I never went to summer camp. My family couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t push because I wasn’t much for using latrines or hanging out with strangers. I did, however, watch a lot of movies, TV shows, and TV movies about people who went to camp. It was a way to experience the great outdoors without having to actually expose myself to bugs, cots, or dirt.
Since I was an indoor kid, my friends were other indoor kids, and I didn’t really know anyone who went to camp. Everything I knew about summer camp came from the movies I watched, and coming of age in the early ’90s, there was one camp movie I absolutely worshipped. It wasn’t Meatballs; it wasn’t The Parent Trap. It was Camp Cucamonga, a 1990 made-for-television movie starring John Ratzenberger, Candace Cameron, Chad Allen, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano, and Jaleel White, known to most people, then and now, as Urkel.
Camp Cucamonga isn’t, it should go without saying, Ulysses. It’s mindless entertainment peppered with neon colors and keyboard riffs. The plot is so basic, it’s almost nonexistent: Some kids, played by the Bop magazine cover stars of the day, go to summer camp. One of them, Lindsey (Danica McKellar) has trouble making friends because she wears leather jackets and has a bad attitude. Colonel Marv, the camp’s director (John Ratzenberger), mistakes a handyman (Sherman Hemsley) for the inspector from the incredibly fictional-sounding Camping Society Of America, while mistaking the actual inspector (G. Gordon Liddy, for some reason) for the handyman and treating him like garbage. The camp’s seal of approval is subsequently revoked, which doesn’t mean the camp closes, but rather that parents might not want to send their kids there in the future, because it isn’t accredited. Since the camp kids are brilliant and super-’90s, they come up with the idea of making a rap video about their camp, which they’ll send to the regional director of the CSA as a plea for their credentials. He’ll love it, and they’ll get their seal back. Unsurprisingly, it works, and the camp is once again certified.
There’s some puppy-dog romance and drama along the way. Amber (Candace Cameron) and Frankie (the now openly gay Chad Allen) are hot-and-heavy hand-holders until their fireworks fizzle. Max Plotkin (Josh Saviano) has a thing for Lindsey because she doesn’t openly abhor him. Dennis (Jaleel White) likes Jennifer (Tasha Scott), ostensibly because they’re the only two black kids at camp. Camp counselor and general schmooze-artist Roger (Head Of The Class’ Brian Robbins) tries to mack on the director’s daughter Ava (Jennifer Aniston in her first film role), but she puts him off until the end of the movie, claiming she’s looking for a one-woman guy. Because it aired on Sunday-night TV, it’s a pretty tame movie. When the boys try and spy on the girls—who are, of course, singing Motown songs—in the shower, they get a bucket of water dumped on them before they see anything more than feet.
All this stands in sharp contrast to Poison Ivy, another camp-related TV movie I watched multiple times growing up. Originally airing in 1985, Poison Ivy starred Michael J. Fox, Nancy McKeon, and a bunch of kids. While it didn’t deal with heavy issues, it at least addressed their existence. One camper, Timmy (Cary Guffey, who played the little boy in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind), is forced to go to camp because he can’t swim and is a picky eater. His parents are openly ashamed of him and often cruel, and he runs away repeatedly. Camp director’s wife Margo (Caren Kaye) is running around on her husband because he’s too focused on the camp and can’t get it up. Dennis (Fox) is a sex-starved cad until he meets Rhonda (McKeon). She’s engaged, though, so he pines from a friendly distance. One of the campers, Jerry Disbro (Joe Wright), carries around a porn magazine, telling his bunkmates that while he can’t “do that stuff yet,” the first time he can, he wants to be ready.
That kind of raw sexuality makes Poison Ivy both age a little better than Camp Cucamonga and seem downright disgusting to me now. While even I knew, as someone who didn’t go to camp, that camp romances were the reason to go, the ideathat 12-year-old me would have been cruising for forest gropes makes me a little uncomfortable. It could have been worse, though: Jerry’s crush, Irene, is a girl from Camp Chickawanna, conveniently located across the lake. She looks about 8 years old, if that. Still, he wants to make it with her, in no uncertain terms. He’s maybe 12.
Watching both Camp Cucamonga and Poison Ivy now, I’m struck by just how young everyone looks, or even more specifically, how stupid everyone seems. Why would parents entrust their kids to a camp director (Ratzenberger) who constantly falls in the lake, or to a college-aged counselor who is out looking for tail rather than making sure his charges don’t get eaten by bears? Granted, these are movies written to entertain, not to reflect real life, but as we know now, even real-life camp counselors aren’t exactly the most conscientious characters.
Maybe that’s what drew me to these movies, though: the idea that summer camp was a place where kids, long persecuted and misunderstood, could control their own lives. Ignoring that I now understand that camp is highly regimented and organized—lest those zany counselors lose campers in the woods, or let them drown in the lake—20-odd years ago, I thought camp was where you went to have food fights and dances, to learn to sail and make God’s Eyes, and—most importantly—where you went for color wars.
Watching camp movies, I learned from an early age that color wars were not only the best part of the summer, but also maybe the only part of the summer worth going to camp for. Camp Cucamonga doesn’t mess around with color wars, instead spending its valuable time focusing on “catching” trout in pantyhose and pouring boiling water on John Ratzenberger’s feet. Poison Ivy, on the other hand, revels in the ritual. The camp’s battle between the blue and the gray teams is so epic that an airplane even flies overhead dropping leaflets on the campers that say “WAR” in big, bold letters. After Jerry, one of the gray team’s captains, dicks over bunkmate, friend, and blue-team member Timmy in the swimming relay race, though, things get ugly. Timmy runs away again, and his entire bunk (including Jerry) goes after him. They find him, bring him back to camp, and—inspired by a moving speech from Dennis—get the whole camp to quit color wars. Camp is about friendship, after all—not competition.
For me, though, camp is about idealism. The idea of camp, as seen through these movies, is a thousand times more romantic than actual camp. Go to real camp, and you might not find love. You could end up covered in mosquito bites. You might have to use a leaf as toilet paper and spend weeks sharing a bedroom with people you abhor. Watch a movie about camp, though, and anything’s possible: If you went to camp, you’d totally have the coolest boyfriend. You’d learn to ride a jet ski. You’d make friends you’d know for the rest of your life.
Maybe that’s why, instead of wanting to go to camp as a kid, I preferred to pitch my tent on the couch and watch these movies over and over again. The wilderness is scary. Strangers, especially pre-teen girls, are scary. Anything can happen in an uncontrolled environment, and being stuck there for weeks at a time sounded terrifying. At home, watching my movies, I could go to camp with kids I already knew from TV and be an observer, not a participant. I could have summertime adventures in my mind, rather than in the wild. Maybe I missed something, but then again, I never got poison ivy from Poison Ivy.