Mr. Chatterbox - May 2002

By staff May 1, 2002

We're getting so lucky here in Sarasota. The world is starting to come to us. Saks, the Ritz, Tony Bennett. Wasn't he something? Those who were at the Van Wezel gala and concert will never forget it. Not only did he enthrall with his talent and style, but he also urged passage of that referendum that would raise property taxes for more school money. I was appalled when I first heard about it. I do not have children in our local public schools; and besides, what has a child ever done for me? But I must say Tony finally convinced me. His merest wish is my command.


But what's really got me excited recently was the Parade of Homes. Have you seen what new houses are getting like? It's amazing. I personally have always lived the Janet Reno lifestyle -pecky cypress and wall units. Yes, I live in an old house and love it, what with all its quaint features like leaky plumbing, tiny closets and the ultra-impractical 11-inch deep kitchen cabinets. I swore I would never live in a new house, particularly one in a "development." Now, after the Parade of Homes, I guess I'll have to change my tune. The question now has become, how can I afford one of these masterpieces?


A state-of-the-art new home is an amazing place. The builders have gotten so smart that any objection you could possibly have has been designed away. The ceilings are always the perfect height; the rooms well-proportioned. Everywhere there are room-sized walk-in closets. The master bedrooms have sitting areas. The master bath always has two sinks, a separate shower and a luxurious ambience. The kitchen you look at and cry, it's so pretty. And they were all like this. There wasn't a clunker in the bunch-OK, one clunker but it was up in Palmetto.


The oddest thing about the Parade of Homes is that they are all the same. It's the same house, over and over, an endless variation of a single theme. Each builder uses the same style, packs in the same amenities, "paints the same picture" of the affluent Florida lifestyle. They are all interchangeable and vary only by price and trim, like GM cars.


The houses start at around $200,000; and for this price you get the small, stripped-down version. Also, you're too close to the neighbors, the neighborhood is mediocre, and you keep thinking about the other amenities you didn't get because you were too cheap.


But these drawbacks disappear around the half-million-dollar level; here, the house becomes very desirable. You'll have a caged pool overlooking a golf course or nature preserve; a "summer" (i.e., outdoor) kitchen; one or more water features (in one house there were five, creating such a racket the salesman had to shout); and enough antiqued tiles, terra cotta, grill work, niches, beams, coffers, quoins, and churrigueresque pillars to make you think you're in a Spanish monastery.


And, yes, they do get much more expensive: Five or six were over a million and one was $2.5 million. But oddly enough, I found these rather uninteresting-they were so big that I couldn't picture myself living in one. I've been in Florida too long to consider a second floor a plus. (Although, in the builders' defense, I must point out that anything in this price range has its own elevator.)


To me the biggest adjustment would be not the house but the planned community in which it sits. I have always lived on the periphery of downtown Sarasota, which is very much an unplanned community, and I like it that way. I like the mix of houses, condos, office buildings, stores, doctors' offices, restaurants, even the occasional eyesore of a vacant lot. And the residents! On my block alone I've got renters who park on the lawn, rich yuppies, mean old ladies, and old Sarasota families who've been there for generations. Plus Peanut the Wonder Dog. And my house was built by circus people! That's the Sarasota equivalent of having a house in Los Angeles once owned by a movie star. And Mollie Cardamone grew up in my house! Just think-me and a mayor. It's going to need two plaques.


Anyway, I was thinking about where people in Sarasota live as I sat at the dinner preceding Tony Bennett's performance. On my right were Bob and Roberta Turoff, who own the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. Curiously, they live on a farm out by the county dump. They have an enormous wooden house in a contemporary style and a pond where they raise swans, under what I believe to be some sort of federal subsidy program. It's so rural you can still see wild boars, particularly when the Turoffs entertain.


On my left was Betty Schoenbaum, who lives in a penthouse downtown. She says she can see the Sunshine Skyway-but then, she's very tall. Five-nine, to be exact. Too tall to be a Rockette, which was her dream as a young girl. She did end up dancing on Broadway with Milton Berle, though. Then she married Alex Schoenbaum, the founder of Shoney's, and the rest is hamburger history. I'll tell you-there are eight million stories in those penthouses downtown.


Let's see-completing our group were Carolyn Michel and Howard Millman, who live in a big old house on St Armands with a martini-shaped swimming pool, and Marjorie North and Bill Hirons, who live in The Oaks, the real fancy planned community down in Osprey. A sad smile crossed my face as I surveyed them all. Their property taxes were about to go up thousands of dollars.


Then it was upstairs for the concert, and what an evening it was. A work of art from start to finish. Such talent. Such technique. Such depth. Not only was it entertaining, but you also got a Ph.D. in popular music. I've rarely seen an audience so enthralled. I was sandwiched between the Turoffs and the Hirons-such lovebirds, all four of them. Marjorie North nestled her locks, which seem to be curiously getting more and more golden, into her husband Bill's shoulder, and during one particularly emotional number I turned to Roberta and saw tears coursing down her cheeks, her face locked in a perky smile due to her recent Botox injections.


What a magic evening. I realized for the first time that the referendum really would pass-and guess what, it did. First No Boss Mayor and now better schools. Plus Tony Bennett. Who could ask for anything more?

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