The Biscayne Times

Tuesday
Oct 15th
Soul Survivor PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky -- BT Senior Writer, Photos by Silvia Ros   
November 2012

Tales from Tobacco Road on its 100th anniversary

LRoad_1aura Hirata knows how to pour a Guinness beer. Very slowly. She can also mix cocktails while juggling drink and food orders. Yet the tattooed bartender has an Achilles heel: handling remote controls. “I hate technology,” she mutters while trying to find the Miami Marlins game. “I still have a VCR.”

“I have a couple of porno tapes, but I don’t have a VHS,” a customer declares, quickly adding: “Just kidding!”

A few seats away, the conversation is more somber. “Jimbo’s is gone. It’s history!” one patron groans, referring to the smoked-fish and beer establishment that operated at Virginia Key from 1954 until last year.

People sitting on either side of him rattle off other Magic City bars and hangouts that have shut down in recent years.

“There’s nowhere left!” one man gripes.

“I’m with you,” mumbles a stocky drinker sitting to his left.

The cluster of people at the bar then makes a toast, to Miami’s lost haunts and to the good times they’ve had at Tobacco Road.

Located at 626 S. Miami Ave., Tobacco Road is renowned for its drink specials, comfort food, and live music.

When Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno was appointed U.S. Attorney General in 1993, Tobacco Road was the scene of the celebration. When the cinematic version of Miami Vice was being filmed, actor Colin Farrell frequented Tobacco Road during his off-time. He enjoyed the jalapeño-rich Death Burger, drank with cops who served as consultants for the film, and flirted with a certain female bartender. When celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is in town, you might catch him playing drums with one of the bands.

Although the famous and influential do enjoy the Road, as longtime patrons call it, so do construction works, waiters, and various local characters. “Most places you go, they tend to attract a certain type of person,” says Mark Weiser, who has booked music acts at Tobacco Road for more than 30 years. “But every kind of person goes to the Road at the same time. It’s pretty cool like that.”

Road_2

Tobacco Road is not only cool, it’s old. On November 17, it will celebrate its 100th anniversary. During much of the 20th Century the bar has operated under different names and owners as a speakeasy, a gambling den, a gay bar, a dive bar, a strip joint, a theater house, and a music club. It has survived prohibition, military boycotts, city-sanctioned homophobia, dramatic demographic changes, police raids, violent crime, urban renewal, and broken friendships.

And along with that long life are plenty of stories. Patrons and owners from the early years are gone, their tales taken with them to the grave. But the past three decades, under the ownership of Patrick Gleber and Kevin Rusk, have produced a long string of memorable moments.

There’s the time a naked man tried to get inside the Road but the doorman wouldn’t let him in. “We have a dress code,” he informed him.

There’s the time when a couple were having sex in the upstairs lounge -- right when Rusk’s relatives were visiting the Road.

There’s the time when 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley jumped on stage with a tambourine during a blues performance.

There’s the time when Cindy Crawford was turned away for not having an ID.

There are the times when Jimmy Buffet, Lenny Kravitz, Jefferson Airplane, the Romantics, and other big names in the music world, after watching local acts, decided to join the jam session.

And there are plenty of stories surrounding the late Willie Bell, also known as Dr. Feelgood, a skinny ex-con who poked unruly guests with a finger, was fond of saying “that’s what she said,” and hid a large knife and gun beneath his clothes, either of which he could pull out at the blink of any eye if he felt the bar was threatened.

The Road’s past is certainly colorful. The future, however, is anything but certain: It’s unclear if the place will outlive Brickell’s latest development boom.

Much of the surrounding area has been transformed into the birthing grounds of Brickell CitiCentre, a massive, towering $1 billion project of offices, condos, hotels, and retail being built by Swire Properties, the Hong Kong-based company that developed Brickell Key.

“When Swire announced the project, people came out of the woodwork looking to buy our property,” says Gleber, co-owner of Tobacco Road since 1982.

This past April, Gleber and his partners sold the two-story building for $941,600 to Tobacco Road Property Holdings, Inc. Fabio Faerman, commercial division director for Fortune International Realty, brokered the deal and represents the new owner, but won’t say who controls Tobacco Road Property Holdings.

Road_3However, according to the Daily Business Review, the company is headed by Carlos Mattos, president of Hyundai Colombia Automotriz, who has been investing in land throughout Miami-Dade County.

The 3800-square-foot Tobacco Road parcel was just a small part of a $12.5 million land deal between Tobacco Road Property Holdings and various companies connected to real estate investor Michael Latterner, Gleber, or Rusk. The transaction gave Tobacco Road Property Holdings ownership of 49,950 square feet of land that includes parking lots along SW 7th Street as well as restaurant, retail, and office space. As part of the deal, Tobacco Road and the River Seafood & Oyster Bar, located a few doors south of the Road, can continue operating in their current locations for the next three years.

“When we bought this land, it was as a real estate investment, so it was always for sale,” Gleber says with a sigh.

But the business itself wasn’t -- and isn’t -- for sale.

Gleber continues to run Tobacco Road, although the restaurant is now a mere tenant. And if the Road is unable to endure at 626 S. Miami Ave., Gleber says he’ll just move it somewhere else. “I think the Road has value, and the name has value,” he says.

Mark Weiser believes the bar’s long history adds value to the land and, hence, is sure it won’t be demolished anytime soon. “If I were a developer, it’d be a plus to have the oldest cabaret in Miami on my property,” he says. “So I’m not too worried.”

Indeed the new landlord, who put down another $28.2 million to buy 2.5 acres of nearby vacant land, is reportedly in no rush to demolish anything, content with rental income, which will increase over time, according to Faerman. “The location is incredible,” he says. “Miami Avenue’s going to be a major street that’ll compete with Brickell Avenue.”


AParkPatrol_4ccording to several newspaper reports published since 1982, the business later known as Tobacco Road was opened in 1912. When Dade County went dry and prohibited alcohol a year later, a bakery and sandwich shop served as a front while an illegal speakeasy served liquor on the second floor.

Between the 1920s and 1930s, the second floor also operated as an illicit casino. Among the guests was Al Capone, who lived part-time on Palm Island in Miami Beach.

At least that’s the legend. The farther back one goes, the harder it is to verify elements of Tobacco Road’s past. “I’ve heard stories,” says Paul George, a local historian affiliated with Miami-Dade College. “They’re murky.”

According to county property appraiser’s records, Tobacco Road’s current building was constructed in 1915, although an employee of that department acknowledges that records are sometimes inaccurate for such old buildings.

Gleber and Rusk are convinced that Tobacco Road was founded 100 years ago and operated illegally during the dry years at that very spot. While renovating the bar, they found the secret passageway hidden by a bookshelf that led those in the know from the bakery and sandwich shop to the speakeasy on the second floor.

Locals, including a previous owner and elderly former patrons, have also told them the Road was a speakeasy. Gleber remembers an incident 15 years ago when a “white-haired little old lady” asked to see the upstairs lounge, now called the Cabaret Stage, one last time before she moved from Miami.

Once there, she described what the room looked like in the 1920s, replete with bird cages, roulette wheels, and gambling tables. “She goes: ‘We used to have such a great time here,’” Gleber remembers her saying. “‘We’d gamble and drink when it wasn’t allowed.’”

By the 1940s, the bar was called Tobacco Road. For a period of time it was a gay bar that featured male strippers as part of its entertainment and transvestites as part of its customer base. Jack Bell, a Miami Herald columnist during that decade, wrote that Tobacco Road was as “queer as a nine-dollar bill,” according to a Herald article by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

The rest of the newspaper back then called the place a “filthy hole.” By 1944 the military had banned its personnel from visiting the Road. Later that same year the city’s “morals squad” shut down the bar for “lewdness,” according to the Herald.

It was reopened in 1946 under the name Chanticleer Bar, and probably continued to operate as a gay bar, in spite of Miami leaders’ obsession with eradicating homosexuality in the Magic City. Prodded by the Herald and the Miami News, whose reporters and editors labeled gays as “sex perverts,” Miami officials launched a series of raids on gay bars in 1954. Among the establishments hit was the “Shanticleer Bar,” according to a Miami News article, likely a misspelled reference to the Chanticleer.

By the early 1970s, the place was just a neighborhood bar. “I was in there in 1975 when I was a college student,” remembers historian Paul George. “It was a Sunday afternoon. There were hard-core drinkers, lots of smoke in the place, and pinball machines.”

Retired police officer Neil Katzman reclaimed the Tobacco Road moniker when he bought the building in 1977 for $80,000. Much of his efforts were spent renovating the upstairs lounge, which he called the Speakeasy at Tobacco Road. His decorating choices can still be seen: photographs of old Miami, quirky lamps, and a painting of a topless woman.

Road_5Why that painting? “Katzman turned it into a strip bar,” Gleber answers.

“He tried to make it a topless club,” corrects Weiser, who at the time was manager of the Fat Chance Blues Band, which later renamed itself Iko-Iko. “That failed. So they brought us in.”

Katzman turned to blues and jazz for entertainment (along with the occasional stage play), but the environment in Southside, as the area was known, didn’t exactly help business owners.

“It was rows and rows of crack houses,” remembers Jack Pakonis, a bartender at Tobacco Road for 30 years (under Gleber and Rusk), who frequented the Road under Katzman’s ownership after working his shift at a Coconut Grove club. “Unless you were already really drunk, people were afraid to go to that neighborhood.”

Gram Wood Drout says the tough neighborhood actually enabled him to become a professional musician. The wife of the Fat Chance Blues Band’s original lead singer wouldn’t let him work there. “The hours were 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 in the morning, and the Road was notoriously rough,” he remembers. The rest of the band asked Drout, then a budding musician, to take the singer’s place. He did, and remains the lead singer for Iko-Iko.

“We were there right after the Mariel boatlift,” Drout continues. For much of the night, the bar was filled with Mariel refugees, many of whom wanted to try their hand at playing the drums. When things got too crazy inside the bar, Katzman would pull out his shotgun. Says Drout: “It was click click, and he’d just hold it.”

It was law enforcement, not rowdy patrons, who ended Katzman’s reign. Under Gov. Bob Graham’s direct orders, state agents and local cops raided the Road and nine other Miami establishments for drugs in 1981. The charges against Katzman didn’t stick, but he was determined to sell all his properties, so he hired real estate broker Michael Latterner.

“When it came time to sell Tobacco Road, nobody would touch it,” Gleber says. (Katzman, who is supposedly living in Mexico, couldn’t be reached for comment. Latterner also couldn’t be reached by deadline.)

So in 1982, Latterner himself bought the Road’s building for $150,000 and asked Gleber to become his partner in running the bar. At the time, Gleber was a 22-year-old recent graduate of Florida International University’s hospitality program who ran the Vine Wine Bar at The Falls shopping center. As he likes to tell it, Gleber visited the Road for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day, found a rabbit’s foot talisman in the gutter, and heard the song “Tobacco Road” play on the radio while he was driving home. “That was enough for me,” he says.

But Gleber couldn’t do it alone. After being rejected by at least one prospective partner, Gleber turned to Kevin Rusk, a fellow FIU hospitality graduate who also worked at the Vine Wine Bar. As Rusk recounts: “He said something along the lines of, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing about buying this place. This guy really needs to get rid of it and it’s a horrible rundown bar that’s poorly managed.’”

When Rusk visited the Road, it was love at first sight. “I’m from Baltimore,” he explains. “I know dive bars. I love dive bars. So I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is great. Let’s do it!’”


ARoad_6fter Gleber and Rusk bought a stake in the Road, Rusk pretended to be a trainee bartender in order to figure out how the operation was being run. “There were a lot of seedy things going on,” Rusk recalls.

The senior bartenders, for example, instructed Rusk not to hassle a particular drug dealer, a few prostitutes (several of whom lived in rooming houses across the street) openly solicited customers, and some drink proceeds were kept separate from the cash register.

When Rusk revealed himself as one of the new owners, the old staffers knew it was time to go. “Most of them were gone when they found out we were really making changes,” Rusk says. “They wanted nothing to do with it.”

Besides drug-dealing and sexual activity (“There were some really interesting silhouettes,” Drout recalls), the new owners had to contend with lots of violence. For the first six months, there were so many barroom brawls that Gleber often had to use the brass knuckles and a roll of quarters he carried with him. One person was fatally stabbed in the bar. There were also drive-by shootings outside.

When the health department threatened to intervene, Gleber and Rusk shut down the Road for several months and invested $60,000 renovating the building. They expanded and cleaned up the kitchen (the old Road was content with serving hard-boiled eggs and pretzels), shortened the main bar, changed the seating, and turned a garbage strewn rear lot into an outdoor patio bar.

They hired their culinary friends as chefs and cooks and created a decent lunch and dinner menu. Because choices were more limited in downtown Miami back then, Tobacco Road was a hit, especially with Miami’s legal community, in particular with federal prosecutors, whose offices were nearby on the north side of the Miami River. “There weren’t that many restaurants in downtown Miami back then,” Weiser says. “So Tobacco Road became very popular for lunch, or happy hour, or dinner. You had judges and you had lawyers from both sides of important cases.”

When the Road reopened in 1983, it still had to contend with the Florida Department of Transportation, which was ripping apart the street as they built a new Miami Avenue bridge. Several businesses closed down as a result of the disruptive construction.

Among the casualties was Lucky Strike Bar. Established in 1932 at 524 S. Miami Ave., Lucky Strike’s bartenders were fond of first ridiculing anyone ordering a cocktail (even a screwdriver or a Bloody Mary) as a sissy, and then suggesting they order a drink at Tobacco Road. FDOT seized Lucky Strike, demolished it, and built the ramp to the new drawbridge right over it.

The Road had another trick up its sleeve: music. “We tried a lot of different things: reggae, jazz,” Rusk says. “As much as people liked jazz, the jazz people would just sip a glass of wine. But if you get a good blues band, they down glasses of beer at three times the rate.”

Besides bringing Fat Chance Blues Band back to the Road (they left after just three months working under Katzman), Weiser also attracted superstars of the blues world and American roots genre. John Hammond, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, and Albert Collins are just some of the blues giants who have performed at the Road. “That’s really what started to build our reputation all over the world,” Weiser says. Not even the roadblocks that were present during the Miami Avenue bridge’s construction were a deterrent for the blues crowd. “It was part of the fun,” Weiser says. “It almost made it like a secret place.”

Road_7Iko-Iko became the Road’s unofficial house band, performing there almost every week for 15 years. But after the mid-1990s, the Road was booking fewer blues acts in favor of other genres like jam bands, rock, and heavy metal. As time went on, Iko-Iko’s appearances became increasingly sporadic. “We play up north in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach,” says Drout, who still performs solo at the Road on Tuesdays. “That’s where our audience moved to.”

In the years that followed, Latterner, Gleber, and Rusk increased their real estate holdings along S. Miami Avenue. Gleber and Rusk also started other restaurant ventures, including Fishbone Grille, which operated in the space now occupied by the River Seafood & Oyster Bar.

But by 1996, Rusk walked away from managing the Road. Rusk, who went on to open the successful Titanic Restaurant and Brewery in Coral Gables, feels he was forced out by Gleber and Latterner. “It was a shock that two people I admired and I thought of as family would stick a knife in my back,” he says today. “I could’ve sued them, but that’s not my thing. I was more hurt than anything else.”

“There was a disagreement about how things should be run,” replies Gleber, who owns a stake in Pegasus Thruster Inc., a company that makes underwater propulsion gear for divers. “Kevin is a talented restaurateur. We just have different theories.”

Still, Rusk plans to make an appearance at the Road during the 100th anniversary, along with many friends. “I love Tobacco Road and everything about it,” Rusk says. “I’d love to see it live for another hundred years, but I’m a realist, and I do understand the business aspect.”

Rusk doubts a developer would be willing to invest the money needed to address the building’s quirks, including cleaning out the asbestos. “It is fine and stable,” he says, “but once you find asbestos in a building, then the cost to repair anything increases.”

Gleber credits Rusk, Weiser, Pakonis, and several other employees and partners, past and present, with making Tobacco Road a success. But he insists the Road isn’t done yet. “We’re constantly working on different ideas,” he says. “It’s always a work in progress. You slow down, you die.”

Historian Paul George, has frequented the Road in recent years, isn’t sure it’ll be the same if it isn’t at 626 S. Miami Ave. “A different building has a different ambiance, I don’t care what they do,” he says. “I hope they’re planning the 100th in a big way because it might not be around much longer.”

 

Tobacco Road’s 100th anniversary takes place on November 17 from 6:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Musical acts include Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Heavy Pets, Iko-Iko, Spam Allstars, Locos Por Juana, and Artofficial. For more information visit www.tobacco-road.com.

 

Feedback: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

Art and Culture

ArtFeature_1Little Haiti’s new art space extends a legacy

Read more...

Art Listings

Events Calendar

BizBuzz

Pix_BizBuzz_10-19Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible

Read more...

Picture Story

Pix_PictureStory_10-19A view of our past from the archives of HistoryMiami

Read more...

Community Contacts