Monday, November 23, 2015

Florida frontier justice: execution by alligator

Two gators in search of a meal, picture courtesy of Steve Kantner

According to a New York Sun Times news story datelined Fort Lauderdale, Jul. 23, 1897, Florida Seminoles* acknowledged two capital crimes in the late 1800s: theft and adultery. The newspaper published an account given by Seminole James Jumper that underscored the negative views held then about one of those crimes.

It was reported that Tiger Cat, a member of an Indian camp near Tamiami Trail, ran off with the chief’s wife, enraging their entire community. A group set out to find the law-breaking couple; two weeks later they were apprehended and brought back home to face justice. For more than two days the governing council debated punishment. They settled on execution … by alligator.

The convicted pair was brought to Little Gator Key (perhaps an Everglades hammock; there is no Florida key by that name). The two were stripped of their clothes and tied to the ground about 50 feet apart. A dog, which was to initially attract feeding gators, was attached between them. The couple waited all day in the blazing heat until sundown, when a gator emerged from the water and quickly devoured the dog. Other gators joined the dinner frenzy and finished off the errant couple, who were by then most remorseful.

*Note: It is not implied that this group was part of today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has its own constitution, police department and modern and humane due process of law.  

 Tags: Florida in the 1800s, Jane Feehan film researcher, Everglades, alligators

Monday, November 9, 2015

Wolfie's: memories of good and plenty and ...

By Jane Feehan

During the 1960s, before malls became popular high school hangouts in Fort Lauderdale, Wolfie’s Restaurant on Sunrise Boulevard was the place to be seen. The deli was a winner among all ages with its overflowing bowls of tiny breakfast Danish, mouth puckering dill pickles and crunchy coleslaw, overstuffed pastrami sandwiches and creamy New York cheesecake. 

For those of us who spend a lot of time in Fort Lauderdale, the restaurant’s demise is but one of many markers on the road of long gone and forgotten … until someone who moved away while it was still open asks “whatever happened to Wolfie’s?” A Publix now sits near that once-hallowed spot.

Wolfie’s history is complicated—except for its beginning. In the beginning was Wilford or “Wolfie” Cohen. He got his start in the restaurant biz working as a kid in the Catskills. He came to Miami Beach during  the late 1930s and bought Al’s Sandwich Shop at 23rd Street and Collins. He made it a popular place—one that Al Jolson and Milton Berle visited. Customers seeking a glimpse of celebrities and a good meal flocked to Cohen’s restaurant.

But Cohen set his sights on a larger empire. He sold his place (with Wolfie's name rights) at four times what he paid for it to Meyer Yedlin in 1948.  Wolfie opened another winner, Pumpernick’s, in the 1940s and sold it in 1955, according to a Miami News obituary.  When Cohen died at 74 in 1986, he had also owned the Bull Pen, Mr. Mahzik, and the Rascal House (restaurant names should be unforgettable he once said). At the time of his death, he owned only the *Rascal House, which he left to his daughter actress Robin Sherwood. (Sherwood appeared in Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, in Death Wish II opposite Charles Bronson and in other films.)

Meyer Yedlin opened Wolfie’s in two Miami locations, at Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue and another at 163rd Street in North Miami Beach. He also opened one in St. Petersburg in 1953 (sold it in 1955) with partners and incorporated Fort Lauderdale Wolfie’s in 1958.  Joseph Sloane, a partner in the St. Petersburg venture, was also listed as owner of the Fort Lauderdale Wolfie’s. As I said, this ownership history gets complicated.

As tourism grew in South Florida so did the national reputation of Wolfie’s, especially among New Yorkers. In 1961, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the Wolfie’s name could not be used by a deli in Brooklyn; only the two restaurants in Miami had rights. The Brooklyn partners claimed they did not steal the name; “Wolfie” was a nickname earned by one of them for a reputation as a ladies’ man. The judge didn’t buy it.  Yedlin (who died about 1960) or his relatives had their hands in various Wolfie’s, thus the permitted use of the name at some other locations.

In 1968, during the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Chef Craig Claiborne wrote in The New York Times that Wolfie’s, open 24/7, was worth a visit but to conventioneers he recommended the breakfast spread at Pumpernick’s, by that time out of Wolfie Cohen’s hands.

Long after Wolfie’s closed in Fort Lauderdale—the corporation involuntarily dissolved in 1984—it was announced that Wolfie’s Deli Express was set to open a number of franchises in South Florida. I’m not sure about the genesis of this corporation or whether it was even related to the Wolfie’s we all knew and loved.  In 1998, the president of the company claimed this was to be the “biggest news” in franchising since McDonald’s. Anybody hear of it?

In 2002 Wolfie’s closed on 21st Street in Miami Beach. The last owner of the one on Lincoln Road was Samuel Kaye who died in 2012, but I'm not sure when that Wolfie's shut its doors; the same fate was dealt the restaurant on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. International residents and exotic palates have replaced the taste for Jewish borscht, bagels, lox and cheesecake but not the fond memories woven into Fort Lauderdale and Miami history.  And it all began with Wolfie Cohen ...  Copyright 2015. Jane Feehan
*Rascal’s closed in 2008, and is currently the site of Epicure Market; 

St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 18, 1953
Miami News, Sept. 21, 1958
The Reading Eagle, Feb. 13, 1959
The New York Times, Jan. 22, 1961
The New York Times, June 10, 1961
Evening Independent, Aug. 13, 1964
Miami News, Oct. 7, 1986
Schenectady Gazette, Jul. 3, 1987
Boca Raton News, June 3, 1998

Tags: Wolfie's, Wolfie Cohen, Fort Lauderdale restaurants in the 1960s, Miami Beach deli restaurants

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why Fort Lauderdale was the last major city in Florida to get northern air service

Merle L. Fogg Field expansion construction 1935
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

By Jane Feehan

From nine-hole golf course to the Merle L. Fogg Air Field in the 1920s and the Naval Air Station in the 1940s, today’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport ranks as one of the top 25 busiest airports in the United States. Its growth parallels that of South Florida from a winter season vacation destination to one of the most desirable places in the country to live and play year round.

Significant commercial activity came to the field after Broward County commissioners leased the airport back from the Navy in a series of temporary agreements commencing in 1948. A ten-year lease was signed between the two parties in 1949 but the county assumed formal ownership in 1953 and operated it as the Broward County Airport (some sources named it Broward County International Airport).

Non-stop flight service from the North to South Florida began in the 1950s, but the routes were to Miami. Routes were denied Broward County Airport because it was considered too close to its sister city. Travelers took Greyhound limousine service from the Miami airport to Fort Lauderdale and other cities. But the 1,200-acre Broward airport, one third the size of Miami’s, had a lot going for it. It was the only airport adjacent to U.S. Highway 1, a major traffic artery, and it sat four miles south of downtown Fort Lauderdale.* Also, it was poised to serve the fastest growing city in the state; the number of Fort Lauderdale residents doubled from 1950 to 1955, which outpaced Miami’s growth. By the late 1950s, this ocean side city was the last major city in Florida to obtain air service from the North.

The first major carrier to fly to Fort Lauderdale was Northeast Airlines. Service began in December, 1958 with one flight a day from Idlewild (now JFK) that left at 10 a.m. and arrived four hours and 35 minutes later. Return service left Fort Lauderdale at 4:30 p.m.  Soon after, flights were scheduled from Washington, D.C., Boston and Philadelphia.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International
Airport today: 

Courtesy of  ZiggyMarley01, Wikipedia 
Prior to 1958, the airport handled 400 landings and take offs a day but traffic consisted of cubs, Convairs, private and executive planes. To modernize the facility and accommodate northern service with larger aircraft and ancillary traffic, Broward County Airport (renamed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 1959) lengthened its four air strips from 5,000 to about 6,000 feet, and paved taxi ways, aprons and access roads (yes, it was that primitive).  The new $340,000 terminal featured a self-service baggage area, "which eliminated the need for tipping," and a U.S. customs section with a check out station similar to those in supermarkets. Modern indeed.

National, Delta, Eastern, and Northwest Orient airlines followed with service to Fort Lauderdale during the next two years. Also operating were the smaller Mackey International Airlines, Bahamas Airways, and Aerovias Q servicing Cuba and its Isle of Pines.  

Customers lined up for Fort Lauderdale winter hotel packages that started at about $68 per person, double occupancy, for six nights, seven days.  Little wonder air traffic to this city grew 178 percent from 1958 to 1959. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
*At one time in the 1960s, Broward County considered proposals for an airport at U.S. 27 and State Road 84, but that’s another story.

Miami News, April 25, 1950
The New York Times, Jan. 18, 1959
The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1960

Tags: Fort Lauderdale airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Florida aviation history,  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hotel Havana Riviera: Meyer Lansky gambles on Cuba

By Jane Feehan 

Social and political pressure nearly shut down casino gambling in Dade and Broward counties during the late 1940s and early 50s. Organized crime figure Meyer Lansky ran the Colonial Inn, a posh casino in Hallandale Beach, for three short years until the government closed it in 1948. The
high-profile Kefauver Crime Committee hearings, which arose out of concern for the growth of syndicated crime after World War II, ramped up scrutiny of illegal gambling operations in Florida and around the country. It was time for Lansky and friends to look for a more hospitable environment.  

That place was Cuba, where exiled mobster and Lansky associate Lucky Luciano held court under the cooperative eye of Cuba dictator Fulgencio Batista, an old Lansky friend.  Gambling brought tourists, so the Batista regime granted state loans to cover 50 percent of a hotel/casino valued at least $1 million. Honors went to Meyer Lansky who built the lavish 19-story, 354-room Hotel Havana Riviera along the waterfront. Seventeen other casinos were also partially financed by Batista.

Lansky had gambling interests in Las Vegas, where state law prohibited operators of gambling concessions from simultaneously running another casino. That included Havana, so Lansky tapped others, including businessmen Harry and Ben Smith, as owners/stockholders. A cadre of individuals listed as operators of the Havana Riviera was surreptitiously headed by Lansky.

Valued between $12 and $15 million, Hotel Havana Riviera was the first large hotel and casino to be constructed since the Gran Casino Nacional 27 years prior. With gold-plated slot machines and other amenities, the hotel opened December 10, 1957 with a floor show that included Ginger Rogers and an audience comprised of American press, and television and Hollywood celebs.  On Jan. 19, 1958 TV personality Steve Allen broadcast (NBC) from the Riviera with transmission made possible with new technology, the “over-the-horizon microwave system.”

It wasn’t long before the Cuban tide of fortune changed for Lansky and his associates. A violent storm that shattered windows and flooded the lobby of Hotel Havana Riviera on Jan. 4, 1958 foreshadowed the downturn. The growing July 26 movement, launched by lawyer and rebel Fidel Castro in 1953, was gaining momentum. By 1958 U.S. support for Batista waned after his army was routed by rebels. The breakdown of Cuba’s air force soon followed as did Castro’s repatriation from Mexico, Jan. 1, 1959.  Batista, purse heavy with state money, left quickly for the Dominican Republic.

The casino at the Riviera, looted as others were during the coup, was closed by Castro within days. Lansky arrived in Miami from Cuba on Jan. 7, hopeful that the new leader would soon change his mind. He told reporters that hotel employees were about to ask the government to reopen the casinos to save their jobs. Lansky returned and Castro reopened casinos (only to non-Cubans) on Jan. 18, welcoming U.S. tourists to his “beautiful land of happy people.”

Summary trials and executions by firing squads were the order of the day with support of many. In late January, a group of mothers whose sons had reportedly been killed by Batista met with 300 members of the international press in the lobby of the Riviera. Trials and executions continued, people fled to Florida and relations with the U.S. deteriorated. In May, Lansky’s brother Jake and colleague Dino Cellino who also worked at the casino, were detained 25 days in the Tiscornia Emigration Station. They were released, according to the Cubans, when they had word the two were not wanted by the U.S. government.

Hotel Havana Riviera lost an estimated $7 million by the time Castro seized the hotel and outlawed all casinos in 1960. Cuba anticipated a U.S. invasion. A bomb went off at the Hotel Havana Riviera Oct. 31, 1960, destroying a room and furnishings on the 12th floor. The hotel was nationalized, the mob left, and gambling prospered in Las Vegas, the real land of happy people.

Today, Havana Riviera remains a popular, if not luxurious hotel, with rooms selling for less than $100. It is recommended to business travelers and honeymooners, an odd juxtaposition of guests.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

Miami News, Jul. 21, 1957
Miami News, Dec. 1, 1957
Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 12, 1957
The New York Times, Jan. 4, 1958
The New York Times, Jan. 2, 1959
Ocala Star Banner, Jan. 8, 1959
The New York Times, Jan. 18, 1959
The New York Times, Jan. 25, 1959
The New York Times, May 31, 1959
The New York Times, Oct. 31, 1960

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fort Lauderdale's four "railroads" in 1967: Can you name them? Think tourists.

By Jane Feehan

Fort Lauderdale frequently made the pages of Sunday newspaper travel sections in the north after airlines began nonstop service here in the 1950s. Ads for and tips on what to see and do in the seaside town have peppered travel pages from January until April each year since.

With tongue in cheek, a reporter from The New York Times claimed in January 1967 that Fort Lauderdale was becoming a major railroad center. Why? There were four miniature “railroads” in the city that ran in circles for tourists. The little trains hardly made for a rail center but the premise did catch the attention of those heading south for a winter vacation. Some long time residents may have also availed themselves of the four sightseeing venues:   

"Magellan Railcar" by Alexf
at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons 
The Gold Coast Railroad Museum ran eight cars on tracks near U.S. Highway 1 (near today’s Snyder Park) and into Port Everglades so visitors could view cruise ships and freighters. The museum, originally based in Miami, was first known as the Miami Railroad Historical Society. The group had asked for and received from the federal government in 1959 the presidential Pullman car 
used by Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. They moved the vehicle, known as Ferdinand Magellan and later as U.S. No. 1 Presidential Car, to Fort Lauderdale in 1967 and housed it along with other railroad cars in their new site near the port. (The museum has since moved back to Miami and the U.S. No. 1 was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1985. See for more information. This deserves an entire post.)

Hugh Taylor Birch State Park featured a small diesel-powered train that ran on a three-mile narrow gauge track.  Visitors rode the train along the Intracoastal, atop a trestle and over a fresh water lagoon in the 180-acre park. This was also a great source of amusement to some locals who wore masks and pretended to be raiders swooping down on unsuspecting visitors who rode the rails at little over 10 mph. I only heard laughter on these jaunts and never saw a fearful face. The popular ride ceased to operate in 1985.

Pioneer City operated a train 15 miles west of Fort Lauderdale in Davie. The train, known as the Jenny Lynn, was a replica of a steam locomotive used in 1890. It transported “dudes” to a sternwheeler headed for a mock-up of a 19th-century cow town featuring a saloon, shops, shoot outs and staged bank robberies. Visitors could take the train past an artificial mountain and a real buffalo grazing on a prairie sprinkled with whitened steer skulls. Pioneer City opened in 1966. It was closed and up for sale by 1968 due to poor ticket sales. The buffalo was also included in the property sale.

Not really a train, but a string of cars pulled by a rubber-tired vehicle, the Voyager Sightseeing Train took visitors on a 30-minute tour of the city landmarks. Based at 600 Seabreeze Blvd. and launched in 1962, the Voyager became a landmark itself. We knew tourist season had arrived when the cars were filled to capacity and the Voyager became a traffic nuisance. It no longer operates. 
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

Miami News, June 6, 1966
The New York Times, Jan. 8, 1967
Lakeland Ledger, Apr. 16, 1978
Evening Independent, Mar. 19, 1968

Tags: Fort Lauderdale tourism, Pioneer City, Hugh Taylor Birch Park, Gold Coast Railroad Museum, Voyager Sightseeing Train

Friday, September 11, 2015

Whaling off Fort Lauderdale ... a gruesome tale

By Jane Feehan

When most of us think about whale watching, Alaska and Cabo San Lucas in Baja California come to mind, not the waters off Fort Lauderdale and Southeast Florida.  

In 1935, The New York Times (Mar. 25) reported on a six-hour whale chase and its bloody outcome off Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. Many today would consider it a gruesome tale.

Captain Frank Merritt, a fishing guide operating out of Port Everglades, spotted two whales a couple of miles off the coast one day at 9:30 a.m. In his tiny “cabin cruiser,” loaded with seven harpoons and 200 rounds of rifle bullets, Merritt set out to give chase and make a kill. His plan was to separate the two whales, which appeared to be a mother and her calf.

The fishing guide harpooned the eight-ton, 32-foot baby whale, which then dived into the blue and took Merritt’s 22-foot boat on a wild ride southward. The furious mother whale immediately attacked the vessel leaving several ribs of its bow slightly damaged.  Another fisherman, Captain Jack Weygant, came by to assess the smash up and his boat was also rammed.

The unfolding drama drew four more boats, including one from the U.S. Coast Guard. All performed maneuvers to chase off the 72-foot mother while her baby was being peppered with rifle shot and “stuck” with harpoons.  In all, three boats were rammed in the chase.

The hunt ended at 4 p.m. off Hollywood when the calf, bleeding profusely, died and the exhausted mother disappeared.  “It’s just a baby,” said Capt. Merritt, who described the chase as the most exciting and dangerous day of his long fishing career.
By the 1930s, more than 50 thousand whales were killed annually throughout the world. The whales in this story could have been grey whales or northern right (Balaenidae) whales, so-called as they
Southern right whale
 by MichaĆ«l CATANZARITI *
were the right kind to hunt: slow and large.  Because of their size, they don’t breach the water's surface often. Hunting of northern right whales was outlawed in 1937. Today they travel in shipping lanes, which may account for their near extinction.

Whales feed in cold waters and breed in warm waters during the spring. I asked legendary Fort Lauderdale angler and author Steve Kantner*, about his sighting of whales off South Florida.  He hasn’t seen them frequently but recalled one time that he did from a commercial airplane.

It was a few years back, but I still remember looking out the plane’s window as it started to bank. I’d say we were maybe five miles from shore and less than a mile from the surface.

I was scanning the water, like fisherman do, looking for weed lines—that sort of thing—when I first saw them. Frankly, I had trouble believing my eyes, although in those days my vision was perfect, yet here were two huge whales swimming in tandem. I made them out to be between 30 and 50 feet long. They kept tooling along and their flukes were visible. I watched the whales as we continued our turn and until our position changed. I’ve seen a whale shark before; this time was different.

Kantner also said whales of many species travel the globe; their presence near Florida during the 1930s or now would not be a rare occurrence. 

Commercial whaling is outlawed in many parts of the world with exceptions, one being for nine indigenous communities of Alaska that hunt with limits on the number they can kill.

Fort Lauderdale residents who don’t want to travel to Alaska or Cabo to see a whale may be as close to a sighting as a fishing boat ride off our coast. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

The New York Times, Mar. 25, 1935

* Steve Kantner's most recent book ...

Tags: Steve Kantner, whales off Florida, Florida whales 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Plans before Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse: What were they thinking?

Not theater patrons
By Jane Feehan

Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse lifted the curtain on its first production Feb. 6, 1967*.  The theater is located at the fringe of Holiday Park off Federal Highway near Sunrise Boulevard, but few remember another theater was planned in 1959 for a site off A1A near the Galt Ocean Mile.

The participants in the two projects were different – and so were the plans. George S. Engle, owner and producer of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, teamed up with famed Florida architect, Alfred Browning Parker (no relation to donor Louis W. Parker of the Parker Playhouse), to draw up elaborate plans for the A1A location.

The $2 million project would include features “never before attempted in the entire country.” For starters, its marquee was to be so large that 30 automobiles could pull up at once to discharge passengers. A drive-in ticket window would be available where patrons could view available seating and purchase tickets before parking their cars. A restaurant and lounge seating 1,000 theatergoers would operate near another lounge with a soda fountain and dining area for teenagers.

There’s more. Much more.

The ambitious plans also included a library for playwrights, producers and directors, a private room for the press, an art gallery and exhibit hall for artists and students, and a theater memorabilia room featuring thespian history since Greek and Roman times.

A penthouse and club would operate late into the night for dining and dancing. Also, a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre would be constructed featuring manikins draped in clothes of that era. A drama and art school was to operate at this very busy facility. The entire complex and its offerings were to be run by a Society of Theatre Arts that would coordinate activities and performances at the Coconut Grove Playhouse … and a theater in Nassau, Bahamas (a tropical paradise teaming with theatergoers).

Engle proposed a 99-year lease on an 800-ft frontage property along A1A. A condition of the project would be a substantial advance subscription sale. That never happened. What were they thinking? People came to Fort Lauderdale (and still do) for surf, sun and fun, and depending on the age group, the fun might be boats, booze, and babesnot theater.

Theater sanity arrived with electrical engineer and inventor, Louis M. Parker, Ph.D., who tired of driving to Miami and Palm Beach to see plays.  In 1966 it was announced that Dr. Parker would
Parker Playhouse
donate $700,000 for construction of a theater on land near Holiday Park. The City of Fort Lauderdale would pay $300,000 for the property. Some papers reported that Parker donated up to $1.5 million.

The theater, run then by Zev Buffman, opened with about 2,000 seats, 48 shimmering chandeliers and two cocktail lounges, a much more realistic venture than the one proposed earlier.  Its architect, John Volk was the last of the early 1920s Palm Beach architects that included Addison Mizner. Volk  had also designed the Good Samaritan Hospital, parts of the Everglades Club, the Royal Poinciana Theater—all in Palm Beach—and a long list of other landmarks.

The Parker Playhouse is now run by the Performing Arts Center Authority, which includes the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

*The play that night was Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” starring E.G. Marshall and Dennis O’Keefe. It was directed by Danny Simon, the playwright’s brother.

New York Times, Nov. 15, 1959
Pittsburgh Press, Nov. 25, 1966
Palm Beach Daily News, Feb. 22, 1984

New York Times, Feb. 6, 1967

Tags: Fort Lauderdale theater, Parker Playhouse, Jane Feehan, film researcher, Alfred Browning Parker. Louis M. Parker, Fort Lauderdale in the 1950s, Fort Lauderdale in the 1960s