Mr. Chatterbox

By staff June 1, 2007

Annette Scherman has peaked. Yes, after years of being one of Sarasota’s most distinctive personalities, she had now officially climbed her Everest. I refer, of course, to her Community Video Archives luncheon. It’s changed over the years from a somewhat modest event honoring rich philanthropists to a major civic pageant in which once a year, Sarasota’s ancien regime gets to wallow in nostalgia for the past. Forget about those Young Turks who have taken over the town. This is our moment.

Everybody shows up, all the stars of yesteryear. Bob Johnson, Deane and Rex Allyn, Rita Adler, the McGillicuddys. Of course, many of them are still stars today—particularly the McGillicuddys—but my point is: These are the people who created the town we live in today—its social structure, its values, its aesthetic.

The award consists of a video about your life, beautifully produced by Myron Hieronymus Thomas, which is available in all the county libraries. “There have been 12,000 ‘borrows’ of the tapes since the program began,” Annette announced proudly to the assembled group eating a delicious salad in the Michael’s On East ballroom.

“How many times have you checked yours out?” my boss whispered.

“Twelve thousand,” I admitted.

Yes, I have actually received one of these things, although you’d never know it. When Annette read the list of past winners and had them stand to deafening applause, my name was conspicuously absent. What happened? Had my award been rescinded? Or was it just Annette being Annette? She turned 93 last Monday, you know. (I told her she’d regret that little “mistake.”)

But back to the luncheon. This year’s awardees were a particularly noteworthy group, encompassing the amazing and somewhat wacky history of our little town. They were a famous choreographer, a prominent marine biologist, a small-town Southern lawyer, circus royalty, and most important, the man who introduced the cathedral ceiling to Sarasota.

First was Robert de Warren. He’s retiring as artistic director of the Sarasota Ballet, and even though the ballet has settled down to become one of the most establishment arts organizations in town, us old-timers remember the days when there were two ballet companies in Sarasota and they were at each other’s throats. Although it seemed so important and earth-shattering at the time, their efforts to one-up each other provide us with a benign chuckle now.

Robert has had the most amazing life. He grew up in Argentina on a sheep ranch, where, he says, he spent too much time “looking at flowers rather than dipping sheep.” His dance career took him to London and then to becoming principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet. He’s crossed paths with some amazing people: Eva Peron, Nureyev, the Empress of Iran. In his gracious thank-you speech he pleaded for more government support of the arts. “I could have done so much more if I didn’t have to fund raise,” he lamented, a statement that should be chiseled on the tombstone of every Sarasota artist.

Then came William Harrison, whose journey through life took him about 20 miles, as he was born, at home, in Palmetto. Harrison is the archetypal Southern lawyer, famous for his common sense and integrity. (He served as the lawyer for, among other clients, Sarasota Memorial Hospital.) There’s a touch of Atticus Finch to him. As Robert represented the cosmopolitan side of Sarasota, Mr. Harrison is a reminder of our small-town all-American roots. My favorite story from his speech: Back in those days the high school was so small that he was a member of both the marching band and the football team. He’d march out in his band uniform, then dash into the locker room and change into his football uniform.

Next they announced the Shark Lady, and I thought, gee, is Annette getting an award? But it turned out to be Eugenie Clark, the founder of Mote Marine and a world- famous marine biologist. I thought her speech might be a little dry, but it had the audience on the floor as she described a fish she had recently discovered that could change sex in 10 seconds, even faster than that city manager up in Largo. As she put it: “Let’s have a look at those gonads more carefully.”

Lee Wetherington came next. He’s probably Sarasota’s most successful builder, and he gives millions to the Boys and Girls Clubs. He gives away so much money he even does commercials for the Community Foundation about how to maximize your charitable dollar. The highlight of his video was his hair, outfits and gold chains from the ‘70s. What a lady killer he used to be. The most touching moment was when he thanked Diane McFarlin as his “partner.” Gee, I guess they really are a couple. Will we be hearing wedding bells in the near future?

We certainly will for the next winners, Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis. They run Circus Sarasota. I thought they were married, but no, they were all set to get married almost 20 years ago but then, two days before, Pedro had an accident while performing. That’s the most Sarasota excuse for postponing a wedding I ever heard: The groom broke both his ankles when he fell from his trapeze.

Pedro comes from a family of Portuguese fishermen in South Africa and learned his circus skills at the local Y. Dolly is, of course, the daughter of Lou Jacobs, one of the most famous and influential clowns who ever lived (he’s appeared on a U.S. postage stamp), so it’s only appropriate that as she went up to the dais, she was presented with the traditional bouquet of noses by clowns Chuck Sidlow and Karen Bell. Dolly’s act is the Roman rings, and if you’ve ever seen it, you know it’s one of the most beautiful circus acts imaginable. She’s received many awards in her career, including one from Prince Albert of Monaco, but she told the crowd that this one meant the most to her.

What an event. Don’t miss it next year. It always sells out, so get your tickets early.

As I was leaving, it occurred to me that Annette needs a larger venue to accommodate the crowd. Then I saw Judy Rubenfeld, another dear old friend from the past. What a story she has to tell. Her late husband, Milton, was the first fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, her daughter, Abby, is founder of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and her son, Paul, is Pee-wee Herman. She showed me a picture Paul had e-mailed her that morning. He was in makeup for his new role in a TV pilot in which he plays an alien.

What a town, I thought to myself as I walked out to the atrium; and there was Betsy Mitchell. There was something about her that I couldn’t figure out, and then it hit me. “You’re wearing your grandmother’s dress!” I blurted out. Yes, she was wearing an old Adolfo that belonged to Marje Van Antwerp, who was, in her day (the 1980s) Sarasota’s grandest grande dame. Betsy still has a closet full, and sometimes she reaches into “Nana’s boutique” for something special. And this dress was really special. It looked like something Scarlett O’Hara whipped up out of the draperies. Bold, proud and somewhat defiant. Yes, when Sarasota’s ancien regime shows its true colors, the effect can be spectacular.

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