Ernest P. Worrell's rise in the 1987 film Ernest Goes to Camp from Kamp Kikakee's hapless maintenance man to the summer camp counselor responsible for keeping a group of juvenile delinquents called the Second Chancers on the straight and narrow got celebrated on June 12 at the cult favorite's rural Tennessee filming site, Montgomery Bell State Park.
Ernest Goes to Camp isn't that random of a thing to get its own day-long celebration. In fact, all nine Ernest movies garner serious consideration in books (Justin Lloyd's The Importance of Being Ernest: The Life of Actor Jim Varney (Stuff that Vern doesn't even know)) and on podcasts (The Importance of Seeing Ernest and Ernest P. Worrell Preservation Society), with an ambitious Ernest documentary recently surpassing its crowdfunding goal.
There's earnest fans of Ernest, and they traveled from as far away as Canada for such attractions as turtle catapulting (no real turtles were slung), an Ernest look-alike contest and a chance to watch the film after dark in the same field where Bronk Stinson (the mining company's muscle-bound goon, played by Lyle Alzado) went buck-wild with a bulldozer.
Many sites in the movie have barely changed over the years, from the first aid station of Nurse St. Cloud (portrayed by the late Victoria Racimo) to the head counselor's cabin, which has become a permanent Ernest Goes to Camp mini-museum.
Fans also got to interact with film stars Eddy Schumacher (Counselor Stennis), Daniel Butler (Eddie, the comedic sidekick of Hee Haw regular Gailard Sartain's character, Jake) and Todd Loyd (the Second Chancers' Einstein, Chip Ozgood), first at an autograph table and later during a Q&A session.
Montgomery Bell State Park's Ernest Day started in 2017 to commemorate the film's 30th anniversary. Day campers have been welcomed back every year since, aside from a 2020 cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's fitting that the real Kamp Kikakee is less than 40 miles from Nashville. Actor Jim Varney, creator John R. Cherry III, screenplay co-writer Coke Sams and the rest of the team behind the Ernest character first joined forces in Music City, and it could be argued that the commercial campaigns and comedy films starring Varney made him one of Middle Tennessee's biggest success stories with minimal ties to country music (though he did collaborate with Ricky Skaggs for the Beverly Hillbillies soundtrack and write songs with Vern (Gosdin, that is)).
Per IMDb, the film was a box office success, costing around $3.5 million to make and earning $23.5 million worldwide. Beyond Varney, Alzado and Racimo, the film features veteran Italian-American actor Iron Eyes Cody as Chief St. Cloud, future Band of Brothers star Richard Speight Jr. as Counselor Brooks, R&B boy band member Hakim Abdulsamad as Moustafa and one of the all-time great character actor villains, John Vernon, as the despicable Sherman Krader.
Ernest went on to star in three more Touchstone Pictures productions (Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Ernest Goes to Jail (1990) and Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)) plus a final big-screen showcase (Ernest Rides Again (1993)) before moving on to the direct-to-video hilarity of Ernest Goes to School (1994), Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), Ernest Goes to Africa (1997) and Ernest in the Army (1998).
Varney died of lung cancer on Feb. 10, 2000.