking of surreal, here's the wild story of how Ernest Goes to Camp got made on Walt Disney's dime, and inspired an event that brings Ernest fans from around the world back to the character's Tennessee stomping grounds.
Disney goes to Camp
Years before he went to camp ... and to jail ... and to school, Ernest P. Worrell was Nashville's best-known TV pitchman, selling everything from hamburgers to dairy products. Cherry and Varney debuted the character in 1980, and his rapid-fire down home patter — peppered with oft-repeated catchphrases like "Hey Vern!" and "KnoWhutimean?" — made Ernest an instant hit with viewers and advertisers, and landed him gigs in national campaigns for Sprite and Chex cereal ,as well.
In his 2013 memoir, Keeper of the Clown, Cherry remembered the exact moment that they realized how big a hit Ernest was. Invited to make an in-character appearance at NASCAR's 1985 Indianapolis 500, Varney appeared alongside Mickey Mouse and scored bigger cheers than Disney's flagship creation, blowing the minds of the company's then-leaders, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. "Eisner was stunned," Cherry wrote, adding that the executive gave his staff an immediate order: "'Find out who he is.'"
Eisner's interest in Ernest wasn't just due to envy — he also saw dollar signs. The early ’80s was a boom time for comedian-created characters, as Paul Reubens's Pee-wee Herman, Cassandra Peterson's Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's The Blues Brothers all scored lucrative merchandising deals, major TV appearances and feature films. Getting into the Ernest business — to the tune of a four-movie deal — gave Disney an already-popular PG-rated character they could put on billboards and drum up business for the studio's struggling slate of live-action family films.
At the same time, Cherry successfully fought to maintain a certain degree of independence from the Mouse House, ensuring that all of the films would be shot in Tennessee instead of at the studio's L.A. soundstages. As Butler recalls, Ernest Goes to Camp grew out of an already-existing script for a summer camp comedy that Disney had in its back catalogue and gave to the creative team with instructions to "make it Ernest."
"It was that awkward transition between our commercials and a three-act structure," Butler says of the haphazard writing process. Prior to the Disney deal, Butler had written material for various Ernest ads and he remembers Cherry — who he refers to by his nickname "Buster" — suggesting that they approach the narrative as if it was nine commercials strung together. The nominal plot of Ernest Goes to Camp finds its star playing counselor to a group of prank-happy delinquent campers, while also machinations of a mining magnate who wants to shut Kamp Kikakee down to dig for a valuable mineral. But the majority of the runtime is devoted to the elements that made the character so popular in the first place: elaborate pratfalls, juvenile jokes and plenty of down home humor.
Even as Disney conceded to some of Cherry's stipulations, the studio wasn't about to hand him complete creative control. "It was a difficult transition," Butler says of the culture clash between the California and Tennessee creative teams. "Disney just didn't get redneck humor. They would continually ring the bell on us and say, 'That joke might be Ernest, but it's not Disney.'"
Disney executives also meddled in the kinds of stories the writers could tell, explicitly ruling out any chance that Ernest could find a love interest, for example. "They told me, 'Ernest is smooth down there, like a doll,'" Butler says, laughing. "And I was like, 'I've seen Jim naked! He's not!' There were very strict parameters. As a writer, you always want to take him places — like maybe he gets married and has children! — but we couldn't do that."
Ernest Goes to Camp started filming at Group Camp One in September 1986, and the month-long shoot kept the cast and crew predominantly within the confines of Montgomery Bell State Park. Early on in production, Butler scored a significant promotion. Summoned to Group Camp One late one night, he was casually told that he'd be replacing the actor originally hired to be the partner-in-culinary-crime to Kamp Kikakee's kooky chef, Jake, played by former Hee Haw star Gailard Sartain.
"I drove out to the park, where there was one cabin lit up and filled with about 50 people — half of them were Disney folks from L.A. and the other half was Buster and his crew," Butler remembers. "There was a screaming argument going on about a scene where we were going to put parachutes on live turtles. This Disney executive was screaming, 'You cannot parachute live turtles!' And Buster was screaming back, 'The little plastic ones don't move like real turtles!' I was wondering what I had walked into when Buster turned to me and said, 'Oh, and here's the guy who can play Eddie.' So I had to show up the next morning ready to play Eddie."
Like much of Ernest Goes to Camp, the Jake and Eddie scenes were made up on the fly as Sartain merrily improvised material — "No take was the same with him," Butler says with a chuckle — while his new co-star tried to keep up. One of the running gags that grew out of those extended riffs was the "Eggs Erroneous" bit where Jake tries to get Ernest to sample his specialty d'jour: a frightening concoction of powdered eggs and seventeen illegal herbs and spices that eventually gets fired through a food cannon in the climactic battle between the campers and the miners.
"A lot of our stuff was prop humor, and the Eggs Erroneous dish was an example of us going to the prop department and saying, 'Let's make something really nasty,'" Butler recalls. Sadly, he says that no eggs — erroneous or otherwise — were ever fired out of the cannon that the prop team built. "It didn't project far enough or hard enough. When I got hit with Eggs Erroneous, that was just the entire crew throwing food at me. I remember that when Buster yelled 'Cut!' the food just kept coming! The crew had fun."
Meanwhile, Butler says that Sartain kept himself amused between takes by continually disappearing into the park's more remote areas. "You know that golf cart that goes through every scene of the movie? Gailard would get in that golf cart and just drive off. He was going through a divorce at the time, and drinking a little more than he should have, and he would go off and just get lost in this state park. We'd have to all spread out and go find him."
Varney, on the other hand, had a more mixed experienced at Kamp Kikakee. In his memoir, Cherry said the comedian was reluctant to make Ernest Goes to Camp in the first place, and drank heavily prior to the start of production. "He had alienated the other actors with his aggressive attitude," the director wrote. "The aggressive attitude that comes from a quart of J.W. Dant bourbon."
For his part, Butler doesn't remember Varney behaving badly during filming, though he does say the star had a stint in rehab of his substance addictions. "He was the most professional person on set, because he was carrying the load — and he felt it."
There's one notable sequence in Ernest Goes to Camp where Varney lets some of those deeper emotions cross Ernest's perpetually smiling face. After he's beaten up by mining goons and dissed by the campers he cares so much about, Ernest retreats to his cabin where he sings the melancholy tune, "Gee, I'm Glad It's Raining." It's a moment that Varney — who long harbored aspirations of being a country singer — fought for, and a scene that was never replicated in another Ernest movie.
"Jim really loved music, and recorded a bunch of songs that were never made into a record," Butler says now. "So that was something he always wanted to do onscreen, but everybody else was like: 'Ernest singing? I don't know.' But he played the song beautifully, and played it to his particular demographic and audience. And it was special to Ernest Goes to Camp. Every child has experienced a moment like that camp — that horrible home sickness moment — and they related to that song big time."
Ernest goes ... away
Released in theaters on May 22, 1987, Ernest Goes to Camp earned a modest $24 million at the box office, satisfying Disney enough to move ahead with three more Ernest movies. But the film's real value came after that initial theatrical run, earning additional millions through video store rentals and cable airings. Not surprisingly, it did its biggest business in Tennessee, where Cherry filled out the cast and crew with local hires from Nashville and surrounding towns. "After the film came out, I saw a headline in Variety that said 'Hick Flick Hits in Sticks," Butler remembers. "The film had been playing at a drive-in theater in Dickson, Tennessee for two years straight, because the entire town had been in the movie!"
Disney and Cherry parted ways following 1991's Ernest Scared Stupid, and the director and Varney spent the rest of the decade making independently-financed Ernest features made for the direct-to-video market. In the last years of his life, the actor started to expand his filmography beyond his trademark character, appearing in films like Toy Story, The Beverly Hillbillies and Wilder Napalm. He gave his final live action performance in Billy Bob Thornton's Daddy and Them, which was released the year after his death. At that point, Butler says that he and Cherry consciously "shut the door" on Ernest P. Worrell and parted ways to pursue other projects.
But the Ernest movies proved to have a long afterlife, especially as the generation of kids they entertained aged into adulthood. "That was the face that followed you around the Blockbuster video shelves," remembers Pagano, who grew up on repeat viewings of Ernest Saves Christmas and Ernest Scared Stupid. (Funnily enough, he was a latecomer to Kamp Kikakee, only seeing Ernest Goes to Camp for the first time as an adult.) In 2015, he launched Ernest Goes to Podcast, which set out to catalogue every piece of Ernest-related media. The podcast debuted as Ernest fans around the world were coalescing on social media, forming Facebook groups and Reddit threads that shared memories and clips of Varney in action.
"One of the things that kept coming up was people on social media joking, 'How come there was never a documentary about Ernest called The Importance of Being Ernest?'" Pagano says, laughing. Having recently completed his own short documentary, Pagano took note of that idea and ran with that idea, reaching out to Varney's nephew and biographer, Justin Lloyd. At the same time they were connecting for the first time, Butler and Cherry had re-connected over a shared desire to re-introduce Varney's work to a wider audience that only knew Ernest as an easy punchline for film critics and comedians. It wasn't long before the respective duos became a quartet. "Our two initiatives crossed, and after trying to think of all the ways that Ernest could be revitalized together, a documentary seemed like the best place to start," Pagano explains.
The launch of Ernest Day in 2017 provided further evidence to the director and his collaborators that Ernest fandom is "a sleeping giant" that's growing bigger all the time. "Just recently there was a Saturday Night Live sketch about short-ass movies, and they had a segment that was all of the Ernest films," he notes. "There are also folks online writing songs about being haunted by the ghost of Ernest P. Worrell, and saying, 'Why doesn't John Cena play Ernest in a reboot?' I think all of that is just giving Jim his due credit in terms of how that character and that performance really affected people in their childhood."
Ernest's grand day out
As the organizer and emcee of Ernest Day, Baker has a front row seat to that... uh, earnest outpouring of affection every year. "The park was blown away by the turnout that first year — they weren't expecting as many people as we had," he remembers. "In subsequent years, people have been showing up in costume, and they've also introduced the film to their kids, so the kids have been coming in costume. It's really been a fun experience for me."
In previous years, Cherry was a regular fixture at Ernest Day, arriving when the "doors" to Kamp Kikakee first open at 2 p.m. and staying around for as much of the day as his health would allow, mingling with fans and signing autographs. "His daughter told us that the first year that we had Ernest Day, he was on a high for the week afterwards," Baker says. "He gave the park the rights to use the Kamp Kikakee logo for temporary tattoos and sticker and things like that, so the park was always very happy to host him at Ernest Day and make his year."
Pagano says that Cherry's declining health meant that he wasn't able to sit for an interview for The Importance of Being Ernest prior to his May 8 passing. But his presence will be felt in the Ernest Day footage that he and Butler hope to capture in June, not to mention all archival footage he left behind. Pagano also intends to use his time in the Nashville area to start recording on-camera interviews with Varney's fans, friends and collaborators as the documentary moves back into active production following pandemic-related delays. (The production crowdsourced an initial round of funding via a 2021 Kickstarter campaign, and fans can still pitch in to secure copies of the completed film and other perks.)
Experiencing Ernest Day and working on the documentary has given Butler a new perspective on the silly summer camp comedy he made with his friends in a Tennessee state park 35 years ago. "I was totally unaware of the following that Ernest still had and the effect that he had," the now-71-year-old writer and performer says. "So many people have reached out to me and told me about these horrible periods in their childhood, and Ernest was the thing that helped them through it. It was my day gig as a writer all those years ago, and to have people say things like that now is incredible."
Of course, Butler still sees plenty of strange behavior at Kamp Kikakee, even without the real Ernest around to cause trouble. "Last year, I met a guy who showed me a tattoo of Ernest he had on his calf," he says, laughing. "Part of me wanted to say, 'Dude, no!' But the other part of me was like, 'Wow — what a tribute.'"
Ernest Day will be held at Montgomery Bells State Park on June 11; visit The Importance of Being Ernest website to learn more about the documentary; Ernest Goes to Camp isn't currently available to stream, but can be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray.