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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Atlantic Shores, Key West - Seems Like Only Yesterday

The Key West of 2015 is much different today than it was on my first visit in 1984.  Back then most of the Conch Houses in Old Town had not been renovated and most of the cars on the streets were old and rusty - they were called Conch Cruisers.Thirty-one years later I would estimate that more than half of the houses in Old Town have been renovated to some degree. Some of the best blocks in town like the 600 block of William Street still have a couple of straggler properties that will someday be renovated. Their lingering dereliction probably pains the neighbors who have spend a couple of million dollars on their homes. But I am confident that greed will out and either the current owner or more probably an heir will end up with a big booty of money for the unkempt houses. There are few Conch cruisers remaining, especially in Old Town. You are more than likely to see late model European import than a rusty cruiser.  I ended up moving here twenty-two years ago. I've seen a lot changes since I got here. Some are good. Some are not so good. I miss a lot of the way Key West used to be. I mourn the passing of what was an institution - Atlantic Shores.  
Vintage post card before the Shores went gay
The 1950s vintage motel before it became a world famous "gay" resort.
The Pool before it became a social Mecca. The parking lot before it became a weekly drive-in movie theater.
This building was once Papllion, a late night bar and later became a drive-thru liquor store.

I stayed at Colours Guesthouse (now called Marerro's Guesthouse) for the first week of my initial visit to Key West.  The houseboy at Colours told me to go to La Te Da on Sunday afternoon to attend Tea Dance and later to go to Tea By The Sea. The next week I moved over to La Te Da for the second week of my vacation. That is when I attended my first Tea Dance. The place filled up with  a couple of hundred locals and tourists just after 5:00 PM. They left en-mass promptly at 8:00. Everybody left.  I had never seen a bar shut down so quickly. Waiters emerged from out of nowhere and set up the restaurant within minutes. I thought that was the end of the night. Little did I know that I was supposed to follow the crowd a couple of blocks south to Atlantic Shores for Tea By The Sea. 

A few days later I walked over to Atlantic Shores which was located at 510 South Street. I walked past the 1950s era motel towards the ocean side pool.I could hear the constant beat of music blaring all the way from South Street beckoning would-be sun bathers and drinkers. The original motel was a combination of three long buildings, a restaurant, and check-in office. The buildings stretched toward the ocean where there was a very large pool surrounded by wood deck. An even longer walking pier extended further out to the ocean. I reckon I got there sometime just after noon because all lounge chairs were still facing south. The specter was overwhelming. There must have been a couple of hundred people hanging around the pool in various locations. Some were standing or sitting in the covered bar area. Others were laying on chaise lounge chairs on the deck or on the pier or swimming in the pool. Atlantic Shores was clothing optional. Most people wore bathing suits, but clothing was optional. For some it ought to be required. I had heard the place was a gay hangout, but on that day there were a lot of college kids and maybe an equal number of locals hanging out and partying. A lot of the college girls were topless but the boys had more modesty. There were a lot of tanned locals, many of whom were nude. I felt uncomfortable and left. (But I did return many times in the future.)
 It wasn't until a later visit to Key West that I actually attended Tea By the Sea. Tea started at 8:00 PM every Sunday and lasted until 11:00 PM. You could hear the music for blocks around even though Key West has a noise ordinance that is supposed to forbid such noise. Locals and tourists would follow the beat as if summoned to the pier by the Pied Piper.  All of the lounge chairs were removed from the deck to create a  large dance. Most people got liquored up a bit before they started to dance. Once the music was just right the deck got crowded with dancers. The boards would bounce up and down to the beat of the music. Sometimes the beat was so intense I was sure the deck would collapse into the ocean below. It didn't. Dancing under the stars and on top of the water. Wow!

Some people would stand out on the pier and watch the little boats bobbing up and down on the horizon with lights reflecting off the water.  Stars illuminated the sky. If you looked toward the east I swear the lights from Miami seemed to light the sky. If you looked south or west the horizon was almost pitch black.

The tiki hut bar was pretty small, maybe 15' X 15' or so which was open on all four side. There were normally two or three bare chested bartenders who moved at a furious pace opening beer bottles and mixing cocktails.  Locals grabbed bar stools early. Others would cram the remaining space where people talked or tried to buy a drink. As the night progressed the noise level got so loud that you would have to shout to speak to the person next to you. And you could not help but get nearly intimate with just about every person there.There was no such thing as 'personal space'.  Maybe that was part of the attraction. I remember a couple of times when a sudden cloudburst would occur and the normally crammed tiki hut bar became a sardine can filled with men.

Every Sunday night just a couple minutes before eleven o'clock Last Dance was played. Donna Summers slowly and softly at first then faster and with ferocity would entreat the dancers with her lament:
Last dance
Last chance for love
Yes, it's my last chance
For romance tonight

After which the lights went up, the music turned off, and lucky ones went home for some romance and or maybe to another bar for another chance to get lucky or more likely home - alone.

More than any other bar in Key West, this was the great equalizer. Drinks were as cheap as some of the people that hung out at the Shores in the daytime. I'll give you a couple of examples. During season the place was always jammed during the daytime. But when season was over locals had the place pretty much to themselves a lot of the time. I remember one cloudy Sunday afternoon when there were few people there. After all, it was cloudy.  There was this smallish guy who was so pale he looked as if he might have been albino. I distinctly remember that he wore a very dark lipstick - totally odd, even for Key West.  He had been doing hand stands in the shallow end of the pool. His head was in the water and his legs extended up to the sky. His tiny frame was exposed for all to see. He was not wearing a swimsuit. He had a petite pecker that was at full attention - or maybe I should say he was seeking attention. He got out of the pool and headed toward the bar - his small manhood preceded him by three inches at most.  He walked with his right hand outstretched as he headed towards a group of gay boys standing near the south end of the pool. I remember this one guy jumping into the pool to avoid physical contact with the white one. That did not deter the little guy. He got close enough to one guy to give him a kiss. The guy tried to back away but was too slow.  He got a slider from the little lipstick man. It was hilarious.

I remember another occasion late one sunny afternoon. I remember this because all lounge chairs had been rotated toward the west. There was a smattering of locals and a few tourists still hanging by the pool. A very good looking older man (in his fifties or early sixties) was accompanied by a very handsome and extremely well built young guy in his early twenties. The older guy had been buying the younger guy cocktails throughout the afternoon. The young guy asked the older man if he could go talk to a girl at sitting nearby me. Permission was granted. The guy walked past me to the cement block wall to my rear where the girl was seated. I remember him asking her something like "Are you working here today?" It clicked. They were both professionals. He was a Rent Boy. They talked for quite a while. And then I remember the guy took off his swim shorts and dove into the water. He reemerged and climbed up the metal steps and stood there. It was like something out of a porn movie - the guy stood there with water trickling down  his backside for all to see. He pivoted and flexed for everyone. Unlike the smallish Albino, this guy was fully equipped. The old guy must have paid a lot for him. I surveyed the crowd at the bar and around the deck. Everybody there was drooling over this kid.

It was either on Wednesday or Thursday night that the parking lot at Atlantic Shores became the Key West Drive-In Theater. Lounge chairs were moved to the parking lot. Locals could bring their own chairs. Cocktails and popcorn were served. There would usually be a little raffle. I won such a raffle and yelled "Bingo". I got a $25 or $50 gift certificate for food or alcohol at Diner Shores (the restaurant at the front) or the cook shack on the deck which by the way was a daily treat for all that dined there. The drive-in movie showed movies that you couldn't see at the Regal Cinema out in Searstown. That place ran mainstream movies. Our drive-in had more independent type movies. Today the Tropic Cinema on Eaton Street fills that cultural void. But back in the day, there was nothing quite like watching a movie under the stars in Key West. 

I witnessed a lot of unforgettable spectacles there. I have so many fond memories such as laying out at Atlantic Shores almost all day on Christmas Day in 1999. The temperature was near 80 as I remember. And the weather up north was frightful but the weather here was so delightful.

I took my sister to Atlantic Shores when she visited me in 1994. She was seventeen years older than me. She lived in Broomfield, Colorado. She was a big liberal and a voracious reader. She could not get enough of this place. There was nothing like this in her little town. Nor was there a place like this pretty much anywhere else. Besides being a place to sun and drink, it was a meeting place where social events and charity events were held. Locals felt at home here. As I wrote this blog I searched for photos and found the YouTube Video below. It was shot at the Last Tea Dance at Atlantic Shores. Take a look. If you're a local, leave a comment.  I mourn the loss of this once very special place in Key West. It seems like only yesterday. 

Atlantic Shores during demolition of an era
The corner of South at Simonton Streets. The drive-thru liquor store once stood here. Progress to some.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Gary! Love the video. Do you know the date of the last tea dance at Atlantic Shores? Do you have any idea of when the first tea dance took place there?

Gary Thomas said...

Dear Anon, Listen to the first couple of minutes of the video. The resort closed on May 31, 2007. The last tea dance was a couple of days later. I did not go. I wish I had.

Losing this place is kind of like losing a close friend or family member. You don't realize how important that special someone is until it's too late.

We keep losing other little pieces of old Key West. I understand that now more than I ever did before.


pinkpank said...

Hi Gary,

Thanks for your page, it brings back memories of many good times in Key West.

I visited Kay West for the first time in 1980 as a teeenager, and loved it's casual & easy-going attitude - especially since I grew up in Germany, which I also love (but for totally different reasons). I've been to Key West probably 30 times in 35 years, and made friends at Tamarind Hotel (then Lord's Motel), Spanish Gardens & the Atlantic Shores. I recall fixing the overheating PC at Baby's Coffee House when it was still on Duval St.

As cruise ship & resort tourists and the shops that cater to them have proliferated and displaced hotels like the Atlantic Shores (and closed wacky shops like the Compass Rose - beer & burger for $5, anyone?), I've had less and less desire to visit Key West. I still stop in on my way to camping at Fort Jefferson, visit the Green Parrot & eat at El Siboney, but I miss the hippies sleeping in VW buses by the cemetery (when parking was free) & the fun, clothing-optional places like Atlantic Shores where it didn't matter if you're straight, gay, male, female, American or European. As long as you're friendly.

Oh, to sit and be served Kitkat bars & beer at Cinema Shores once again . . . sure would beat the Chicago winter. :)

Thanks again,

Gary Thomas said...

Hi Oliver, I planned to respond to your post when I saw it and then let my pre-birthday blues get the better of me.

There's a new big hotel going up at the corner of United and Simonton Streets, just one block north of the old Papllion at Atlantic Shores. Each time I see that out of scale and out of place monstrosity I long for the old days - the days you and I remember. The way Key West used to be.

I am getting sick and tired of a group of non-elected members of HARC approving the gutting of our town and allowing and even promoting this new crap architecture that is going up in many places. It's more than that. Key West is changing. It's starting to turn into Florida. And that's a shame.



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Key West, Florida, United States
I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.