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A Bubbly History of the Heart-Shaped Hot Tub

Penthouse—the most prominent authority on such matters—once called it “a sexual Disneyland.” It housed a gift shop containing adult novelty items. A stark-naked statue of Apollo greeted visitors in the lobby entrance. A “social director” was on hand to foster banter among couples and make off-color jokes to loosen their libidos. Its rooms were wall-carpeted and mirrored.

It was Cove Haven, and for decades it was the premier Poconos resort destination for newlyweds across the northeast. Its popularity was chiefly attributed to two things: the marketing acumen of co-founder Morris B. Wilkins, and the iconic, charmingly tacky hot tub he designed that was shaped like a heart.

Cove Haven Resorts

Born to Russian immigrants in 1925, Wilkins was an unlikely savior of the honeymoon hospitality industry. After a stint as a submariner in World War II, the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania native started working as an electrician. Business went well until Hurricane Diane swept up his office space and equipment in 1955, leveling all of his material goods. Settling in as a freelancer, he and pal Harold “Obie” O’Brien were working on renovations for a Poconos-area hotel when they both noticed the accommodations were absolutely awful. The men believed they could do better, so they purchased an 18-room resort, the Hotel Pocopaupac in Lakeville, in 1958.

Since the end of the war, gas shortages had led to more and more newlyweds taking the shorter trip to the Poconos—a four-county area about the size of Delaware—rather than Niagara Falls. What was missing was a sense of levity or fun. Wilkins and O’Brien changed the name of the hotel to Cove Haven and promptly began renovating the property so that it might appeal to the increasingly provocative tastes of 1960s couples. Ostentatious accents replaced neutral colors; the room, he believed, would become the star attraction for those seeking a reservation.

But Wilkins needed time. When business was slow, he’d conserve electricity by holding business meetings in the dark. And despite his ability to recognize how hospitality would need to change, it took a few years for him to figure out exactly how.

According to “Honest” Phil Policare, Cove Haven's "Chief Excitement Officer," Wilkins and O’Brien had their epiphany one night in 1963, when the two were struggling to cart a round hot tub down a flight of stairs. In order to make the turn at the bottom, the men temporarily pushed in one side of the flexible material and noticed it resembled a heart. Other accounts mention that Wilkins dreamed up the notion in the middle of the night, sketching a heart over a concrete floor.

However he came to the idea, Wilkins poured concrete for the first six heart-shaped tubs himself, with dozens more added as Cove Haven continued to expand to its eventual size of 236 rooms.

The Sweetheart Tub was tiled in red, comfortable enough for two, and featured mirrors on the walls. Word of mouth quickly spread, as did Wilkins's particular design aesthetic. Soon, Cove Haven was home to guests—couples only—who came to sightsee the attractions in their quarters: circular or heart-shaped beds, multi-level rooms, and private swimming pools.

Eager to expand, the partners sold Cove Haven to Caesars Resorts in 1969. (O’Brien passed away five years later in a plane crash.) Wilkins promptly opened two more Poconos-area resorts, just in time for an explosion of popularity after the heart-shaped tub was photographed for a 1971 Life magazine spread about the opening of Interstate 80. The exposure was so positive that Wilkins had to borrow $10,000 the following week just so that he had enough liquid cash to print more resort brochures.

That single photo in Life helped make the heart-shaped tub synonymous with honeymoon accommodations, encapsulating everything anyone would ever need to know about the atmosphere in the region. As Wilkins watched his Poconos empire grow through the next few decades, he became known as the innovator behind the beautifully kitschy newlywed experience.

Cove Haven Resorts

With the success of the heart-shaped tub driving business, Wilkins came up a more ambitious idea: He wanted to install a 7-foot-tall champagne glass in his suites that could double as a whirlpool. It would be novel, look terrific in advertising, and create a little bit of mystery: without a ladder, how could couples even get in?

Wilkins's financiers at Caesars weren’t interested. They dismissed the idea as silly and let it percolate in the hotelier's head for nearly a decade before giving in. Debuting in 1984, the champagne glass whirlpool became another Poconos and Cove Haven trademark, appearing to be balanced on a thin stem while couples marinated in the bubbly water. Rooms featuring the glass were booked as far as 18 months out. (The secret to getting in was simple: the living room where it was located was sunken, and guests would climb in from the second-floor bedroom.)

Business continued booming through the 1980s. Rooms went for $380 for two nights, and Wilkins was hailed as a hospitality legend. Heart-shaped everything seemed to pervade the Poconos, with a quarter of its 16,000 beds cut into the novelty design.

Then airline travel got cheaper, and Vegas got wiser. As airfares went down and rooms in other destination locations began to resemble the Wilkins model, attendance dropped. Several Poconos-area resorts were closed by 1999, the year Wilkins retired.

Today, roughly 437 heart-shaped hot tubs remain in the three Cove Haven resorts, with an untold number installed around the country. While Wilkins had managed to patent his champagne whirlpool, he was unsuccessful in obtaining the same protection for the tub. For $2395, anyone can have one ready to be installed in their own personal lover’s retreat.

Wilkins died at age 90 in 2015. Though he left behind four children, it could be argued he was responsible for many, many more.

"I don’t know how many babies we’ve conceived here," Wilkins told The Washington Post in 1988. "It must be an army."

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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