Local history books tend to document those who “built the city,” laid the roads, brought in the railroads, platted the parks and bravely launched a small-town economy. They’re illustrated with black and white photos of city people in Victorian clothes, standing stiffly in front of wooden buildings. Or dusty pioneers proudly posing by a felled pine tree. Or trolley cars rolling down dirt streets.
Vintage St. Pete & Pinellas Volume 3 is not that.
Published this week by St. Petersburg Press, it’s the latest book in a series about everyday life in the city (and those nearby) during the 20th century.
Yours truly (the author) will be at thestudio@620 Saturday (Oct. 14) for an 8 p.m. launch party; admission is free. I’ll introduce each of the stories in the new book, which will be available for purchase (along with Volume 1 and Volume 2). Find details here.
Vintage 3 includes 25 stories about the people, places and things that residents either interacted with, on a regular basis, or read about, or heard about. As with the first two volumes, these stories will resonate not only with those who lived, worked and played here, but the folks who arrived in this fast-growing region of Florida in more recent times.
This is the stuff of legend:
The Festival of States was the largest annual event in St. Petersburg history for more than 100 years. The multi-day celebration, which began as a way to get winter season northerners to stay (and spend money) just a little longer, was crowned by a massive parade up Bayshore Drive from the Vinoy, then west on Central Avenue to 16th Street. Every high school marching band, scout troop and local retailer either walked the route or cruised on a custom-built float. The Festival of States was discontinued in 2014.
The Kapok Tree Inn was, at one time in the 1960s, the most popular and profitable restaurant in Florida. Built by big band musician Dick “Hot Cha” Baumgardner, the eatery on Clearwater’s McMullen-Booth Road had 12 large dining rooms, each ornately decorated with statuary, plants, elaborate lighting sconces and fixtures and mood-setting wallpaper. Patrons never knew where they would be seated. The grounds included elaborate Mediterranean gardens, laid out with statues and fountains. This Disneyland of dining was renowned around the world.
While we’re on the subject of restaurants, Vintage 3 includes in-depth backstories on Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, the Chattaway and El Cap, all of which have been around since the 1950s and are still just as popular today. And then there was The Penguin, the odd, igloo-shaped eatery near the south end of Treasure Island. It began in the 1930s as The Penguin Club, a getaway for rich locals founded by the parents of theater legend Terrance McNally. The site of this groundbreaking, massively popular (and most definitely hurricane-proof) waterfront Prime Rib house is now the T.I. Beach Pavilion.
Locals will have fond memories of Lenny Dee, the Hammond organ player who sold millions of records internationally, and his longtime beach nightclub, the Dolphin Den. Dee’s daughter remembers her late father, who had been a musical comedian for decades before settling in Pinellas County. Then there was Dick Bothwell, the longtime St. Petersburg Times columnist whose sense of humor – he would tell no bad joke before its time – was a beloved breakfast-table fixture for over four decades. Or Tom Reese, the eccentric proprietor of the Beaux Arts Gallery and Coffeehouse in Pinellas Park, the area’s first-ever art gallery and a bohemian center of activity for a quarter-century.
Sportscasting legend Dick Crippen is profiled, as are Salty Sol Fleischman, Ernie Lee, Roy Leep, Shock Armstrong, Andy Hardy and the rest of the WTVT Big 13 Family Album. Channel 13 was the bay area’s top-rated TV station for 25 years.
Tarpon Springs gets the Vintage treatment with a loving look at the city’s Greek heritage, and the sponge-diving industry that drove its economy for decades. What you won’t find in other history books, however, is the profile of Tarpon’s short-lived tourist attraction – Spongeorama – and close-ups on the two movies made there, with sponging as their centerpieces – 16 Fathoms Deep (with Lloyd Bridges and Lon Chaney Jr.) and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (starring Robert Wagner and Gilbert Roland).
As with Volumes 1 and 2, this new book will take you behind the scenes of movies lensed with fully or in part in St. Pete and Pinellas, including Spring Breakers, Bang the Drum Slowly, Dolphin Tale, Coupe de Ville, Forever Mine and more. An entire chapter is devoted to the controversial 1956 film noir The Strange One, filmed on the Stetson University campus in Gulfport.
Ever wondered about how the Gulfport Casino came to be? That’s in the book too.
There’s a fair amount of history for history’s sake in Volume 3 – people and events that helped shape who we are and how we live today. Learn about Founding Fathers and Famous Names – who were Straub, Gandy, Roser, Jordan, Snell, Lang and others, and why we still hear about them today. Another chapter takes you through the life and times of Lt. Albert Whitted, of airport fame.
Learn about the Black policemen who sued the city for equal treatment (The Courageous Twelve) in 1965; and the tragedy that killed 23 members of the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Blackthorn, near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, in 1980.
Did you know that, in 1975, artist Rockne Krebs was hired by the City to create a laser light sculpture to be beamed from the third floor of the “Inverted Pyramid” pier? How did that work out, you ask?
Vintage St. Pete & Pinellas Vol. 3 also includes chapters on the rock bands Stranger and the Headlights; the incredible journey of the St. Petersburg Little Theatre; and a photo gallery from HMS Bounty captain Hugh Boyd and the ship’s 1960 journey to Tahiti with Marlon Brando (many of the pictures never-before-seen).
Vintage St. Pete & Pinellas Volume 3 is available from Tombolo Books and the St. Petersburg Museum of History, as well as Amazon and St. Petersburg Press. It is available in hardcover and softbound editions.