Along with numerous other endeavors, Suncoast Surf Shop founder Joe Nuzzo was famous for his elaborate, public Christmas parties, which always required the donation of a new toy for admission – to be donated to a local children’s charity.
Nuzzo died in September at 78, and Tuesday night, a few hundred of his friends gathered at The Club at Treasure Island for a five-hour holiday bash in his honor. Toys were collected for Santa’s Angels. The emotional event doubled as a Celebration of Life for one of St. Petersburg’s most colorful – and beloved – characters.
According to organizer Tom Gribbin, combining the two parties, poolside by Boca Ciega Bay, was a no-brainer. “This is what Joe would love, being outside, with all the sailboats,” he said.
Gribbin, a Nuzzo pal since the 1970s, described the surfer-turned-businessman as “kindhearted and fun-loving. Joe was really like a big kid. And he never grew out of that.”
Gribbin performed with his band, the Saltwater Cowboys – most of them were tight with Nuzzo, too, as were the members of the Mad Beach Band, also on the Tuesday-night bill.
Mad Beach singer, songwriter and guitarist Pete Merrigan remembered those long-ago 1970s. “I was playing at the Keg & Cork on John’s Pass with my first-ever band here, Captain Sam’s Traveling Band,” he said. “We just blew in from New Hampshire. Knew nobody except two of my friends we were crashing with. We were playing for tips.
“From the bar across the street comes this guy – ‘Hey, you guys sound OK, can you play at my buddy Joe Nuzzo’s wedding tomorrow? The band just crapped out. I’ll give ya a hundred bucks.’ That sounded like big money to us, so I said ‘Sure, man, we’ll be there.’
“It was down at the Civitan Club. The first time I ever saw Joe, he came up to the bandstand, had no idea who we were and he was all ready to not like us. But we happened to start with ‘Everybody’ by John Prine. And Joe smiled – ‘all right, a John Prine song! I’m your buddy!’ And we were friends ever since.
“About an hour into the party, Joe got naked, the bride got naked, and they all jumped over the seawall, skinny-dipping in back of the Civitan Club. And that was my introduction to Joe Nuzzo.”
Prine, his wife Fiona and their sons bought a house in Gulfport in the mid-2000s. One of the first people the singing-songwriting legend began running with – perhaps not surprisingly – was Joe Nuzzo.
Prine (who passed away in 2020) and Nuzzo shared a sense of humor and a love of mischief, Gribbin said.
“They bonded right away. And Joe helped John a lot, because John was out of town so much. Joe would look after his house. They were really close.
“And John probably loved him for the same reason I did – he was an honest, fun-loving guy. Old school honesty and always up for a good laugh, not trying to be too serious about everything. I’m sure John found being around Joe a breath of fresh air. Like I did.
“I’m sorry he’s gone. Talking about him like this makes me tear up, because he’d love this. He’d be saying ‘Tom, let’s do this again next year.’”