Bob Marcus loves talking to people; he loves history, St. Petersburg, and talking to people about St. Petersburg’s history.
He also loves driving, which makes launching a guided, vastly informational tour of the area seem like a logical next step in the evolution of an eclectic career. Originally from Chicago, Marcus has enjoyed stints as a DJ for two local radio stations, cruise ship director, standup comic, and most recently, publisher of the ubiquitous Florida InfoGuide.
After handling most of InfoGuide’s daily operations – which blends local advertising with area facts, trivia and maps – for nearly 30 years, Marcus started to think about the next chapter in life. He said he considered volunteering at a hospital, maybe becoming a part-time DJ again, and then came his eureka moment.
“So, then I said, ‘well, why don’t I do what I love to do?” said Marcus. “So, it just all came together.”
Already a local history buff, Marcus said he began scouring books, videos and anything or anyone that could increase his knowledge of the area. Mid-sentence, he cut himself off to add another detail of Fort De Soto’s history he forgot to mention a few minutes earlier – German U-boats patrolled the area during WWII, just nine miles offshore.
Marcus does that often throughout the four-hour tour of South Pinellas. There are always more facts, more tidbits of information to relay and more personalized insights and stories from his 40 years in the area.
“It’s kind of like I’m a teacher,” he said. “It’s a great, part-time gig for me, but I think I should have done this years ago – that’s how much I like it.”
A few weeks earlier, Marcus bought a luxury minivan and launched Bay Area Info Tours. The 2022 Toyota Sienna can carry seven people – Marcus will take a minimum of two – and he paid for an upgraded sound system that provides an intercom feature, allowing passengers in the last row to hear his narration through the abundance of speakers.
He also opted for a sparkling copper-colored paint to set himself apart from the mundane black or white colors typically found on a tour van.
Marcus begins his tour by asking passengers to guess how many miles they will drive that day. Whoever’s guess is the closest wins a prize. He then sets off to the Don CeSar, focusing on the love story between Thomas Rowe, who opened the hotel in 1928, and his star-crossed love interest, Lucinda.
Much like Romeo and Juliet, the story is a romantic tragedy.
“He (Rowe) dies of a heart attack right there in the lobby, and they claim that there is a ghost of Thomas Rowe – all around the place,” said Marcus. “And people swear to God that they’ll see him in his white suit, and she’s dressed in her black dress right by the fountain.”
That is not the only story on the tour with a hint of the supernatural, all told with the kind of voice that seems made for narration.
Marcus then heads down palm-lined streets to the historic beach towns of Pass-a-Grille and Tierra Verde, relaying a story about part-time resident August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch fame, or Gussie, as Marcus said the locals called him. Marcus said Busch would host celebrities and buy everyone rounds of beer at the local watering hole, calling him “the first Norm from Cheers.”
The next stop is Fort De Soto, where he leads a walking tour of the state park that provides panoramic views of the pristine beach, Egmont Key lighthouse and an up-close look at the old barracks and artillery.
“The most shark-infested waters in all of Florida is right here,” claimed Marcus. “In fact, there used to be an old shark out there called ‘Old Hitler.’”
Before heading back to St. Petersburg, Marcus stops and parks on a stretch of shoreline where passengers gaze at uninterrupted views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance. Marcus relays the tragic disaster from 1980, when a freighter hit the original bridge, causing a partial collapse that killed 35 people.
Marcus then pulls out a binder – usually filled with copies of old historical photos of the places he describes – to show passengers what the new bridge looks like illuminated with LED lights at night. The picture is recent, with the Skyway awash in yellow and blue in a show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Marcus hits every part of St. Pete that make the city unique. Charming neighborhoods like Roser Park – with its steep hills, creek and 19th-century cemetery – the murals, micro-breweries, the Pier and Beach Drive. There’s the historic Vinoy hotel – and more ghost stories.
While clearly a history enthusiast, Marcus said he appreciates the city’s metamorphosis in recent years. However, he said some of his friends bemoan the recent growth and the precipitous drop in the average age of St. Pete’s residents.
“You know what I say to them?” asked Marcus. “It’s progress, and it’s going to happen.
“You can’t stay the same.”
Shortly after that statement, Marcus drives by a small downtown baseball field. There, he said, a softball league consisting of players 75 and older dress in 1920s uniforms and take the diamond. “Some of the guys are actually pretty good – one guy said he was 90 years old and was still playing,” he added.
The expansive and detailed tour ends in Gulfport, a quaint and eclectic town he said still embodies “old Florida.” Markus explains that the wide grassy medians between several of the town’s roads were once home to trolley tracks, which carried passengers from St. Pete before cars were prevalent. Many locals, he said, have no idea.
As the tour drew to a close, Markus said he tries to offer passengers a little bit of everything before interjecting his thought with more trivia from a seemingly endless supply.
“I try to give them a little bit of the history, architecture, the ghosts, the murals – there’s a lot of different things, and people don’t realize the history,” he said. “I mean Florida, I don’t know if you realize this – it used to extend over a hundred miles into the Gulf.”
For more information on Bay Area Info Tours, visit the website here.