In the End, a Rebirth
The demise of spring break in Fort Lauderdale came in contentious fashion, but it led to bigger—and calmer—things
By the time spring break arrived in 1985, the carefree beachfront partying that had become synonymous with Fort Lauderdale had turned decadent and destructive. In the third year of his first term as mayor, Robert Dressler and his administration found an attention-getting way to make it clear the debauchery was about to end.
They arrested a nightclub disc jockey.
“We did what we had to do to stop the craziness,” he recalls.
Police picked up John Torregrossa, who spun records and served as the master of ceremonies at The Button, a bar housed in the Holiday Inn Oceanside, for what Dressler called an “obscene show.” Torregrossa remembers it differently, of course. “It was good, wholesome, American fun,” he says. “We started off playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Then we had a basketball shooting contest, a beer-chug contest. A banana-eating contest. A wet T-shirt contest. Nothing gross or illegal.”
“Baloney,” he says, going on to detail incidents described in undercover police reports that involved cups of urine—and worse. “He’d been warned; he kept doing it. It was worse than Tijuana, though they didn’t use any animals. As far as I know.”
Torregrossa now lives in Hobe Sound after a career as a sales manager for a music technology and products company. He still works as a DJ for private events, but more than 30 years later, he insists he was set up.
“The most popular place on the beach was The Button,” he says. “Later, I was told by the police chief and other policemen that the city gave them directives to get rid of The Button. That’s what they did.”
The bar is gone, and so is the motel, which was just south of the legendary Elbo Room. It was razed for a parking lot. Torregrossa got a year in jail, but Dressler didn’t object when the sentence was cut in half, saying later he thought the penalty was excessive.
Like the bar and the motel, spring break in Fort Lauderdale is gone, too. What happened at The Button three decades ago was the beginning of a bitter end.
• • • • •
James Naugle, who was a city commissioner at the time and later served as Fort Lauderdale’s mayor from 1991 to 2009, says the only other incidents leading to spring break’s demise were “the young people falling off balconies and breaking their necks.”
Thanks in part to Broward County’s marketing efforts, 1985 brought a torrent of college students on spring break, high school students who wanted to be like them, and assorted hangers-on of all ages. A sizable portion of them came to drink heavily. Some of them came to shed other inhibitions. Plenty of them simply turned revelry into obnoxiousness, in the opinion of local residents and business owners.
To be fair, the locals’ love-hate feeling about spring break traced back to at least 1960, when the legendary Connie Francis movie “Where the Boys Are” came out. They liked the attention and they really liked the economic impact, but there was a sliver of doubt about whether it was worth the wear and tear.
Seismic shifts were happening below the surface. According to a 1985 account in the Fort Lauderdale (now South Florida) Sun-Sentinel, the number of Broward County residents over age 65 increased by nearly 10,000 every year during the 1970s. The political power of that aging population grew significantly, and elected officials had to pay attention to their concerns.
“There always was a tug of war between the Galt Ocean Mile [neighborhood] retirees and the hotel/bar owners over who was going to run the beach,” says Ed Dempsey, who was a civilian employee of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department at the time. “The cops would crack down in response to complaints from the older citizens. There’d be a few years of that and after business went elsewhere—like Daytona [Beach]—we’d be required to back off and take things a little easier. Then things would get out of hand again real quick. It was a constant back-and-forth.”
By then, bashing spring break had become a popular activity.
A traffic study noted that during spring break in 1985, cars crept along State Road A1A at 1.3 mph, turning the 2.4-mile trip from East Las Olas Boulevard to Atlantic Boulevard into “a two-hour odyssey.”
Financial experts, meanwhile, noted that spring breakers were having “a detrimental effect on the health of Fort Lauderdale’s long-term tourism prospects,” according to the Miami Herald. At the time, average travelers stayed two weeks and spent $68 daily, but spring breakers spent only $46 a day over one week.
City Commissioner John Rodstrom told the Sun-Sentinel at the time: “I’d rather have 100,000 people who spend a lot of money than 300,000 who spend a little money.”
It was about money. The Herald reported that spring break 1985 brought $120 million—some say $140 million—to the city in a six-week period, but there was a hook. The city took in $355,190 from parking fees and sales tax, but that barely covered half of the $700,000 tab for maintenance, trash pickup and police overtime.
Meanwhile, Dressler’s crackdown continued. Revenue wasn’t a factor.
“We really didn’t give a damn,” he says. “We wanted the city back. We were tired of being the dumping ground for 400,000 students. We began enforcing codes, ordinances and capacity limits, and found that some of the bars and hotels were doing really dangerous stuff.”
According to Mary Fanizzi Krystoff, who was vice president of events and marketing at Penrod’s from 1982-89, a local coalition was formed, led by the owners of the Sheraton Yankee Trader and Sheraton Yankee Clipper hotels, as well as the popular beach bars (owners of The Button, Candy Store, Elbo Room, Penrod’s and others).
“This coalition met weekly and attempted to work alongside the city and [police] to make sure that the visiting students’ safety was a primary concern, and that noise ordinances and maximum capacity limits were adhered to.
“But the city’s goals were very clear: the cancellation of spring break as Fort Lauderdale had known it.”
1986 brought a change to Florida’s legal drinking age, from 19 to 21, and a local ordinance banned open containers of alcohol outdoors along the beach area and sidewalks east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Also, the city spent nearly $100,000 to construct a 4½-foot-high temporary barrier, contemptuously known as “The Wall,” along A1A. Running for more than a half-mile, from the Elbo Room north to near Sunrise Boulevard, it was designed to separate patrons of The Strip’s bars and restaurants from roadway traffic. Because pedestrians could cross the road only at designated points, it eased tie-ups. Car rides took only 30 minutes, not two hours.
It also brought a new mayor, Robert Cox, who appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to express his hope spring breakers would prefer Daytona Beach. He got what he wanted. As Dan Santoro, author of Where the Boys (and Girls) Were!, recalls, “Students who came down were calling their buddies and saying, ‘Don’t come to Fort Lauderdale! The cops are swingin’ their nightsticks. Daytona is four hours closer and the beach is just as big, the water’s just as good.’ ”
So the kids stayed away. The 1986 numbers were down to 300,000, then 250,000 in 1987. It represented a $40 million loss to the local economy. In its frantic efforts to recover what it lost, the city tried concerts and TV specials and spent $300,000 on a spring break “reunion” that flopped. Some hoteliers reported a 90 percent drop in revenue. In 1988, only 140,000 spring breakers showed up and spent $56 million.
By the end of the decade, spring break was kaput. In 1990, only 15,000 spring breakers came.
• • • • •
In 1986, Ina Lee had to tour Fort Lauderdale’s beaches in a police car because “it was the only way to be safe on the beach,” she recalls. “The beach had become a slum and a blighted area. The site of what would be the beloved Casablanca restaurant was a crack house.”
Lee, the publisher of the local edition of TravelHost magazine and founder of the Beach Council of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, was there as part of a task force that included—in other squad cars—the chief of police, the city manager and local business leaders. They were spotting areas that needed help, with the long-term goal of creating “a year-round upscale destination. That was our mission.”
“There really was no marketing plan to replace the spring break businesses,” Lee says. “You don’t get rid of a business before you have a plan to replace it, but that’s what we did. But we started the turnaround. It took a long time and a lot of money to change the image.”
As Naugle puts it, the task force was “there to say grace over where the city spent its money.” The money was $13.8 million budgeted for beach revitalization, approved by the voters in 1986 with two-thirds of the vote. It had been in the works since 1982 as part of a Dressler initiative.
By 1987, spring break in Fort Lauderdale was all but dead. The Strip, home to so many dubious bars and businesses, had begun experiencing a renaissance toward becoming a row of five-star hotels and restaurants.
“We started marketing,” Naugle says. “We [began to have] year-round tourism. That’s good for room rates. I don’t know any community that concentrates on affordable tourism. Everything looked good.”
Dressler says the beach essentially had to die before it could have new life. “The beach was a mess off-season,” he says. “Biker bars, vans and pickups. Spring break had to happen to get development.”
Lee points to the Candy Store, an infamous bar on North Atlantic Boulevard that reached peak popularity in the mid 1980s for its contests involving wet T-shirts, tiny bikinis, beer guzzling and more.
“It became the St. Regis Hotel and Spa,” she says of what is now a Ritz-Carlton. “Nothing so embodied the change in destination as the Candy Store becoming the St. Regis.”