Arts & Culture

Skyway Film Festival premieres in Bradenton

Nobody knew what to expect, but everyone said it exceeded their expectations Friday.

The first night of the new Skyway Film Festival in Bradenton drew a huge crowd of about 500 on a rainy night. Before the screening of the opening night film, "Walt Before Mickey," the lobby of the Manatee

Performing Art Center was so packed people couldn't walk more than a few feet without bumping into someone.

The crowd included local notables, filmmakers and movie actors.

"It's a great vibe," said Dan Myrick, a director best known for co-writing and co-directing "The Blair Witch Project." "Everybody's really excited. Even the hotel I'm staying at is hoppin.' "

The most recognizable star in the room was Jodie Sweetin, who played Stephanie on "Full House." She's one of the stars of "Walt Before Mickey," a fact-based story about the early years of Walt Disney's career, when he had big ideas but was barely eking out a living as an animator.

Sweetin, now 33, plays Walt Disney's Aunt Charlotte in the film.

"It's about a period that people don't know much about," she said. "Walt was really struggling. Charlotte was a really strong force in his life."

The festival screening of "Walt Before Mickey" was its world premiere. Even Sweetin had not seen the film, which also stars Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder and David Henrie from the TV show "How I Met Your Mother."

None of the other grown-up stars from the film made it to the festival, but a couple of youngsters did: Maralee Thompson who plays a character named Dawn Paris, and Demitri Vardoulias, who plays Walt Disney as a child.

"It's so cool, so fabulous, to see such a diversity of people in attendance in Bradenton, in a celebration of creativity," said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton.

One local celebrity in attendance was Slick, owner of Slick's Garage in Palmetto. He had been busy getting ready to open a second garage in South Florida, but didn't want to miss the festival.

"This is amazing," Slick said as he surveyed the crowd. "I drove all the way from Miami just for this. The people have been wanting something like this for a long time and it's great that Bradenton was able to give it to them."

The film was slated to start at 7:30 p.m., but it was after 8 before the lights went down in the performing arts center's Stone Hall.

Every seat in the house was filled, and dozens of people sat in aisles and on stairs.

"There's been a lot of interest in this film," said festival co-founder Joe Restaino. "We've been getting calls about it for weeks, but we didn't expect to sell out."

Organizers are so thrilled with the response they're already looking to make the festival a permanent part of Bradenton's culture.

"Chapter one," he said. "The Skyway Film Festival begins."

"The Skyway Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. For more information go to skywayfilmfestival.org. For tickets, call 941-748-5875.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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