Mr. Chatterbox

Two Sarasota Summer Scandals

A new MTV reality show set on Siesta Key reminds our columnist how things can go wrong during a Sarasota summer.

By Robert Plunket June 28, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

I was appalled when I first heard about that new MTV reality show about Siesta Key that’s set to air this month. What a terrible premise—some young adults who grew up cradled by privilege in Sarasota come back home for the summer from their colleges and their fancy entry-level jobs and “interact.”

In the summer? That’s the least interesting time of the year here. It’s hot and muggy and there’s nothing to do.

Then it struck me. It’s hot and muggy and there’s nothing to do—but get into trouble. Maybe these reality show producers are on to something.

I remember when I first moved here 32 years ago. I was a young—well, youngish—adult, too. In those days the summer was really the summer. Respectable people headed to the mountains of North Carolina or the Great Lakes; restaurants shut down; the only tourists were families from Alabama and Germans trying to get the world’s darkest tan. Some people actually lived without air conditioning. Things moved very slowly. You had time on your hands. Too much time.

I thought I’d probably head North, too. Then I started getting into the spirit of the thing. Every night, with the temperature still hovering around 90, I floated around the pool on a raft. I’d have the pool lights on, and you have to admit there is nothing more beautiful than a Florida pool at night with its lights on—that stunning glow of blue, shimmering in the humid air. A boom box would be softly playing music, the volume set low so as not to attract the attention of the neighbors, as I was naked and smoking a joint. If this was a Florida summer, then count me in.

My measly joints are likely to pale before the high jinks we’ll see on that MTV show. But back in the 1990s, there were two summer scandals—more earthshaking and more tragic—than anything the producers are likely to come up with.

The most famous was the arrest of Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman, in July of 1991. Paul, of course, had grown up in Sarasota, and came back often to visit his family.

But his visit during that particularly hot July was a little different. He was here to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. His famous TV show was over. It was still a hit but he had tired of it. He wanted a new challenge. And the choices seemed unlimited. An astonishing 96 percent of the public knew who Pee-wee Herman was.

His folks lived at the southern end of Siesta, but on this trip he had rented a “Club Suite” at the Longboat Key Club (then an astronomical $150 a night). His mother would come by every now and then to keep it stocked with groceries.

Back in those days you could get awfully lonely out at the beach. The afternoon of Friday, July 26, he drove his rented Mazda over to the Asolo, where he got his start as a teenage actor. They were showing old movie footage of the Asolo back in the days when he worked there. Afterwards, he went over to the home of Vic Meyrich—then as now production manager of the theater. He hung out for a while with Vic, his wife, and their little boy, who was thrilled to meet his idol. He didn’t stay for dinner but drove off into the night.

Somehow he ended up at the XXX South Trail Cinema.

Adult theaters have largely disappeared from American life, victims of online pornography; but not so long ago every town had one or two, and they were considered the epicenter of small-town depravity. People literally snuck into them, head down. Once inside, Paul joined a group of some 20 other men, spaced widely among the 120 seats, and began to perform a private activity that men liked to do while watching an XXX-rated movie.

What Paul didn’t know was that the Sarasota police department was on one of its periodic vice cleanups and four undercover cops were inside. They had been there for five and a half hours, watching porn, making an occasional arrest, then going back to watching porn.

They nabbed Paul in the lobby as he was leaving. I can only imagine the panic that must have gripped him. He explained who he was and said he’d do a benefit for the police department. It didn’t do any good. A sharp-eyed reporter saw Paul’s name on the list of people arrested, and the story made headlines all around the world. The irony is inescapable—here he was trying to figure out what lofty artistic challenge to take up next, and his whole career crumbled because of a foolish decision made on a hot Sarasota night.

Around that time, some people in Sarasota, like most other places, were experimenting with cocaine. Back in those innocent days, it seemed rather harmless, and even a little glamorous and hip. At some parties, guests would sneak into the bathroom or a far corner of the pool area and do a couple of lines.

I remember a prominent merchant on St. Armands who sold stuff on the side to support his own considerable habit, and the old hippie dealer in a shabby house in Gillespie Park who could always be relied upon. (He even made house calls.)

It was in this hedonistic atmosphere that the other great summer scandal occurred. It’s almost forgotten now, but back in 1988 and ’89, the ordeal of David Penner held the town riveted. David was the son of Joe and Grace Penner, the most glamorous couple in Sarasota. Joe served as board chairman of both the Asolo and the Ringling Museum, and Grace was cool and blonde. They lived in a mansion in Lido Shores, with a lifestyle right out of Dynasty, the iconic TV drama of the era.

The Penner scandal eerily mirrors the premise of the new reality show. David, then 21 and just graduated from Brown University, was back for the summer, doing some work for his father. On the sweltering morning of July 9, 1988, he bumped into a friend from high school.

They spent the day together, hanging out with other young people they knew. His friend made at least one cocaine purchase.

That night the fun continued. They took David’s 18-foot speedboat, with its powerful 200-horsepower engine, from the Penner mansion over to the Quay, a since-demolished complex of shops and restaurants that stood where Fruitville runs into U.S. 41. A nightclub there was the big draw.

A boozy night ensued, with his friends ducking into the men’s room several times for a snort. David, from all reports, didn’t take drugs, though he was drinking. When Dundee’s closed at 2 a.m., they decided to continue the party at a condo at the Longboat Key Club that belonged to one of the friends’ parents.

David took three of the group in his boat. The trip started out as a classic Sarasota moment—speeding over the water in the darkness, the little group singing "Starry Starry Night." One of the passengers later said he remembered thinking, “Life is perfect.”

A group of night fishermen heard the crash. When they got to the scene they discovered the boat had hit a steel channel marker. Two of the young people were dead; David and another passenger were badly injured. David was charged with two counts of manslaughter, and the ensuing trial was the longest and most expensive ever held up until then in the 12th Judicial Circuit. In the end David was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, plus probation and community service.

That event was a tragedy, of course, hardly like a frivolous new reality show. But those long-ago stories do illustrate how things can go wrong in a Sarasota summer, when heat and boredom can lead people to make mistakes with terrible consequences. My advice? Keep floating on your raft in the pool.

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