Tony Gillispie & Kristie Mantooth
Norma Jean / 1969 Chris-Craft Commander Express
Tony Gillispie and his fiancée Kristie Mantooth came to own their beautiful 1969 Chris-Craft Commander Express named Norma Jean by a stroke of luck. Tony had admired it for years before finally purchasing it four years ago. The original owner lived in Florida, and he only came up to Chattanooga for occasional trips on the boat. Tony’s previous boat was docked nearby, so he offered to help clean the boat and start it up regularly to keep everything in good condition. He always admired the boat for its beautiful lines, striking colors, and nostalgic look.
“I was on the phone with the former owner one day, and he told me, ‘You’re going to buy my boat.’ I was shocked, but it turned out to be perfect timing. We made an offer, and the rest is history!” Tony says.
Legendary boat manufacturer Chris-Craft has a long history of producing reliable boats that are a symbol of Americana. They’re known for building the amphibious vehicles used by American soldiers during the Invasion of Normandy in WWII, but they’ve also manufactured luxury pleasure boats for more than a century. This particular Commander Express was built in Florida, although it was assembled at a factory located here in Chattanooga.
Only about 30 of these boats were ever made, and they were Chris-Craft’s first attempt at experimenting with fiberglass hulls on larger vessels. “One thing that makes this boat so unique is that its hull is extremely thick, because Chris-Craft wanted to figure out how to make this new technology work for this type of multi-purpose boat,” Tony says. “It was built as an ocean vessel, and it could be used for recreation or commercial fishing.” With that thick hull, the dry weight is 22,000 pounds. That doesn’t slow Norma Jean down though, because she also has Twin 454 engines and 700HP. “She’s a boat made for running,” he adds.
As many boat owners know, it can be considered bad luck to rename a boat. Tony got around this superstition by keeping a part of the original name from 1969 – Norma C – on the logo he designed for the boat. “The first time I saw this boat at the marina, I could just picture Marilyn Monroe sitting on the front. The boat was so gorgeous and nostalgic to me,” Tony says. “When I was trying to decide on a new name, I realized it already had Norma, Marilyn’s real first name. I decided to build off that and not risk the bad luck by changing the name entirely, so I kept a small C under the name ‘Norma’ in the boat’s new name and logo on the back of the hull,” he explains.
Tony and Kristie love to have friends on their boat for parties and holidays, and they’ve even fit 23 people on at one time. However, their favorite memories are times spent with family. “My best memory is seeing my son Sammy drive the boat for the first time,” Tony says. “He’s getting really good at driving it now, and I call him my co-pilot. Sammy likes to remind me that if something ever happens to me, this gets to be his boat!” he laughs.
Photos by Lanewood Studio