OpEd: Las Olas Boulevard Wrote LGBT History of Gay Fort Lauderdale

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October is LGBT history month, and apparently, it has just dawned upon the Dolphin Democrats that South Florida has a gay history.

In fact, in what is going to be one of the weirdest ceremonies ever they have decided to honor about 82 of the region’s local gay pioneers and straight allies in a dynamite restaurant that can seat no more than a hundred for that occasion. Let’s face it, that won’t even cover all my tricks for the last year, let alone the last 40.

Anyway, it’s a nice gesture and anytime you can get to eat the baked clams oregano that Marco creates at Café Vico the evening is going to be fun. All you had to do apparently to get honored was live long enough, have a lesbian daughter, or have heard of the Cathode Ray Nightclub — which brings me to today’s column.

If I am going to be honored as a pioneer, hell I will show up naked in my Daniel Boone coonskin hat. But the ceremony set off this shockwave in my brain, reminding me that most of Broward County’s gay history evolves out of stories you can tell about East Las Olas Boulevard, once the mecca of all things gay in Fort Lauderdale.

The best way to approach this is just to share vignettes of the stories which illuminated our lives, in no historical order. Couldn’t do that if I wanted to, as our past was not accurately recorded. Hell, that’s one of the reasons I started the Express Gay News in 1999, to ensure that the history of our lives is documented in print and on the net.

I opened my first law office at 1700 East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale 40 years ago, in a beautiful corner office overlooking a canal. It was a pretty decent gig, until I went on the radio one day, spoke about legalizing marijuana, homosexual teenage prostitution and gay rights, and someone shot up my suite the next day. I was saved by the fish tank taking the hit.

Coincidentally, no one pointed any of their guns to the quiet lawyer working on the second floor mostly doing transactions law for a civil firm. That’s how I met Dean Trantalis. Guess through good and bad, we have been here a while, still eating many of our lunches at the Floridian. He became the politician and spokesman. I became the radio host, publisher and gadfly. But it’s been a good run for both of us.

The FLO on ELO was home plate not only for the makers and shakers of Fort Lauderdale, it was virtually the place where the downtown business community in shirts and ties would interact daily with tourists in flowered shirts and sandals vacationing across the country. Gays looking for late night scandalous alliances or real big portions of scrambled eggs would wind up at the FLO.

Four decades later, the eggs are still fresh, Butch Samp is still the owner, and history has been written on the street- good and bad. Here are some stories from the 1980’s that you may have missed on your social media account in 2017.

Butch and I have been friends for 40 years. I even handled his divorce decades ago, but I was not exactly a family law counselor, so I just copied some rich Jewish Boca doctor’s settlement. Probably should not have included that paragraph where I had Butch paying for his son’s Bar Mitzvah. I mean, he’s Catholic. So it goes.

Then there was the night I took this very heterosexual man to an HIV benefit in the 1980’s at a hotel on the beach. Had him pick me up at my townhouse in his fancy Jaguar. I jump in, sit down, buckle my seat belt, and Butch reaches over, grabs my dick, squeezes my crotch, and I scream, “WTF?”

“Hey, what was I supposed to do,” he asks. “Isn’t that what you gays guys do?”

Yeah Butch, but a meal at least comes first!

  1. The Gary Steinsmith Saga

A fellow grad from Hofstra University, Gary was perhaps the most well-known liberal gay activists ever to grab a bullhorn in South Florida. And boy did he piss Butch off one night.

From being one of the fiery and fierce founders of AIDS Center One in the Marlin Beach Hotel in 1984, Gary became the heart, soul, and voice of the Dolphins Democrats and our community.

He also became a very real victim of the HIV virus, and suffered dementia along the way, getting taken into custody by the police for being homeless on an evening when he could not find his way to his half million dollar canal-based home that he had hosted dozens of community functions in.

As early as the year 2000, our community did not have the treatment modalities in place for those who suffered from AIDS. A true activist, Gary also almost got arrested at the Floridian one night.

You see, he was so outraged about President Ronald Reagan’s treatment of gay and HIV related issues that when he went into the restaurant one evening and saw a framed picture of Reagan on the wall, he went into a rage, turned postal, took a hammer to it, and ripped it down.

The staff called the police who came to arrest Gary for criminal mischief, but Butch intervened, called me up, and asked me to just take Gary home. We did, and Judge Ginger Lerner Wren stepped in as the county’s mental health court jurist to insure Gary got help in his final days.

The early days at the Floridian were friendly, mixing cultures and communities in a healthy way. But Las Olas and the beach had problems local journalists could not walk away from.

  1. Chickin’ Lickin and Runaway Gay Teens

Across from the FLO in the early 1980’s was a tiny little narrow rectangular take out fried chicken place, where you could stop and get a meal for five bucks, owned by a very gay man with a morbid sense of humor. The name of the restaurant matched his sexual predilections, and he always had very young boys working there, while living in a small condo just a few blocks away.

When he did not show up for work for a few days, police found the stench from his apartment came not from bad chicken, but his blood-stained body being wrapped up for a week in one of those Persian rugs, carved up with some of his butcher knives. Couldn’t find the story on the Net this week, but I remember it well. The teenage killer is still in jail for the murder.

I mention it because too much of South Florida then and now became a home for gay runaways. I know because I helped Channel 7 and the now retired dear Carmel Cafiero win a Green Eyeshades Award for showcasing the epidemic of teen prostitution that made its way down Las Olas to the beach.

I would eventually be profiled for my work not only on Geraldo Rivera’s national show but on NBC’s nightline. Eventually, community leaders got their act together and after a local judge, now Congressman Alcee Hastings held hearings in the Broward County Courthouse, we would eventually see city leaders reluctantly support the development of Covenant House, a runaway shelter, on the beach.

It’s still there saving lives, and the city, despite its vicious opposition decades ago, does not seem to be hurting because of it today. Spring Break is history. Kids can’t afford rates at the W, and the Marlin Beach Hotel is now just a memory of what once was.

  1. The Cathode Ray on the Canal

No bar on Las Olas ever enjoyed the gay night life like the Cathode. It’s outdoor canal side patio and video bar just over the 12th street bridge was the home for everything gay on Sunday nights, and it was originally operated by a gay liberal political leader, one Wayne Gibson.

A narrow place where so many first explored an upper east side atmosphere of middle class homosexual existence, it was a place where you could hang out with a young Craig Stevens from Channel 7, or enjoy the company of John Castelli, now a nationally respected local president of the Fort Lauderdale Board of Realtors.

At the time, John and his late partner, Bill Bastiansen, had owned the emerging Copa Bar on Dania Beach, which would become one of the nation’s most popular upscale gay bars in America

Gibson would eventually turn the bar over to John Manzi, who maintained its stature and class for years, but eventually a new owner moved the facility from its narrow home to a more spacious location on the corner of 13th and Las Olas. That man became special to LGBT gay life in Broward County.

  1. Richard Fasenmyer, the Cathode, and Bar Amici

Dick Fasenmyer was one of the leading Republican donors to the George Herbert Walker Bush campaign, when he moved his operations, yachts and business interests to Las Olas Boulevard in the early 90’s.

The original Cathode would become a temporary home for the second Stork’s, run and operated by Jim Stork, the gay mayor of Wilton Manors. Jim is now mostly in Massachusetts with his partner, the eminent and elegant Ron Ansin, and the gondolas he brought to the canal are gone.

Fasenmyer, however, rebuilt Cathode in his image, sparing no expense. I remember the night Paul Hugo and I looked at the bottoms of his 16 ounce glasses, with footballs etched into them to match the theme of his sports bar.

“I spared no expense building this place,” he smiled and told us. And why should he have? With millions of dollars at his disposal and a fortune he made in the worldwide plastic wallcoverings business, Fasenmyer began to support multiple causes, charities, and the LGBT community.

Next door to the club he opened Bar Amici, a restaurant which hosted everyone from Gamma Mu to political campaigns. Ably armed with a top management staff, like Larry Wald, he showed the LGBT community could bring class and dignity to the Boulevard.

He died too young at the age of 55, to be honest, from alcohol poisoning. This august man fermented. He could not control his drinking, from day to dusk. Bar managers would follow him home at night, to his home on the aisles, a mile away, jokingly remarking, “never knew Las Olas had so many curves in the road.”

But in his life, like Butch Samp at the Floridian, Dick would host, sponsor, and underwrite the gay Lambda AA group that still meets in a small room in an alley just around the corner from his bar.

Even today, a dozen years after his passing, Dick’s legacy and donations are still underwriting AIDS foundations in Pennsylvania and institutions of higher learning in his home state. He sponsored so many local charitable institutions and businesses in South Florida it would be impossible to mention them all. We all owe him big time.

  1. More Stories Online

If you are enjoying these vignettes, there are more online at www.sfgn.com. I will be updating it periodically, maybe the dawn of a book to capture our heritage and history. I understand I am now part of it, and I am still here to share it. But my perspective is just a blink of one person’s eye. Still, I have the right to, don’t I?

Like Ronald Reagan once said to Walter Mondale, “Hell, I paid for this microphone.”

We have the Marty Rubins, Jamie Bloodworths, Jason Bells, and Brad Caseys whose lives have their own stories. We have the 2,398 people the Dolphins have decided to give awards to next month, too many for one night. But good that they woke up and recognized we have a history worth recording, recognizing, and remembering.

Go online to our site and I will tell you how activists had to fight to have a gay pride march on East Las Olas, because “we did not belong on that side of town.” Or how the city did not much care for gay bookstores or video shops, which they shut down with police raids in the early 1980s, helping me understand that the cause of justice requires challenging the establishment at every turn. Don’t trust power. It never trusts you back.

In the early 1990’s, I became a full-time radio host at the Floridian for WFTL 1400 AM, hosting morning drive from 6 to 10 am right under the front chandelier as you walk in. It was then my life came full circle. Sponsored by Mutual Benefits Corporation, a multimillion dollar AIDS insurance underwriter, that show would remain on the air for nearly six years.

Who knows, had Mutual Benefits not turned out to one of the most fraudulent viatical companies in the history of planet Earth, I may still have been there daily, commenting on the life and loves, the losses and the gains, of our world and our community. But it may happen again soon. Something about a podcast. We will see.

Follow SFGN online so you can watch as everyone posts all the things I have forgotten, and probably won’t ever remember anymore. But maybe Jesse Monteagudo can write a little bit about the Tuesday Night Group, the seminal foundation for political activism in Broward, which used to meet at Joe Campanella’s condo off the beach on Las Olas, with all of about seven people in a living room.

Our community, we have grown a bit, wouldn’t you say? 

 

This is a part of our LGBT History Month special package. Check out sfgn.com/2017historymonth daily for new stories. 


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