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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST

Maybe you got the impression that Disney’s “Ernest Goes to Camp” is the first feature for Jim Varney, creator of Ernest P. Worrell, the world’s most successful hick salesman (currently seen in 140 TV markets nationwide, pitching everything from car dealerships to pizzas).

Not so: Two years ago, Varney and writer-director-producer John Cherry III gave us “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam,” in which Varney played five roles in a madcap yarn about a mad scientist’s plan to take over the world.

The picture (Variety’s Peter Besas called it “so amateurish, it is a penance to sit through”) never made it to L.A. Cherry--whose Nashville-based advertising company launched Ernest--told us the first release was limited to Texas and a few Midwest states: “We made it for $800,000 and we’ll see our money back from videocassette sales. Ernest has a huge following.”

How did Disney get involved in the $3.5-million “Camp”? According to Cherry, Varney and Mickey Mouse rode in a pace car at the 1986 Indianapolis 500. When the crowd screamed Worrell’s trademark “Know what I mean, Vern?” instead of going mouse-crazy, Disney execs got hip.

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“Camp” hasn’t excited critics, either, but grosses are promising ($6.6 million in its first five days).

Cherry said sequels to “Camp” are being contemplated, including “Ernest in the Army,” “Ernest the Bellhop” and “Ernest in Paradise,” in which the character wins a South Seas vacation.


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