Tampa’s reputation for nightlife debauchery is nothing new. The city’s history is littered with stories of local and national celebrities having a few too many cocktails and treating the city like their personal playground. Many of these stories have been passed on to me over the years; way too many to tell in one column.
I do, however, have three personal favorite stories of bar-related high jinks and depravity, tales that involve a baseball legend, a numbers runner and a local restaurateur.
Babe Ruth was a regular fixture in Tampa in the early 1900s during spring training.
The most famous of Ruth’s hitting exploits in Tampa took place on April 4, 1919, at what was once known as Plant Field. During a game between Ruth’s Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants, he hit the longest home run of his career— a 587-foot bomb.
A few years later, when he was a member of the New York Yankees, rather than hitting a long bomb, he decided to get bombed.
“This was during Prohibition,” Richard Gonzmart, fourth-generation owner of the Columbia Restaurant, once relayed to me.
“The Columbia was rumored to have sold alcoholic beverages, and the story goes that Babe Ruth got so intoxicated and carried on so badly that my grandfather, the owner back then, had to escort him out and tell him to go home.
“Days later, realizing what he had done, Babe Ruth returned to the restaurant and gave my grandfather an autographed bat as an apology. That bat hung behind the bar there for 50 or 60 years before my brother took it home with him for safekeeping.”
In its heyday in the early to mid-1900s, the Floridan Hotel was one of this city’s most popular drinking destinations. If you were jaunting around downtown Tampa for the night, the hotel’s bar, the Sapphire Room, was a must-visit locale.
GIs danced alongside Tampa’s elite and the hotel’s celebrity guests, which over the years included Jimmy Stewart, Jack Dempsey, Elvis Presley and Charlton Heston. The Floridan also was where Gary Cooper wooed actress Lupe Velez in 1930, while they stayed there during the filming of “Hell Harbor.”
“There were so many women dancing that the Sapphire Room was renamed the Sure-fire Room by some of the local GIs,” Gus Arencibia, who bartended there for 20 years, told me a few years back.
According to Arencibia, though, it was during the day that the bar was at its best.
Members of the Sapphire Bar’s afternoon clientele were famous for making crazy bets with each other. Two men once made a $100 wager they could drive from the hotel to the Seabreeze Restaurant in Palma Ceia without stopping their car once, rolling through all stop signs and red lights.
“And they did it,” Arencibia said and laughed.
He said that shortly after the Palma Ceia escapade, Jimmy Lumia, a well-known numbers runner at the time, decided to join in the fun. He bet someone $50 that he could buy a ticket at the Tampa Theatre without getting out of his car or even stopping it.
“He drove up the sidewalk to the ticket office and motioned for the ticket girl to bring him a ticket,” Arencibia recalled.
“And then he drove back to the hotel and won the bet.”
When most people hear the name Gene Holloway, they immediately think of either his restaurant, the Sea Wolf, which at its prime in the late 1970s was the eighth-most profitable eatery in the nation, or his ill-fated attempt to fake his own death in the 1980s.
My favorite Holloway, story, however, revolves around his decision to run for president of the United States, one that was fueled by countless alcoholic beverages.
Holloway’s best friend at the time was Tony Zapone, who told the tale to me a few years ago.
According to Zapone, one evening in early 1980, while slamming back some drinks with his buddies, Holloway babbled on and on about the nation’s need for a better president and how the lack of leadership in President Jimmy Carter’s administration is what led the nation to the current gas problem.
When he was finished with his lament and sought to catch his breath, a drunken voice from the back of the room yelled out, “Why don’t you run Gene?! You’d make a great president.” The roomful of red-faced friends roared in approval. It was decided. Holloway was going to run.
“We did not really think he could win,” Zapone, who acted as Holloway’s press secretary, recounted. “But we wanted to run it like a real campaign. We thought if we could get some real push behind it, perhaps we could influence some of the other candidates and get them to support some of the things we wanted to see done. And, more importantly, if the Gene Holloway for President campaign could get real national attention, it would turn him into a national celebrity and help the restaurant.”
His party affiliation was “The Bull Moose Party” in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, who ran under that party name when he was denied the Republican Party nomination in 1912.
The campaign printed buttons and T-shirts and bumper stickers that it mailed around the nation. They purchased billboard space in Tampa. Holloway spoke throughout the state on why he was running. They planned a national radio and television commercial campaign and even released a platform.
After a few months, the campaign pulled the plug. Despite their best efforts, it was not garnering the type of national attention they had hoped for.
Rather than running the nation, Holloway decided to stick to running his restaurant and being the life of the party, a title that accounts for many more Tampa tales of alcohol-fueled decadence.