One of my favorite little Florida pleasures is to research state history and then go and stand some place where a famous person has been.
And, by far, the biggest windfall of brushes with past fame can be had at grand old Florida hotels (and some of the newer). I can’t help but hear those catchy guitar riffs each time I drive by Clearwater’s Fort Harrison Hotel-now the Church of Scientology -where Rolling Stone’s guitarist Keith Richards wrote Satisfaction in one of the rooms after a performance at Jack Russell Stadium in 1965. Then I get that icky feeling passing the nearby Sheraton Sand Key, where Jim Bakker and Jessica Hahn got together in 1980.
I’ve wandered the Don Cesar, the pink grande dame on St. Pete Beach, a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lou Gehrig, where Robert DeNiro was filmed during Once Upon A Time in America. I’ve explored the vintage 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa, where the museum exhibits sepia photos of Teddy Roosevelt, Stephen Crane and Frederic Remington hanging out on the veranda before sailing to Cuba in 1898 for the Spanish-American War. I’ve loitered behind the historic 1926 Biltmore in Coral Gables, strolling around the pool where Esther Williams performed and Johnny Weissmuller broke a world swimming record before becoming Tarzan.
But my biggest reward on these personal scavenger hunts comes from identifying particular hotel rooms. Like the Bakker-Hahn suite (room 538), although I was less than compelled to check in and sleep on that bed. However, I’ve stayed a couple of times at the downtown Jacksonville Hilton, and next time I’m definitely requesting room 1010. Elvis had a habit of staying in the same room in certain cities, and this was his home away from home on the St. John’s (Modest commemorative sign on the door: "Elvis Presley Suite.") According to the Web site of devotee Rick Marino, fans would hold vigils below the balcony, and housekeepers cut his bed sheets into little squares to sell like religious artifacts.
The harder the investigation, the bigger the payoff. I was recently researching a book set in Miami, which brought me to South Florida in search of the Triple Crown: The Lucille Ball Room, The Goldfinger Room, and the Beatles Room.
The Beatles were definitely at the top of my list. Most people recall that when they first came to America, they played the Ed Sullivan Show in New York. But what’s often overlooked is their encore Sullivan performance a week later. Back then, Miami Beach was a popular remote broadcast site for big network programs like the Today Show. I knew the Beatles had made their second Sullivan appearance in the Napoleon banquet hall at Miami Beach’s venerable Deauville Hotel, but I could never find out which rooms they stayed in. Time to redouble my efforts. I caught a lucky break on a Beatlephile Web site; they stayed on the 11th floor. This was confirmed by additional search engine hits, which indicated three rooms. John and his wife in one, Paul and Ringo in a second. George was upset he had to share the third with annoying New York DJ Murray the K. But no room numbers. I called the hotel and said I had it narrowed down to the 11th floor, and could they tell me the specific rooms the Beatles had used, but they apparently mistook me for one of the many nuts running around Florida these days. The trail ran cold.
I decided to skip that SAT question and move on to Lucy. I had learned in a great out-of-print book, The Life and Times of Miami Beach, that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had shot some "vacation" episodes of I Love Lucy in Florida. Back to the Internet, where I scoured descriptions of every Lucy episode until I found what I was looking for (Episode 160, first aired Nov. 19, 1956). Next, patience. I surfed the Web to find a copy of the show. A month later, one popped up on eBay (I know: What a country!). I studied the tape. It opened with a black-and-white aerial shot of the fabulous Eden Roc Hotel. Then inside one of the rooms. After a few minutes, the smoking gun! Lucy picked up the phone and ordered some food up to room 919. Bingo. On my next trip down there, somebody was already staying in the room, so I took a picture of the door.
Next, Goldfinger. But my fortunes soured again. Already had that tape, which I carefully analyzed for clues. The room scenes had been shot on an English sound stage, but the exterior footage was filmed on location at the Fontainebleau Hotel. There was a particular balcony scene where Jill Masterson helps Gert Frobe cheat at cards before she is painted to death. I was hoping to find some visual reference points or angles back up at the balcony to triangulate, but no such luck. Bottom line, it was a theoretical room at least five floors up on the Atlantic side of the south wing overlooking the pool patio.
Back to the Beatles. I was batting one for two now; failure was not an option. I found another tape on the Web: a rare, behind-the-scenes documentary of the Beatles’ first trip to America, complete with Hard Day’s Night-style clowning around in Paul and Ringo’s room at the Deauville. It got better. Shots off the balcony of Paul shouting down to screaming girls. There were landmarks. I called the hotel back. How many rooms are on the east face? They said 10. Hmmm, three rooms out of 10, 30 percent chance. I booked a suite in the middle and phoned an equally eccentric research friend who once located David Letterman’s pickup truck in California from a brief film clip on the Tonight Show. I needed that kind of expertise. "The Beatles room?" he said. "I’m there." We checked in with all my tapes and electronic equipment for on-site comparison. Work proceeded rapidly. Wires and cables ran everywhere from the TV; video gear and more tapes were piled on top of the cabinet. The maid thought we were involved in the porn industry.
We carefully analyzed every relevant scene but still no progress. We decided to clear our heads with some side trips: into the bowels of the main Miami-Dade Library, where early 1960s cross-street directories helped us locate Jake LaMotta’s Lounge from Raging Bull (now a Lum’s restaurant a block north of Wolfie’s deli on Collins Avenue) – then down Washington Avenue to the site where Desi had started the rumba craze in the 1930s (the ballroom of the Clay Hotel on the corner of Espanola Way, also former home of Al Capone’s local casino, rooms 128-138). Despite these ancillary successes, we couldn’t get the Beatles out of our heads. What were we missing? Then it hit me. An image from the video popped up on a mental projector in my head.
We immediately raced back to the room and reviewed the documentary again, frame by frame, like the Zapruder film. I hit freeze.
"There!" I yelled. I got up and tapped a spot on the TV screen, just behind where Paul was throwing Saltines off the balcony to some seagulls. "Right there! See? You can clearly count the number of balcony railings to the end of the floor. It’s the third room from the north."
We ran out the door and down the hallway and began counting rooms, 1111, 1112 , 1114 (the Deauville omitted 1113 because of superstition-a critical trap we avoided). We dashed back into our suite and called the front desk. "Is room 1114 available? … Good. We would like to be moved there… No, nothing’s wrong…"
So we carted all our junk down the hall and were soon sitting on the foots of the beds in one of the Beatles’ rooms, watching a video of the Fab Four goofing around in the same room 40 years ago. We glanced around. Little had changed. We opened bottles of beer and clinked them together and resumed watching the tape. We rule.
There you have it. Room 1114. And, with apologies to A&E, Captain Florida solves another one of history’s mysteries!
Tim Dorsey is the author of several crime novels, including Florida Roadkill, Hammhead Ranch Motel, and his latest, Stingray Shuffle. You can contact him at TimDorsey.com.