Where were you 25 years ago? In this 25th anniversary issue, we ask that question of 25 Sarasotans, who range from world-famous celebrities to obscure retirees; and their answers tell the story, not only of their own lives, but of our evolving city. Some were born here; others struggled to cross oceans, borders and ferocious barriers to arrive; many admitted their journey to Sarasota-and their present station in life-was something they’d never imagined 25 years ago.
I fall into that last category. Twenty-five years ago, I was happily ensconced in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in a comfortable, California-style house in the woods, overlooking a lake and a block from the Atlantic Ocean. A former high school English teacher, I had a four-year-old son, a daughter on the way, friends in the neighborhood-and a husband who kept talking about a place called Sarasota, Florida. An investment analyst whose customers were all over the country, he’d realized-as so many others have since then-that he could do business anywhere he had a phone and nearby airport, and despite my misgivings, soon we were driving to Sarasota.
I cried all the way to South Carolina-that night in the motel my son somberly asked us. "Whose decision was it to move to another land?-but a few weeks after settling into a rambling Florida ranch house on a Siesta Key canal, I woke up one sunny morning and realized the birds were singing, the palm trees were swaying and the beach was still just a block away. And when I met Dan Denton, who after graduating from Yale had decided the town was ready for a glossy magazine aimed at upscale readers-he called it Clubhouse and persuaded country club managers to let him mail it to their members-I had a brand-new calling, too.
In those days, Sarasota was still a small town that slumbered through the steamy summers and hosted genteel, Midwestern visitors and snowbirds in the winter. Though some people vaguely associated it with the circus and the Ringling Museum, it was barely on the map for most of the country. You had to drive on two-lane U.S. 41 from Tampa to get here-in 1981, Interstate 75 was finally extended from Ellenton to Venice; and once you arrived, your entertainment was pretty much limited to the beach, a few tourist attractions or shows at local theaters or the Van Wezel. The most raucous nightlife-aside from the occasional commodore’s party at the Bird Key Yacht Club-was the squawking of great blue herons fighting over nesting territory or a summer thunderstorm exploding over the Gulf.
The little downtown was quiet by day and mostly deserted at night; and Burns Court and nearby Laurel Park were seedy, shabby pockets of neglect. But as I learned on my first free-lance reporting assignment for the magazine, change was in the air. Security Trust was constructing an 11-story office building at Ringling and Pineapple; the Asolo Opera Guild was turning the old Florida Theater into an opera house; a glamorous new condominium called 888 was rising on the bay; and architect Frank Folsom Smith was planning to renovate the U.S. Garage in Burns Court.
By 1984, my marriage was over, but my love affair with Sarasota was going strong; and when Dan offered me a full-time job, I was soon hooked on the excitement of working with smart, creative people to tell the story of this burgeoning city. Amazingly, many of those early staffers-Jimmy Dean, Ilene Denton, Kay Kipling, and Bobbie McGraw-are still with us, as our many of our first contributors, including photographers Dick Dickinson, Mary McCulley, Brad McCourtney and Rebecca Baxter.
Because so many writers and artists are drawn to Sarasota, we could tap into some outsize talents. Comic novelist Robert Plunket moved to town and started writing his satiric "Mr. Chatterbox"column; and when Clifford Irving came to research a novel, we talked him into writing about the summer he spent on Longboat Key before going to jail for his Howard Hughes hoax. Kurt Vonnegut interviewed his friend, Sarasota artist Syd Solomon; and a young Alan Ball (who went on to author HBO’s Six Feet Under and the Academy-Award winning American Beauty) wrote about creating his first play, which had just played at FST. It was exhilarating-and hugely educational-to work with such gifted writers and exciting to see the magazine begin to win regional and national awards.
We all realized we had an exceptional audience-well-educated, well-off readers who expected and appreciated a top-quality publication. From the beginning, they supported our advertisers and encouraged our artistic ambitions. But we never dreamed
how much that audience-or the city-would expand. Today Sarasota has become one of the most sophisticated and beautiful cities in the country, attracting a whole new wave of cosmopolitan residents. Young professionals and entrepreneurs are moving here, too; and all the indicators point to even more growth ahead, as retiring baby boomers head south and the ultra-luxury developers of built-out Naples look north.
Like so many of the businesses that have advertised in our pages, we’ve grown along with the city. Clubhouse Magazine long ago changed its name to SARASOTA, and our company now has 65 employees producing 16 titles with 62 issues a year-in Sarasota, Naples, Orlando and Jacksonville. Our headquarters remain here, where we’ve just moved into glamorous new digs-in that U.S. Garage Smith was getting ready to remodel 25 years ago. Our growth and expansion have brought new challenges-and rewards-to all of us, forcing us to develop new skills and raise the level of our game. In 1979, when Dan was starting Clubhouse and I was dreading moving to a poky little Florida backwater, I never dreamed of the opportunities that lay ahead.
But that seems to be the story of Sarasota, as those 25 people we interviewed agreed. Like them-and probably you-we’re eager to see what the next chapter will bring.