Street Talk - November 2001

By staff November 1, 2001


Pee-wee a natural man? That what it looked like recently when Sarasota's own Pee Wee Herman showed up in a north side neighborhood, looking over some exotic species of bromeliads. Those are the spiky green cluster plants with red centers surrounding tiny blue flowers that all look alike to me.

But then I grow orchids, so what do I know?

Bromeliad grower Rob Branch said that it turns out Pee-wee-most recently the star of his own TV quiz show-grows orchids at his home in Los Angeles, too, so he was looking to Branch for some advice on those spiky green cluster things. Seems he hopes to put bromeliads in the trees surrounding his mother's home on Siesta Key.


In the 10 blocks between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301-essentially each end of Main Street-there are at least seven restaurants serving spaghetti carbonara. No two are exactly alike-but I've honestly never eaten a bad one.

Maybe it's all the Italian art at the Ringling Museum or all the Italianate buildings in town, but we're blessed with more good Italian restaurants-and spaghetti carbonara--downtown than your average Tuscan village.

Some are eggy, some are cheesy, some are creamy and one is fairly dry. Most use real pancetta, but one of my favorites uses good ol' American bacon. And when was the last time you heard anybody say, "Oh, no, that's too much bacon?"


The early morning rain was starting to come down ever harder, painting over the sun trying to rise on Sarasota Bay, but county commission chair David Mills was managing to keep the grin going-despite being dressed in a pair of soaked nylon shorts and what used to be called "an Italian tuxedo."

Mills, running stride for stride with his buddy Sarasota Mayor Al Hogle, had just arrived at Bird Key Park after jogging across the old Ringling Bridge to the groundbreaking of the planned new $58-million span. Bathed in a mixture of rain and sweat, Mills quickly told his rapidly disappearing audience of fewer than 50 people that "This is the end of a 10-year journey-and the very fact we're here proves you can't believe everything you read in the daily newspaper."

With that the traditional gold shovels turned over scoopfuls of what had become mud, and thus began the official construction of Sarasota's new 65-foot, fixed span bridge between downtown and St. Armands-oh, and Longboat Key too.


"Just hope you never end up on my show." Jerry Springer to an author signing copies of his masterpiece at Circle Books on St. Armands.

And since this is the arts and culture issue, here's my all-time favorite Ringling Museum quote-from former director Richard Carroll, looking at a gallery being readied for an exhibition. It had been painted four times and he still didn't like the shade of gray. "Paint it blue," he said. "See if I like it."


We asked some local arts mavens to describe their most enriching cultural experience of the summer.

Dr. John Wetenhall, director, Ringling Museum: "Riding the circus train from Baraboo to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through dozens of small towns and seeing the thousands of children and families along the tracks watching the circus train go by. We're about to double the size of our circus museum and to see those children and families along the tracks shows us the audience here and in the future."

Michael Pender, accountant COMPANY NAME AND board president, Selby Gardens: "Ten days in India, traveling with Selby Gardens director Meg Lowman to the Association of Tropical Biology meeting. We flew into Bangalore, where the meeting was taking place, and day-tripped out of there when time allowed. It was eye-opening."

Susan Danis, executive director, Sarasota Opera. "Watching two teen-age young men, who reluctantly appeared at the Youth Opera Program this summer, making it clear they were there only because their friends were. Three days a week for the next six weeks they worked with more than 120 other youngsters-and when it was all over, they'd become full-fledged, confident singers. That's what the program's all about."

Phil Colpas, Pelican Press reporter and bandleader, King Louie Blues Band: "To get a true sense of Sarasota's color and culture, sometimes you have to get your hands a little dirty. Try fronting a blues band and entertaining at some of our local watering holes like Classic Wax, the Old Packinghouse or Texas Del's. Or go fishing with transplanted Floridian and charter boat Captain Mark Claire on the Pride and Joy."

Piero Rivolta, developer, The Rivolta Group: "I installed a projection video system with surround sound in my home while the rest of the family was in Italy for the summer and enjoyed wonderful evenings watching opera and drinking good bottles of wine."


Just what kind of a government does the city want, anyway? The sometimes bumbling, nearly always fractious council/city manager form that has somehow brought Sarasota to being named "Best Small Town in America," or the well-oiled one-man rule promised by the business-oriented Coalition for Sarasota's Future?

The struggle, which voters will ultimately decide next March, is really a cultural battle. A lot of business people have the funny idea that if you can run a business, you can run anything--especially something as simple as a government. History doesn't support that idea, of course, but old theories die hard-and besides, most business people don't read much history. For example, when the leadership of the coalition was asked by a New College professor if they had read the Federalist Paper on checks and balances in government, not a single one had done so.

The truth is, we Americans center our culture on business and want to believe it's the true pinnacle of human achievement. It comforts us.

Some more truth-and remember, Aristotle said nobody has all the truth, some just have more than others-is that 60 years of messy city government have brought us to the point we're considered one of the most desirable places to live-anywhere. Just ask some of those nice Europeans paying millions for places on Siesta, Bird, Lido and Longboat keys.

I've done that, and they tell me that they're here because no place else is as safe, as clean and realistically, as cheap. Oh, did I mention it's warm too?

And the strong mayor idea? Well, the first one elected in West Palm was so successful that he's the model being used to sell Sarasota on the idea. But the second strong mayor over there, according to the now-retired first one, is a disaster.


Nobody disputes that sculptor John Chamberlain is Sarasota's icon in the world of high art these day-least of all Chamberlain himself. He was just returning from an exhibition in St. Moritz and had stopped off in Paris "to take some pictures" when we caught up with him.

Q: Jack Bailey is dead, Syd Solomon is gone and you just stop by once in awhile. What's left of the art scene in Sarasota?

A: I doubt if there's any art scene left in town, at least for me. But then there's a lot of levels in art, of course. I just quietly come to Sarasota to work now.

Q: So what's happening in the art world on your level right now?A: Well, the art world is pretty strange-even stranger than usual and it's all shifty. I'll tell you this, it's not like it used to be when artists all got together and told one another lies.

Q: What's next on your schedule? A: Back to Long Island where my old friend Jonathan Becker wants to photograph me for an article he's doing for Vanity Fair on the artists of east Long Island.

Q: When did you come to Sarasota and why?

A: Actually, I came the first time in 1969 because of my knees. I've always had bad knees and David Budd knew a circus doctor he thought could help me. I came back in 1979 and found a junkyard down in Osprey where I could set up a studio. Finally, in March of '81 I moved into what you call Remnant City on 10th Street. Still working there.

Q: Your impressions of Sarasota today?

A: I think it's exploding--although I'm not sure if I know exactly what that really means. The truth is, Sarasota is certainly still a pleasant place-at least it's good for 10 days.

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