James “Jimbo” Luznar, who founded the famous fish shack Jimbo’s Place on Virginia Key — where mayors and the destitute alike sat side-by-side for house-smoked fish and beer — died Wednesday night of Alzheimer’s disease complications, his daughter said. He was 89.
Luznar, born in Eckhart Mines, Maryland, in 1927, had famously operated the shack on public park property since the 1950s without a lease or legal agreement — only a handshake until he handed it back to the city in 2012. Over the decades, the city looked the other way as it became a popular television and movie backdrop, a setting for model shoots, and a long-running dive bar where smoked fish and beer brought everyone from drifters to movie stars such as Jack Nicholson for a pint and a cigar.
But Luznar was the heart of Jimbo’s, the city’s custodian for the land, the one Nicholson drank with, who models posed with (and ended up in a Lucky Brand Jeans billboard ad over Paris), who threw a party every year around his April 6 birthday that brought thousands.
“He led a full life, a colorful life,” daughter Marilyn Fujarczyk said.
A former Merchant Marine, Luznar came to Florida in the late 1940s to work on shrimp boats between Oakhurst to Daytona Beach. He started his own shrimping business in South Florida with an uncle and ran it out of a bayside dock near the MacArthur Causeway and the site of the former Miami Herald building.
To make way for development, the city came to a handshake agreement to let Luznar move his shrimping business to public land on a picturesque cove in Virginia Key near the city’s sewage treatment facility at no cost and with no formal lease.
There Luznar raised his five children, who remember playing in and around the Australian pine woods, boys and girls alike learning to be handy, Fujarczyk said. She remembers him teaching her, a real estate agent, how to fix a leaky sprinkler pump with an improvised gasket made out of a Frosted Flakes box.
“He raised the girls like he raised the boys,” she said. “He taught us the right way to use a screwdriver and a hammer.”
He worked the shrimping boat with two of his sons, James Jr. and Bobby, fishing mostly for bait. His children rode all over Miami with their father as he sold the bait to local fishing and tackle shops.
Local workers ferried from his inlet spot on Virginia Key to help build nearby Fisher Island into a luxury area, a once-virgin land where Luznar’s family used to go camping.
Luznar loved to tell the story of how Florida banker and businessman Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, who developed Fisher Island with former President Richard Nixon, approached him about selling beer, said Robert Burr, 60, a longtime friend of Luznar’s. That way, the workers would hang out at Jimbo’s after work instead. But Jimbo’s application for a license was denied.
“The story, as Jimbo told it, was that Bebe Rebozo then called his friend Richard Nixon, who pulled a few strings,” Burr said. “Next thing you know, Jimbo had a liquor license and could sell beer. And he’s buying beer by the truckload and his little shack became a hangout.”
Beer license taken care of, the spot quickly drew all walks of life.
And with its lush setting, Jimbo’s Place soon caught the attention of film and television crews. It became a backdrop starting in the 1950s for shows from Flipper and Gentle Ben to Miami Vice, Dexter and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies, among others.
Every time a new production built a set, they left behind parts of facades that only added to Jimbo’s charm: old shacks, a broken-down Volkswagen bus. There was even the time Hollywood stuntmen blew the roof of the shack for a Porky’s movie.
Luznar was the cog that held Jimbo’s together. He was in small speaking parts in films, rubbed elbows with everyone from Nicholson to Mariah Carey and was pictured with a model in a Lucky Brand Jeans ad that ran in Details and on that billboard in Paris. Luznar’s youngest son David, who died several years ago, called from Paris when he saw his father’s smiling face next to the model.
Luznar continued running Jimbo’s well into his 80s, throwing an annual party around his birthday that thousands attended.
Even after the jerry-rigged (and totally illegal) electrical setup caused a fire that burned down part of the building in 2009, Luznar rebuilt and went on with gas-powered generators for three more years until his health failed. In March 2012, the family handed control of the land back to the city and the building was razed.
Wynwood’s Gramps took over hosting Luznar’s annual party. While he wasn’t healthy enough to attend the last two, old friends and customers still did, sharing drinks and memories and posing with a life-size cutout of Luznar, hands outstretched with a cigar between his fingers.
On July 17, Gramps will host another party in Luznar’s memory.
“Jimbo the guy, and Jimbo the place are sort of intertwined,” said Gramps owner Adam Gersten.
Luznar’s health took a final downward turn in February when surgery left him unable to come home. He died at Hollywood’s Kindred Hospital with his family by his side.
Luznar is survived by his wife of 66 years, Ruby, and children James Jr., Marilyn Fujarczyk, Gail Araujo and Bobby Luznar.
The family will hold a private burial on Tuesday.
Miami Herald writer Emily Cochrane contributed to this report.