Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket December 1, 2009

asset_upload_file501_30301.jpgI’ve been spending a lot of time over at the Sarasota Convention and Visitor’s Bureau lately. Boy, what a community resource that place is. In addition to handing out free information and advice to anybody who walks in, did you know they will prepare customized packs of brochures and such if you’re having a wedding or a business meeting? And for free? They also have a terrific exhibit on Sarasota history, another one on Sarasota archaeology, another one on Sarasota School architecture. Yes, they have virtually everything over there.

Except one thing. The dirt. Where the bodies are buried. Sarasota’s famous scandals and mysteries. Where do you go to find out about them? Well, right here, as a matter of fact.

Here it is. The Sarasota Scandal and Mystery Tour. Your handy guide to our town’s most famous events, the ones that lie under the surface, the ones that have embedded themselves in the nation’s unconscious. Forbidden Sarasota . . . Follow me as we explore its nooks and crannies.

Let’s start with the Pee-wee Herman Tour. It’s been 18 years now since he was arrested at the South Trail Cinema, but the paradoxical combination of a “kiddie celebrity” encountering the specter of sex made it a teaching moment for a whole generation.

We'll begin at 2168 Sparrow Court, where Pee-wee—then Paul Rubenfeld—grew up. It’s in an affluent neighborhood right where Harbor Acres meets Cherokee and McClellan parks. Today it’s one of the most expensive parts of town; back in the 1960s it was where the town’s upper middle class lived. The Rubenfeld house has been torn down and replaced with a much grander place, but the original is fondly remembered by many townspeople who were friends of the Rubenfeld kids. Paul’s parents, Judy (who now lives in the southeast part of town in a big house facing a lake) and Milton (who passed away in 2004), were famous for being funny and cool.

Paul attended grammar school just a short walk away, at Southside (1901 Webber St.). He then went to Sarasota High (the old building, 1001 S. Tamiami Trail), class of 1970, where he was a popular student and already aware of his unusual talent. As a Sarasota teen-ager he was obsessed with acting, and he appeared in plays at both the Players and the Asolo Theatre.

Paul was vacationing in Sarasota in 1991, taking a break from his phenomenally successful TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. He was staying at the Longboat Key Club rather than with his folks; he liked his privacy. On the evening of July 26, he dropped by the home of Vic and Stephanie Meyrich, old friends from the Asolo Rep living on Virginia Drive, and then, several hours later, found himself at the South Trail Cinema (formerly at 6727 S. Tamiami Trail), watching a movie called Nurse Nancy.

The theater is gone, made obsolete by the explosion of porn on the Internet. It has been replaced by a restaurant called the Manhattan Bar and Grill, which is well known for its martinis. Our tour will thus end in the bar, where we will toast Pee-wee and his strange place in American culture.

But no time to linger. It’s time to move on to the 9/11 Tour. Sarasota is one of a handful of cities to figure prominently in the day that changed the world, and it continues to provide conspiracy theorists clues and contradictions about some of the day’s more controversial moments.

A good starting point would be the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key. Here President George W. Bush spent the night of Sept. 10. The Colony has recently experienced legal and financial troubles and is now closed, but the restaurant remains open. As you get out of your car at the restaurant entrance, look to the left at the mid-rise tower. It was in the penthouse of this building where the president slept.

As you enter the restaurant lobby, look for the small private dining room. Here it was that Bush had dinner with a group of Florida politicians. The menu was Tex-Mex and was prepared by Tommy Klauber, whose family owns the hotel. The president went to bed around 10 p.m., but his aides and Secret Service men hung out in the Monkey Bar.

The next morning, after a run around the Harbourside golf course, Bush went by motorcade down Gulf of Mexico Drive, across the Ringling Causeway Bridge, and uptown to Emma E. Booker Elementary. It was about halfway through this journey of 25 minutes that the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

The president did not find this out until he reached the school at 9:01 a.m. Exactly what he learned and when he learned it remain unclear to this day. But no one who was there—me included—will ever forget the chaos and drama that reigned in the halls of Booker, in the library, and out in the parking lot as all hell broke loose. And of course there is the famous classroom where he sat for seven minutes after being informed about the second plane hitting the towers while the kids (now all Sarasota teenagers) finished reading from their book.

I’m sure the school board doesn’t want tourists wandering around, but you can get a good look at this historic building from the parking lot. Make sure you’re at Emma E. Booker Elementary at 2350 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. There are three different Booker schools in the area, all named after a prominent local African-American educator.

Let’s wind up this segment in the bar at the Sarasota Bradenton Airport, where Air Force One was parked. When his limo pulled up, the president raced up the stairs without looking back. If he had glanced behind him, he might have glimpsed Dolphin Aviation, where Mohamed Atta and at least one other hijacker briefly took flight lessons before moving to another flight school down

in Venice.

Turning to a much happier mystery, let’s get onboard for the Travis McGee Tour, dedicated to the famous literary hero and his creator, John D. MacDonald. MacDonald died back in 1986, but the Hollywood trades are currently buzzing with news of an in-the-works Travis McGee movie, with one of the biggest stars in the world about to be signed to play the charismatic beach bum.

In the mystery series, Travis lives aboard a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, but MacDonald was a true Sarasotan, one of the founding members of the informal artist’s colony that flourished here back in the 1950s and ’60s. All of his books have a strong local flavor, most notably Condominium, published back in 1977, in which a massive hurricane destroys a town easily recognizable as Sarasota.

The house that John built with his Travis money is still here, located right on the Siesta Key side of Big Pass. But it’s down a private, unpaved road and there is no turn-around; any rubbernecking tourists would be a pain in the neck for its present owner. So drive instead around the key, which remains remarkably similar to the way it was back when John lived here. Head south on Ocean Boulevard, past the 1970s-era resorts. Check out in particular the Siesta Royale at 6334 Midnight Pass Road. Then keep going ’til you get to the Crescent Club at 6519 Midnight Pass Road.

The Crescent Club features prominently in Condominium, and there is a bar like it in practically all of MacDonald’s books. It’s dark and determinedly old-fashioned, and acts as a magnet for all the types that populate the Florida mystery genre that John created. On any given night you’ll find the tourists looking for a little action, the drunken frat boys on vacation, the blonde divorcée on the prowl, the charter boat captain looking for business, the desperate investor in search of a sucker—or at least people who look and act exactly like them. Let’s order Travis’ favorite drink—a blend of dry sherry and Plymouth gin topped with a bit of lemon peel—and watch what happens . . . ❙

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