Mr. Chatterbox

Our Humor Columnist's Picks for the Best of Sarasota 2017

Joe Gruters, Steve Bannon, Jesse Biter, Betty Schoenbaum and Katherine Harris all make Mr. C's list.

By Robert Plunket April 26, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Image: Rob Jones

In this issue, our readers and editors choose the best of the best. But I must say, I noticed some omissions. Just to set the record straight, here’s my Best of 2017.

Best 100-Year-Old

This is getting to be a crowded category these days, but everyone would admit that Betty Schoenbaum gets the prize. She comes from big hamburger money—she and her late husband Alex founded the Shoney’s restaurants—and as she prepares to turn 100 in September, she’s been experiencing a second wind of activity. Nobody gets a bigger kick out of giving away money. For Betty, it’s like a fun adventure, not some sacred, ponderous duty. I’ve been begging her to let me write a book about her but so far she’s been very coy. And a little saucy. I’ll never forget the tour she gave me of her downtown penthouse. “And here’s my bedroom,” she said with a sigh. “I just wish I had a man to chase me around it.”

Best Shopping Experience

Forget the malls and downtown. The real story of shopping these days is our amazing chain of Goodwill stores. If you need something—anything at all—check out the Goodwill first. You’ll find row after row of clean clothing both casual and formal, including premium brands. (You can always find nice Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers stuff.) Everything is well-organized and well-marked. Kitchen ware is heaven (lots of collectible items from the past 50 years), and there’s a little boutique section at the store on 17th Street called Treasure Island where they have things like Chanel and Armani suits. But my best find was in a corner way in back: a 1920s Chinese art deco rug, in amazing condition, still plush and thick. It’s easily worth $1,200 to $1,500. Goodwill price? $89.

Best Newlyweds

When you’re Katherine Harris and you live in a $13 million home and have a legendary political career as Florida’s Secretary of State and a U.S. congresswoman behind you, it must be hard to find a date. Most men would be extremely intimidated. So it’s great news that Katherine recently met her match. On Feb. 25 in the chapel at Southern Methodist University, she married a guy named Richard Ware II who’s even richer than she is (he’s from a banking family whose Amarillo National Bank in Texas has $3.9 billion in assets). True, she’ll have to spend a certain amount of time in Amarillo. And he has triplet sons, which may take a little getting used to. But here’s a warm Sarasota welcome to the newlyweds.

Best New Tourist Attraction

The Paul Rudolph wing at Sarasota High. Now that it’s been restored and whatever was in front of it removed, it’s like this spectacular new building has emerged. The view from Bahia Vista gives me a little thrill each time I drive past—the various planes and lines, all interacting with each other—it’s architectural perfection.

Best Embarrassing Reality Show Star

Everything was going great for Jesse Biter. He owned half of downtown and had appointed himself spokesman for the town’s millennials. Sarasota had to recruit them and make them happy with loud bars and apartments that he would build for them if he could get the right tax breaks. Yet at the same time Jesse was a major backer of that most un-millennial of politicians, Rick Santorum, with his ultra-conservative, highly religious and anti-gay agenda. Something didn’t add up. Then a shocking surprise. Jesse, along with a posse of friends, appeared on that Bravo reality show Below Deck, in which rich people rent a yacht in the Mediterranean and we see them through the crew’s eyes.

What we saw was a hilarious and embarrassing display of drunken, boorish behavior. My first thought: He’s forever lost his standing as a leader of Sarasota. My second thought: not so fast. In today’s climate, vulgarity may be just the ticket.

Best Politician

Joe Gruters. You could say it was Michelle Bachman who introduced me to Joe Gruters. He organized a campaign rally for her over at the Sahib Shriners club, and of course I went. What I saw was a star being born, and it wasn’t Michelle. It was Joe, a young guy, still in his 20s who was revolutionizing the Sarasota GOP. He changed it from closed events for the fat cats to free fun events for the people. There were refreshments, and Michelle and her husband Marcus did the jitterbug.

True, I thought he made a serious misstep when he brought in Donald Trump—twice—to be glorified as Statesman of the Year. The whole town cringed a little.

We cringed even more when he signed on as co-chair of Trump’s Florida campaign. What a different universe that was. Now Joe is a state representative and will probably end up governor, if not ambassador to the Vatican, as I’ve heard rumored. Not bad for a Cardinal Mooney boy whose grandfather sewed tents for Ringling Brothers.

Best New Downtown Building

The Vue. It’s right up on the street, so hip and urban. It totally dominates the city skyline. It will bring thousands of people daily to the center of downtown. It’s a brilliant success.

Worst New Downtown Building

The Vue. It’s right on the street, so hip and urban. It totally dominates the city skyline. It will bring thousands of people daily to the center of downtown. It’s a total disaster.

Best Undiscovered Restaurant

Hooters. If you’ve avoided Hooters all your life because it sounds hideous, don’t. It’s full of surprises, a veritable gold mine of Americana. First of all, it’s really not a bar where off-duty plumbers ogle provocatively clad waitresses, although it does have that side. It’s a family restaurant for the plumber’s family. You see a lot of kids, a lot of families out for a treat. The food could not be worse for your medical condition—my favorite dish is the fried pickles—but it’s perfect in its way. And the Hooters girls play their part brilliantly. Beautifully groomed, they give the place an aura of class.

Best New Sarasota Conspiracy Theory

How did Steve Bannon end up registered to vote in Sarasota County? The Casey Key residence he claimed at the time was actually the home—one of them, anyway—of his business partner Andy Badolato, who’s reputed to be so awful that he has several websites dedicated to defaming him. He and Bannon produced a movie about Sarah Palin (The Undefeated).What was Bannon doing here? What other secret things are going on? And what about that rumor that Kellyanne Conway was singing karaoke at Captain Curt’s?

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