It started out as the precious, archived memories of a few who came of age as South Beach came to be known for something other than, something livelier than, a retirement destination with a water view.
Now, in their 40s, 50s and 60s, they call themselves the South Beach Pioneers. They recently created a Facebook group — a technologically modern way to capture and safeguard vintage moments. In posts and pictures, they celebrate the Beach of two decades past — the 1980s and 1990s — before the big-box stores, coffee shop franchises and chic hotels. They fete the fabulous scrappiness of the Beach, the struggle to preserve its Art Deco bones, the blossoming gay culture, the modeling movement and the relentless, hedonistic parties at long-dead grande dames like Warsaw Ballroom and the Paragon and later Liquid.
The pioneers call it a “digital town square” a place that is both familiar and comforting and, perhaps permanent — the seeds of memories and photos might someday be the foundation for a coffee table book that chronicles the cool of yesteryear.
“In some ways, this is about nostalgia, about remembering friends when the grass seemed greener, the sky seemed bluer and the seas were calmer,” says Elaine Lancaster, a drag-queen extraordinaire who has built a dazzling career on the stages of Miami Beach and elsewhere.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“But it’s not about living in the past, it’s a snapshot of our lives 15 or 20 years ago,” says Lancaster, who helps administer the group.
Though views of the era’s beginning and end are fluid, the period is defined as much by the beachside bohemian spirit as the celebs — Madonna and Sylvester Stallone and Gianni Versace and Sandra Bernhardt and the others who indulged, at that time without such a merciless glare of paparazzi. Twenty-five years ago — before it became an affluent playground where some are now talking about bringing in casinos — Miami Beach was more village than city, a place for seniors to live the last chapter by the sea. The rediscovery of the architectural gems spawned a rebirth and attracted a wave of creative types, from photographers and models to designers and performance artists. It also became a friendly community for gays.
“Here was this tropical oasis at the tip of Miami Beach that had been neglected,” says Lancaster who arrived in the late 1990s. “You had all these beautiful Art Deco buildings peppered along the beach that were in ruins. The renaissance was fueled by preservation and art and fashion and gays who made huge contributions.
“We all have memories of some of this. So this page is a conduit for like-minded people to connect electronically. It’s like back in the day in small towns when you went to church and afterward you went to the town square to fellowship.”
Launched by Dan Sehres, who now owns Bar 721 but in the heyday owned New Concept Video on Lincoln Road, the Facebook group is open by invitation only. Already, there are more than 1,300 pioneers — from as near as South Beach and as far away as Paris — who visit the town square.
For many, the page is truly a reunion.
“I clicked on the page and all of a sudden I saw all these names from the past. They were people who I rarely see anymore or haven’t seen in years,” says Merle Weiss , she of the platinum locks and carefree vibe. “Some have moved away. And sadly, some have passed away.”
The latter list — fondly remembered on the pioneer page — includes beloved names like Gilbert Stafford, the renaissance doorman who schooled so many in the delicate art of “No.” Or dance music promoter Artie Jacobs, who helped DJs make the dance floors sizzle. Or Irene Williams, the senior fashionista who graced Lincoln Road each day with dazzling hand-sewn ensembles, hat included. Or Pagan Rivera, who lit up South Beach stages under the drag name Sexcilia.
Weiss moved with husband Danny to the Beach in 1985 as a mother of three adult sons. She launched her Chapter Two as a bon vivant and owner of a posh consignment shop called Merle’s Closet that became the go-to for drag divas who came in search of the perfect boa or you-betta-werk pumps. The en vogue couple became fixtures on the scene, relishing the newness of it all and meeting the characters who made the Beach come alive. So when the Beach became something else, the faces and the mood inevitably changed.
Things perked up this summer when the South Beach Pioneers were born and started reprising the Beach before… .
Most every day, a pioneer posts a particular moment or subject or name followed by an invitation to discuss.
An August posting by Chris Bills, a longtime employee of Uncle Sam’s, the hip Washington Avenue record store and DJ haunt:
I have one other name to bring up....YOKO!!!! Discuss.....
My favorite memory is her wearing a mask on the back of her head that she had painted up to match her face. You had no idea if she was coming or going. CRAZINESS at its best!!.
The name alone sparked a slew of well wishes to Yoko, a popular drag queen (not the Japanese artist, peace activist and widow of John Lennon), as well as more remembrances.
Most of the memories are triggered by a photo or other noir-ish throwback: nightclub personality Kevin Aviance, at the underground dance club Swirl wearing little more than a million-dollar smile, painted face and yellow fedora; a group of men backstage at gay dance palace Paragon; photos of Lancaster, Shelley Novak and Kitty Meow in one edition of club rag Miamigo; a candid of Stallone, Madonna, Ingrid Casares and Gloria Estefan and son Nayib.
Dozens of music files have also been posted, each conjuring a particular moment, a night that bled into morning or a dance floor. Point and click and the tunes roar, much of it the soundtrack of an era: Stay Around by Milk & Sugar or What is Love (Frenchapella) by Deee-Lite or Viola Wills’ Stormy Weather, Shawn Christopher’s Another Sleepless Night. Sometimes the memories come flooding back with the image of a club flier like the one for Halloween at the Kremlin hosted by drag queen Adora and her royal court. Or A Room With A View at Paragon (now Mansion) or one of the over-the-top Susanne Bartsch productions at Warsaw (now Jerry’s Famous Deli).
Tara Solomon, who chronicled South Beach’s nightlife beginning in 1993 as The Miami Herald’s Queen of the Night and now owns a Miami Beach public relations firm, has an archive of cassettes of karaoke nights she hosted at Semper’s in the early stages of the Beach revival. Also a participant on the page, Solomon says the memory of those Wednesday nights brought back memories of the beach’s energy at that time.
“South Beach during the late 1980s and 1990s was magical. A bohemian spirit pervaded everything we did. It was a hugely creative time when artists and gays fueled the scene and there wasn’t a mass retailer in sight,’’ she says. “We drank café con leches from the corner bodega; there were no Starbucks. We were truly a self-amused group. Everyday seemed like Halloween.’’
Collectively, the page offers a peek into a curated portrait of South Beach’s many chapters.
Chris “Deejay Smeejay” Hodgson, 52, a funny guy who can recount great stories of go-go dancing at Warsaw and once ran a male dance group, moved to Miami Beach in the early 1990s after one too many one-eyed drives back to Fort Lauderdale after a night of partying. Hodgson, who deejays in local clubs and hotels, says there are two distinct groups of pioneers on the page among many represented.
“They each contributed to the Beach differently, and their memories are different. The 1980s were the homesteaders who came in and pretty much gentrified the Beach. At that time there wasn’t much going on besides The Strand and Woody’s on the Beach. The group that came after that built upon that, and that is when you saw the openings of places like Liquid,” says Hodgson. “But the thing to remember is that so many people passed through the Beach. A lot of them got their shakes out and went back to a structured life. This is about solidifying those great stories and friendships.’’