by Tim Gilmore, 7/4/2020
1. Brightest Jewels of the Bold New City
“From any angle,” said the headline for the special eight-page tabloid-size pullout from The Florida Times-Union on August 16, 1969, The Thunderbird would be “the city’s convention headquarters.”
The T-U special began with a faux-personal letter from “Al Stein, President,” saying, “This week begins what we believe is a new era in entertainment for the Bold New City of the South.” The occasion was the expansion of the 10 year old hotel into the city’s premier entertainment complex, including the opening of the 500 seat Terrace Room, “a supper club and cocktail lounge of a magnitude that will allow us to bring many of the top names in show business to Jacksonville.”
The Rolling Stones had stayed at the Thunderbird when they’d played the Jacksonville Coliseum in 1965, but the Thunderbird eschewed rock ’n roll to cater to the “variety show” and “supper club” crowds, part of why business for the swankiest place in town began to falter by the mid 1970s.
The grand opening would be a two week celebration featuring musical acts like the Sammy Spear Orchestra of The Jackie Gleason Show, the TV variety show that ran from 1952 to 1970, a “song stylist” named Mary Lynn Brown, and Fisher & Malone, voice impersonators and singers spun off from the 1950s vocal quartet called The Diamonds. Stein promised this lineup was “not just window dressing for the grand opening,” but “the kind of entertainment the Thunderbird plans for its patrons throughout the year.”
Also new was an 80 seat cocktail lounge centered on a bar called The Wonderfall. Architect William K. Jackson of Jacksonville’s KBJ Architects called it “a circular lounge with seated areas arranged around a circular bar.” From three circles in a domed ceiling, halos of beaded strings descended into a larger circle ringed with gin and bourbon and scotch. The Wonderfall looked like a flying saucer ascending from tractor beams.
The Thunderbird now included conference space for as many as 1,000 people, new rooms bringing the hotel’s count to 287, increased parking for up to 450 cars and two swimming pools. It also featured the King’s Inn Lounge, the Kettle Pub, the Zodiac Room and poolside Tiki bars in that 1960s’ thirst for Exotica, a musical genre named for the 1957 Martin Denny album, showcasing a South Pacific Orientalism in which colonial Americans imagined themselves kicked back among the savages and drinking martinis all day.
That Orientalism extended to generic American Indian motifs that Jax-based interior designer William Groff planted all through the complex. “Hints of the old Indian theme,” the T-U special explained, “are found in the works of art scattered throughout the Thunderbird…bas relief carved wooden doors of the Terrace Room and Wonderfall Lounge…clusters of rough clay pottery…large tapestries to absorb sound…filigree carved panels that serve as sound baffles…wall coverings of burlap over foil.”
By the end of that heavily ellipsis’d sentence, the unnamed writer seemed to have forgotten those fake Indian themes. Anyway, the subheadline assured readers, “Décor Keeps You in Mood,” and the accompanying photo showed silhouetted revelers on the “dance floor that can be elevated to stage level” and musicians behind the “shimmering gold mesh stage-curtain.”
“Jacksonville,” Albert Stein said in a news conference, had finally “come of age and is ready for the top talent of the entertainment world.” Mayor Hans Tanzler said, “This will give Jacksonville a Las Vegas, New York, big-city type of night club atmosphere.” Stein called the new Thunderbird “one of the brightest jewels in the Florida Crown.”
The back of a postcard for the Thunderbird from the early 1970s claims “300 Luxurious rooms, Gourmet Dining Room, 2 Lounges with Live Entertainment” and “Complete Convention Facilities.” The Thunderbird was “minutes from Downtown and Gator Bowl” and “close to everything,” offering “the ultimate in service.”
In its moment, that first move from a rapidly declining downtown into the new hope of suburbs, where middle class whites blindly migrated, not realizing the destruction they left behind in this early phase of “white flight,” the Thunderbird, one hopeful step from downtown for a nation planting its flag on the moon, seemed, for a second just then beautifully naïve, nothing but promise and hope.
2. To the Cracked Tune of Time
From the old hotel beneath the registration sign comes the fragrance of mold and must. Woodbine vines and Virginia creepers grow up the shattered stucco and glass and cascade down other walls. The reflecting pools before the lobby grow thick in hairy bright green mats of pond scum punctuated by thick crops of cattails. Saplings grow fast in falling buildings.
Anybody who wants to know how fast the earth reclaims the world, how fast nature takes back what people have made, should come to Florida. Naturam Expellas Furca, Tamen Usque Recurret: Expel nature with a pitchfork, but she always hurries back.
These 19 acres holding 11 main buildings constitute a world unto itself. It’s a world collapsing quickly back into the earth.
Before the front doors, a discarded mannequin bust reclines on a carpet of algae, staring blind and unblinking at the sky. It’s 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Feels like, says the Weather Service, 104. Somewhere the far side of the registration desk, frogs croak. In dark recesses behind walls black with mold, a heavy and insistent dripping beats in existential anxiety.
“But O, sick children of the world,” the Irish poet William Butler Yeats says in my head, “Of all the many changing things / In dreary dancing past us whirled / To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,” and he warns me of the warped music made by the passing of time, “Words alone,” he says, “are certain good.” And that’s good. For that’s all I’ve got.
In the building behind the power plant, rotten drapes tied back at either end of all the broken windows, a waterfall, not the Wonderfall, rushes behind the hallway stairs. Palms and small oaks grow up through the VIP rooms of the back buildings where the black of last year’s fire and the blackening of mold grow together. A weathered ring buoy floats in the pool. A sign swallowed up in vines and palmettos says I should not swim when there’s no lifeguard on duty.
3. Pinstripe Crinoline Witchcraft
In the early 1960s, the Jud Ammean Orchestra regularly played the formal ballroom at the Thunderbird Motor Hotel. Jud played trumpet and bass fiddle.
“It was a big band orchestra like Glenn Miller’s with a lead female singer,” his son Michael Ammiano recalls. When Frances Langford came to town, they backed her up. At weddings, the annual Fireman’s Ball, and on many a weekend, they played the hits of the Big Band Era of the 1930s and early ’40s, numbers like “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000.”
When Sherri was a little girl in the 1960s, her family ate at the Thunderbird every Sunday after church. “My three sisters and I would have on our church dresses with our crinolines, gloves and black patent leather shoes,” she remembers.
“They had a kids’ special for lunch and my mom would order lemon meringue pie and coffee. If we behaved, we could watch the Polynesian Show. It always pleased my mother and she would just beam when passersby and staff would comment on her beautiful well behaved girls and our excellent table manners.”
At the other end of the spectrum, when Sherri grew up and married her husband Don, relatives from out of town stayed at the Thunderbird and several cousins, she says, “closed the bar that evening.”
Peter Cummings remembers the kids’ menu including a ham sandwich called “the Porky Pig,” a fried shrimp order called the “Little Fishes” named for the 1939 Kay Kyser novelty song (“Down in the meadow in a little bitty pool / Swam three little fishies and a mama fishie too. / ‘Swim,’ said the mama fishie, ‘Swim if you can,’ / And they swam and they swam all over the dam.”), a hamburger named “The Wimpy” for the Popeye cartoon character always saying, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” and a roast beef sandwich called “The Robin Hood.” Jason Wood remembers the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was “The Mutt and Jeff,” after the comic strip named for “two mismatched tinhorns” that ran from 1907 to 1983.
Jill Starr’s mother Joann waitressed at the Thunderbird in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In an old photo, Joann Starr reclines on a burnt orange sofa in front of heavy drapes with elongated stylized shapes evocative somehow of both sailboats and stars. She’s wearing her Thunderbird waitressing outfit with silver metallic gogo boots, a matching top and miniskirt. In 1969 Times-Union photos, similarly dressed waitresses hand drinks to men in pinstripe suits with pomaded hair in ersatz James Bond stills.
“Once,” Jill says, “a party she served tipped her $100,” almost $700 in today’s currency. “The catch was, they ripped the bill in half, gave her half at the beginning of dinner and the other half after dinner.”
Jill posted that photo on her Facebook page on Mother’s Day, saying, “It’s been 31 years since I last saw her. She cared for all her children and I think she did right by us.”
Bonnie Morrison remembers the hotel suites had telephones in the bathrooms. When she was a student at Jacksonville University in the mid 1960s, her family would come to town and stay at the Thunderbird. She laughs and says, “I was so impressed that I sat on the toilet and called my roommate, because of course there was a phone in the hotel room itself.”
Carmen Ann and Gerry Roden, who were married for 38 years, had their first date at the Thunderbird’s Terrace Room in May 1972. They went to hear the singer George Maharis, best known as an actor from the early 1960s TV crime drama Route 66, who’d released seven pop albums in the early to mid ’60s. It had been six years since his last record, New Route: George Maharis. He wore a bow tie and sang Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema.”
Carmen remembers how handsome Gerry was that night and every detail of what this new couple wore. “Long dresses had become popular,” she says, “so I wore a deep purple A-line dress with a dark orange inset in the bodice and orange low heels. Gerry made a fabulous first impression with me, wearing navy blue and white seersucker pants with a light blue button-down collared shirt, a navy double-breasted jacket with a multicolored tie of reds, yellows and blues, and shiny burgundy tassel loafers.”
Oh, and it was just before Halloween 1973 that Broadway, sitcom and film star Ann Sothern’s career came crashing to a halt on a Thunderbird stage. She was starring as the eponymous protagonist in John Patrick’s play Everybody Loves Opal: A Prank in Three Acts, about a reclusive hoarder who calls home a dilapidated mansion adjacent to the town dump, when a fake tree pinned Sothern to the stage, breaking her back and causing nerve damage in her legs.
Local newspapers reported Sothern sued Thunderreal Corp., the hotel’s owners, saying, “Miss Sothern, 67, said she has had to sell her Rolls Royce and some jewelry to pay her doctors and that her money is running out.” An October 11, 1987 New York Times story 13 years later, headlined, “Ann Sothern—Dauntless,” said, “She finished the [Jacksonville] performance, of course, held together with silver gaffer’s tape, before she began the years of hospitals and neurologists.” The story then puns, “She was always a trouper.”
Casting back decades now, sons and daughters remember their parents remembering comedians like Jay Leno, early rock ’n roll pianist Fats Domino singing “Blueberry Hill,” Ray Charles growling through “Georgia on My Mind,” Zero Mostel featuring in Fiddler on the Roof, and the minstrelsy of Yvonne Moray, the 3’ 10” actress and singer who starred as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and, at age 45, as a child alongside Vincent Price in a spurious film adaptation of Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
4. Exoticism and Earth
David Stein’s first job was at America’s first Burger King on Beach Boulevard, his father Ben’s restaurant, when he was 16. The Steins launched the chain and David created King Provision Corp. to supply it nationwide. His brother Martin Stein created Regency Square Mall, one of Jacksonville’s earliest and most profitable shopping malls. Their brother Albert built the Thunderbird.
Another Thunderbird Motel opened outside Minneapolis in 1962. There its racist pseudo-Indian themes made a little more sense, socially and geographically, than in Jacksonville, Florida or in Jacksonville, North Carolina or Savannah Georgia, or Winter Haven, Florida. In fact, the mass-producibility of Thunderbirds in the new post-World War II generic suburban landscape, interchangeable from Minnesota to Florida, should have contrasted with the simulated exoticism of rare cultures from faraway climes and barely accessible island cultures. The fact that Florida seemed the perfect host for the Disneyfication of imagined Polynesian and Micronesian cultures made such fungible fakery no less a fantasy. Florida was a blank slate, wiped largely clean of its own native populations, the perfect platform for reimagining on American soil the exoticism of the people American Empire thought it was taming.
The fact that Americans didn’t think of themselves as imperialists made their imaginations of colonized cultures all the more appealing. Thunderbird Hotels and Motels were American Indian and French Polynesian and Aztec-or-Incan-or-Mayan, nebulous as those Pacific trophy wives white sailors liked to marry.
In that fallen fake heritage, wooden scaffolding still stands over sidewalks from when the Thunderbird finally gave up the ghost and fell to new corporate ownership as the Quality Inn and Conference Center in 1986. It fooled nobody when, as the Times-Union put it, “Arlington’s biggest and best-known hotel” reopened in time for the Fourth of July.
For a minute, so it now seemed, this ground had moved the center of the city east into Arlington, but as quickly as the city had fled its center in that “white flight” emergency, it now skipped town on the Thunderbird.
And 35 years later, it’s surprising these pergola-like structures still stand over sidewalks lost in Florida verdure. A faded red sign points to the original swimming pool, the one Quality Inn or Ramada did not fill in. Palm trees and upper balconies stand calcined black from last year’s fire. On the swimming pool, brilliant blue faience tiles still wrap ladders and kidney-shaped indentations, “7 ft. 7 in.” and “4 ft. 3 in.” and “3 ft. 6 in.”
Grasses grow high through old roads. These pavements, these crooked dead utility poles, these hotel accommodations falling into rising trees, qualify this complex as its own collapsed capital, one of the earth’s seemingly countless Sodoms and/or Gomorrahs, fallen abruptly into the infinitely self-renewing earth.
5. Dreams in Disrepair
By the late 1970s, the nostalgia wore a patina of irony. The Thunderbird had celebrated nostalgia as the stuff of dreams while the past was still present.
Just as the 1969 Thunderbird expansion depended on falling cultural trends, both its business model and its advertising rhetoric had to adapt to perceived social declines halfway through the ’70s. By the time TV’s Carol Burnett Show was finished at the end of the decade, the Thunderbird entertainment complex, built on “variety show” and “supper club” models, was headed for its own crash.
Meanwhile, the connotations of “motel” and “motor hotel” had nosedived. By the mid ’70s, motels brought to mind places where shady businessmen might bring their secretaries for hours-early private “happy hours” or “couples only” rooms with “closed circuit” television showing “adult films.” Fewer people thought of motels as places to drink a Vesper Martini and listen to a band arranged around tenor sax, a clarinet and multiple other saxophones backed by trumpets and trombones. The culture had downshifted an octave and the Thunderbird struggled to keep keel.
The back of a mid 1970s postcard calls the Thunderbird “Actionville in Jacksonville.” It lists “Theater showrooms — lavish productions and star name entertainment — Gourmet Dining Room and Swingers Lounge — Coffee Shop — Little Pub.” It claims “This aristocrat of motor hotels” included “Luxurious Playboy Suites — 2 pools — color TV.”
Debbie Bensen visited the Thunderbird when her husband was in the Navy and based nearby at Mayport. She remembers when he and several other sailors went streaking through one of the Thunderbird bars one night.
Danae Clift shares pictures of her mother at the Thunderbird and the photos she took of Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe through the Tulips” and “Strawberry Tea,” wearing a bow tie, a scalloped ruffle shirt and white dinner jacket and playing his ukulele before a background of crimson and chocolate floral paisleys.
I stand on the rotten cabana and step through its splintering boards, wondering how many times the total volume of poolside drinks ordered right here would fill this swimming pool. John C. Christian says these “VIP suites” in the back of the hotel complex “were a draw with special room service to appeal to the ‘stars’ who stayed in town,” but were also “motel rendezvous” points for locals who could “slip in and slip out without being detected. Parties in the lounges spilled over into private rooms.”
A mid ’70s postcard shows women in bikinis lounging around the pool facing a white man reclining in loafers and jeans and shirtsleeves while a black waiter in a red jacket and bow tie brings drinks on a tray balanced on an upright palm.
6. Hot Potato
On May 2, 1973, The Jacksonville Journal reported, “Singer Howard Keel opened at the Thunderbird Motor Hotel last night while attorneys were busy trying to acquire possession of the ground on which he was standing.” The movie star appeared in the Thunderbird’s production of Man of La Mancha, the 1965 musical adapted from Don Quixote.
By the end of the month, The Florida Times-Union reported that Red Carpet Inns had bought the Thunderbird. Red Carpet would build a 15 story addition behind the Thunderbird’s iconic expressway sign that vaguely recalled a Pacific Northwest totem pole. Stein wouldn’t disclose the sale price. The tower was never built.
A 1975 headline said, “Thunderbird Seeks Reorganization,” speaking of occupancy “deteriorat[ing] to a level only slightly above the area average,” which was “lower than any other city in Florida” and rising costs including entertainment overhead and “high interest rates” on multiple mortgages. Two banks sued for foreclosure. The following year a third bank sued.
In 1978, a group of local investors bought the financially troubled Thunderbird and planned to build a 13 story hotel tower. “When you think of Atlanta, you think of Peachtree Center,” said Philip Browning, president of the new Thunderbird Management Co. “We want to make this Jacksonville’s Peachtree Center.” The tower was never built.
There was a shooting in 1975. In February 1979, a desk clerk reported an armed robbery before he was arrested for trying to flee in a cab with $1,000. In July, the Thunderbird opened a new disco with “the largest chandelier in Florida,” described as “78 feet long and 22 feet wide with a twisting, modernistic surface consisting of thousands of tiny mirrors.”
In 1982 Great American Life Insurance Co. sued for foreclosure. In 1984, the “Thunderbird Resort Hotel, mired in legal battles,” filed for bankruptcy and a December 1985 headline said, “Thunderbird Resort Hotel is Sold Again,” this time to an investment trust in Los Angeles. Another story described the last decade of foreclosures, reorganizations and sales as “a game of real estate Hot Potato.”
By July 1986, the Thunderbird had become a Quality Inn and shortly thereafter a Ramada Inn that closed in 2002. In 2003, Bethelite, Inc., a group affiliated with Bethel Baptist Church, bought the Thunderbird to make it a “wholesome venue for conventions, retreats, proms, weddings and family reunions.” It didn’t happen. The property sold at least three more times in the next few years.
Ricky Takacs says that sometime “towards the end,” he got a room at the fabled hotel and entertainment complex for the weekend. “I took a microwave with me so I could warm up food and watch TV. The room was nothing fancy. I just wanted a little break.”
7. Only a Sudden Word
By the swimming pool in the back, a hawk flies just over my head. Broken streetlights stand in high grasses grown over roads hidden between lost rooms. Yeats speaks in my head again.
Those “shouting days” Yeats’s shepherd calls “crowned” with “mirth” are gone, both the disco and the dinner theater, the comedian and the crooner, “And still I dream he treads the lawn / Walking ghostly in the dew, / Pierced by my glad singing through, / My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth.”
Walking on glass beneath Spanish moss, I hear in my head, for a moment, a strange warped medley of Tiny Tim and Ray Charles and Yvonne Moray. Then there’s just ukulele and falsetto: “Knee deep in flowers we’ll stray. / We’ll keep the showers away. / And if I kiss you, / In the garden, / In the moonlight, / Will you pardon me / And tiptoe through the tulips with me?”
I see no tulips, just bull thistle, dandelions, broomsedge, air potatoes and greenbriar, which, right now, might best go by its old nickname, “Tramp’s Trouble.”
I know the earth contains uncountable worlds, and every world’s to itself entire. Those celebrities once most famous are increasingly forgotten. Still, trying to weigh the enormity of all that happened here, all of which has vanished like a decades-gone childhood dream, I hear Yeats resound again in this ruined place, whispering of how “The wandering earth herself may be / Only a sudden flaming word, / In clanging space a moment heard, / Troubling the endless reverie.”
So here are some words, all that’s left of the Thunderbird, maybe all that’s left of all of us after all. Words and the earth.