40th Anniversary

The Best of Mr. Chatterbox: Hanging Out With the Art Crowd in 1991

When the local arts crowd gets together, the atmosphere is redolent with famous names, serious politics, and lots and lots of money.

By Robert Plunket February 26, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

A Syd Solomon painting.

Theater parties are the most fun, opera parties the most social, but if I were stranded on a desert island with only one party to attend, I’d sure hope it was an art party.

Particularly in Sarasota. When the local arts crowd gets together the very atmosphere is redolent with famous names, serious politics, and lots and lots of money.

Take the Jimmy Ernst opening at the Corbino Galleries. The town’s intelligentsia turned out in full force. I happen to be in the middle of Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Jean Cocteau and guess what? The same names that were in the book were at the party. Aside from the Ernst clan, (Grand-Dada Max and son Jimmy have passed away but Eric is still carrying on the family tradition—he just left for six months in Japan where he will paint and absorb oriental influences and eat strange foods) I noticed Soulima Stravinsky, Igor’s son and a notable composer in his own right. Reading about his childhood spent amidst the most influential artists of the 20th century was fascinating indeed. (By the way, my favorite story in the whole book has a Sarasota twist. It concerns the time John Ringling North commissioned the older Stravinsky to write “The Circus Polka” and then got George Balanchine to choreograph it. Unfortunately, just as Merle Evans raised his baton for the very first rehearsal, the entire corps de ballet—a herd of 50 elephants—unaccountably panicked and took off in an easterly direction. A distraught Balanchine chasing a herd of elephants—all of them clad in pink tutus—down Fruitville Road must have been a sight to behold.)

And speaking of Fruitville, who would ever guess that it would suddenly have become fashionable? But that’s exactly what happened now that Syd and Rita Adler have sold their Lido Shores house and moved out to a big spread past the interstate. The Adlers are big collectors and they also threw a party for the Jimmy Ernst exhibit, a Sunday afternoon barbecue complete with country-and-western band and a cow-milking contest.

The Adlers have three enormous greenhouses full of orchids, but what fascinated me most was their dog. He sits in the swimming pool up to his neck for hours on end. Then he jumps out and with the unerring instinct dogs have for such things he runs up to the old ladies who can’t run away in time and shakes all the water off. Other interesting sights include John Chamberlain and Syd Solomon. When they get together, watch out. All the sedate bankers and lawyers looked on with a touch of longing as the boys ran around like a couple of seventh graders, snapping pictures and having a great old time.

All of this was just the prelude to the art party of the year—the Ringling Museum Gala. Imagine having dinner with those enormous Rubenses staring down on you. It was a very humbling experience. You sit there lost in contemplation. The unfathomable mysteries of human experience pass through your mind. What prompts the creative urge in our species? Will our puny little works last half as long as these? And where on earth did Annette Scherman get that hat? What’s it made out of, anyway? Mylar?

First the guests gathered for cocktails in the New Gallery, where Joe Jacobs’ exhibit, This Is Not a Photograph, was opening. The exhibit is real good, so good I went back for a second look a week or so later, right after Margaret Len Tang’s concert. (She’s the brilliant Chinese musician who plays the piano with her elbows.) Anyway, as good as the exhibit was, it was an evening when Art had met its match. The social goings-ons were of such a high order that it seemed like an episode out of Dynasty. You practically expected Marjorie Marsh and Helen Griffith to slug it out in the lily pond. Or terrorists to burst in and mow everybody down. It was that dramatic.

Dynasty got Henry Kissinger; the Ringling got Florida’s new Secretary of Commerce—not too impressive until you realize that his name is Jeb Bush. The Vice President’s son turned out to be a tall young man who seemed very grateful to be away from Tallahassee, if only for an evening. I’m afraid to report that for once Mr. Chatterbox’s inexhaustible curiosity failed him. He could not think of a single question to ask Jeb. For a moment he flirted with the possibility of shouting questions about Jeb’s father’s involvement in the Iran arms deal (which is very fashionable for reporters to do at the moment) but a warning look from Virginia Ruggiero (loyally wearing a pin from the museum shop) put an end to that idea.

Besides, there is no getting around that the real stars of the evening were Joe and Grace Penner. You know the Penners. They are, arguably, Sarasota’s most interesting couple. The fact that they keep a slight distance from the local social whirl only makes them more noteworthy—and more mysterious. Grace, of course, is Sarasota’s own Jackie Onassis. She is beautiful, famous for her clothes, always off in Europe or decorating the Governor’s Mansion. And Joe, aside from heading the Ringling board, is building that new office tower downtown (“This Above All” it says on the sign) that has Bay Plaza so upset.

Unlike most of the men mentioned here, however, he does not have a famous father. It is my sad duty to report that Joe Penner is not the son of the famous radio and vaudeville comedian of the same name. To anyone over 60, the original Joe Penner was a celebrity of the first rank. Who can forget his famous gaglines, “You na-aasty man!” and “Don’t dare dooo that!” And of course the immortal “Wanna buy a duck?” It was the “Where’s the beef?” of its day. Joe Penner died of a heart attack in 1941. He was only 36 years old. But like I say, forget about him, as he has nothing to do with any of this.

Anyway, it was quite an evening. But since some loyal readers are beginning to complain that I’m getting too nice (“Boy, have you sold out”) let me point out that I found a bone in my red snapper and that the sound system didn’t work right and that Grace Penner’s Bill Blass was at least two years old. Still, the glamour was undeniably there. And as a steady rain washed the marble floors of the museum’s veranda, as I watched Florence and Saul Putterman  twirl around the dance floor to the strains of “New York, New York,” as I stood at the bar and listened as Eric Cushing describes how sometimes, late at night, in the privacy of his own room, he writes poetry he never shows to anybody, I kept thinking: This is the way it ought to be. The Party of the Year? Could be…

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