40th Anniversary

The Best of Mr. Chatterbox: A Night In the Life of Sarasota

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Fortunately for us all, Mr. Chatterbox could only find about seven in Sarasota. Here they are. It’s Saturday, Feb. 7, 1987…

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

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Fortunately for us all, Mr. Chatterbox could only find about seven in Sarasota. Here they are. It’s Saturday, Feb. 7, 1987…

4:01 p.m.: Florence Howard arrives with husband Saul at the Southeast Bank building downtown at Five Points. Florence has been on the go since 9 a.m.—the florist, the caterer, etc., etc. She is being propelled by the certain kind of energy that comes with the knowledge that 750 people are coming for cocktails and you’re in charge.

Florence is the hostess for the pre-performance cocktail gala for the opening night of the Sarasota Opera. And lately there has been a subtle shift in the town’s social hierarchy, a sort of unspoken feeling about what’s hot and what’s not. Spurred on by its recent artistic successes, the opera is on a roll. It’s the place to be seen. So this is a Very Important Party.

First Mrs. Howard makes sure the alarms in the teller cages are disconnected. That’s where the bar has been set up and Florence doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s mishap, where an unwary bartender pressed the wrong button. Then she notices something—the bank’s back entrance has not been set up to receive guests. Everybody will park in the bank’s private parking lot and want to get in this way.

Florence rolls up the sleeves of her gold lamé gown and gets to work.

5:32 p.m.: In the condo out at Bent Tree that has been arranged for her by the LPGA, Nancy Lopez is preparing dinner for her daughters, three-year-old Ashley and nine-month-old Errin. In the living room, Nancy’s husband, baseball player Ray Knight, last year’s World Series MVP with the New York Mets, and her father Domingo (who first taught her the game when she was a little girl) are watching the TV news replays of Nancy’s stunning success that day in the Bent Tree classic. Tomorrow the tournament concludes and Nancy is five strokes ahead. If she wins this one, it means induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame.

Back in the kitchen, Nancy is thinking how it all started here 10 years ago July. That’s when she won her very first tournament. So Sarasota is a special town for her. Just three days ago, flying up on the plane from Miami, she had turned to Ray. “Wouldn’t it be great if it happened here in Sarasota?”

5:49 p.m.: At his home in one of the less fashionable sections of Colonial Gables, Mr. Chatterbox feeds the cat and wonders what to wear. The invitation said “Black Tie” but on his meager salary a tuxedo rental is out of the question. What about that cummerbund and bow tie he got at the Woman’s Exchange for a dollar? Would that work? Maybe if he stood in dark corners all evening. But where did he put it? In that box with his Les Elgart records? He begins to rummage around.

6:37 p.m.: The opera parties are in full swing. There’s only one problem—the weather. For the past hour it’s been looking like a storm is about to break. Mrs. Howard has contingency plans—taxis and such—but still—it would be such a big pain in the neck.

Helen Griffith, the doyenne of Sarasota journalists, peers out of the bank window. “Did you bring a bonnet?” asks her escort, Loring Hayden. “A what?” says Helen. “A rain bonnet.” Helen shoots him a look. “No,” she says in a tone she reserves for her closest friends. “I brought a helmet. I’m going to ride to the opera house on my motorcycle.”

7:08 p.m.: Ginny Hounsell climbs into a mini-van at the Holiday Inn Airport and heads for work. Ginny is a Rockette and she and her fellow Rockettes are performing with Peter Allen at the Van Wezel. The show has been an enormous success but Ginny has something else on her mind. It’s those darn plumes.

It seems that back in Chicago the half moon that Peter makes his entrance on fell on his head and ever since then there’s been no end of problems. He finished the performance but afterward they took him to the hospital. Fortunately, nothing was wrong but it was a close call. So now Peter has a new entrance. It involves these giant plumes, like Sally Rand used in her famous fan dance. Props are always the dancer’s nightmare and every night it’s been the tiniest bit off. The world-famous Rockette synchronization isn’t quite there. Maybe tonight, Ginny thinks to herself.

8:40 p.m.: The second act of “Carmen” has just begun. The spectacle and music are all but overwhelming, yet as Mr. Chatterbox sits in Row P he finds himself… brooding. During the intermission, he has noted Leo Rogers out in the lobby, working the room, so to speak. Mr. Rogers is the opera’s No. 1 benefactor, the man who paid the $50,000 down payment on the Opera House. He is a power to be reckoned with in this town and he just wrote a letter to Mr. Chatterbox’s boss, characterizing Mr. C’s writings as the “vaporings of a hyperpedanticized iconoclast.” That hurt. 

Onstage Carmen and the cigarette girls are lounging around in some tavern, sitting on soldiers’ laps and hustling the booze. In his misanthropic way, Mr. C dwells on the thought that here all these fancy people are in total sympathy with this woman who is, well, a tramp. If Carmen really lived in Sarasota, just think how those bare feet would go over at the Field Club—and that incessant smoking. And those cigarette girls. They seem to be vying with each other to see who can fling her long tawny ringlets with the greatest abandon. Mr. Chatterbox notices they all have the same hairdo. He wonders who did it. Did the opera hire a hairdresser to do all of them? There must be 16 or 18 of them. Maybe they just made each girl responsible for her own hair. Of course, they may be wearing wigs—

Suddenly a guy dressed like a bullfighter makes his big entrance. That music! It sounds so familiar! Mr. C is immediately transported back to second grade and to a song he learned out on the playground during lunch hour. Proust-like, it all comes rushing back to him. Softly, under his breath, he begins to sing along:


Don’t spit upon the floor-a,

Use the cuspidor-a,

That’s what it’s for-a.

9:10 p.m.: Amber arrives 10 minutes late for her shift at Club Mary out on old 301. Everybody in town knows about Club Mary, though few have actually entered its portals. It’s Sarasota’s premier topless establishment.

Amber is from Miami. She tells people she has been in town for three weeks but it’s actually been more like three months. Lately she’s been thinking it’s time to move on. Maybe to Orlando. After all, Sarasota, Florida, isn’t exactly a world mecca as far as topless dancers are concerned.

Backstage, Amber changes into a pair of black lace panties of a rather extreme design and a matching bustier. She takes a quick look in the mirror. Not bad for 25—okay, 28.

Amber’s job consists of this: She goes up to the men seated at the tables and says, “Hi, honey, want me to dance for you?” If they feel they do, she undoes her top and gets to work.

Now, the word “dance” does not really adequately convey exactly what it is that Amber does. And in a magazine that may find its way into the hands of your grandchildren, perhaps it is better not to describe it into great detail. Let’s just say that it is a one-on-one situation, and yes, there is some body contact, and yes, it is all perfectly legal.

Now before there is a mad rush for Club Mary, let me point out that Amber, like her not too distant ancestor Carmen, is not running a charity operation here. She expects something in return for her favors. Five dollars will do but $20 will do much better.

Amber looks over the crowd. Same old Saturday night—a bachelor party that pulled up in a white stretch limo all the way from Port Charlotte, the inevitable rednecks and good old boys, a group of Mexicans from Palmetto, and that old guy from the trailer park who is in here every night. She noticed a man way in the back. He hasn’t taken his eyes off her since she walked in. She decides to try him first.

9:38 p.m.: Over at the Van Wezel, before a typical Sarasota audience (i.e., the glare from the white hair can be blinding) Peter Allen is halfway through, “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” the tune that turned him from just another songwriter to just another songwriter with a house on the beach. Peter was a little worried about how Sarasota would take his particular blend of stylish camp laced with ironic sentimentality. Would the show be a little too urbane, a little too sophisticated? After all, most of the people were buying tickets to see the Rockettes. They never heard of him. Curt Haug has suggested he delete a certain word in a story Peter tells about Frank Sinatra. Peter, whose first obligation is to his audience, agreed. The story works much better now.

The song ends and a crescendo of applause fills the hall. “He’s got ‘em again,” whispers a fellow Rockette to Ginny Hounsell. “Got ‘em cold.” Ginny is standing backstage, ready for the “I Go to Rio” number. She’s trying to avoid the camel, who is not a friendly animal, probably because he was just trucked all the way down from New York for his 10-second appearance. Ginny is feeling much better about the plumes (they went great) but when she looks around at all of Peter’s trappings—26 dancers, his band from New York, a full orchestra, girl singers, camels yet—she can’t help but think of the last great showman she worked with—Liberace. She liked him. He was a nice man. He died this past Wednesday in Palm Springs, 10 minutes before the curtain went up on Peter Allen’s first Sarasota performance.

10:32 p.m.: The curtain comes down on “Carmen.” The production is clearly a hit. The curtain calls go on and on. Bud Marsh, fulfilling his lifelong dream to carry a spear in an opera, inadvertently steals the show by walking onstage with his glasses on. The audience bustles off to the Hyatt for yet another party.

11:30 p.m.: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the girl who’s taken the town by storm. Yes, the beautiful bitch is back—Miss Tiffany James!” Tiffany is the headliner at Club Mary and Amber isn’t allowed to work during her act, which may account for the flaws she finds in it. “Like that maroon sequined G-string. It doesn’t match the rest of the outfit. And you call that dancing? I call it acrobatics—”

Tonight, though, Amber’s thoughts are more on the money she’s making. It’s been a very good night. She’s already up to $170. And $50 of it came from the pocket of that man in back, who turns out to be a pipe-fitter from Oneco, wherever that is. He certainly has fallen under her spell. She knew those panties would pay for themselves…

12:01 a.m.: It’s already Feb. 8. Nancy Lopez has been asleep for an hour. Over at the Hyatt, Florence Howard feels relaxed for the first time all evening. The parties, the opera—everything has gone beautifully. Except, of course, for that strange man several rows behind her who kept singing to himself. Upstairs in his suite on the ninth floor, Peter Allen is packing. Last night he went to Celebrity’s and had a great time, but tomorrow it’s on to Clearwater for four more shows, then New York for a big American Express party, then the Catskills, then rehearsals start for his Broadway musical, “Legs Diamond.” He had played a couple of songs from it tonight. The audience particularly seemed to like, “If You Love Me, Let Me See Your Knockers.”

2:11 a.m.: Closing time at Club Mary. Amber sits at the bar, sipping a Diet Coke. The TV is on, some old Alfred Hitchcock movie with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, “To Catch a Thief.” But Amber isn’t paying much attention. She’s thinking.

What should she do, go or stay? Just four hours earlier, she was all set to move on to Orlando. Plenty of clubs there, lots of work. But now she’s not so sure… That pipe fitter from Oneco turned out to be a pretty nice guy. He offered to take her out on his boat…

Amber looks up at the TV. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly treading water off the Hotel Carlton in Nice. They’re having one of those mock-serious arguments people have when they’re flirting with each other. The subject of waterskiing comes up.

“Would you like me to teach you to waterski?” Cary asks, as if it would be some enormous favor.

“Thank you,” purrs Grace. “But I was the woman’s champion at Sarasota, Florida, last season.”

Amber decides that maybe she’ll stay.

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