Friday, December 29, 2023

Secret Orlando Bonus Content: Happily Never After

Once again I've neglected my blogging. At least this time I had good reason, which was finishing up a full first draft of "Haunted Orlando." All the same though, there was plenty of content from "Secret Orlando" that never made it into print. I was hoping to include a chapter about Splendid China, but, alas, the last remnants of the ill-fated amusement park have finally been swept away. It lives on though, in old photos, memories, and now on Terra Incognita Americanus as well. 

Happily Never After

Why is there an animatronic panda atop a pagoda in the grocery store?

Despite Disney having transformed Orlando into a global entertainment Mecca, under the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle, not all amusement parks are destined for a fairytale ending. Such is the story of Splendid China, the vestiges of which have long outlasted the park itself.

The concept wasn’t novel when the 75-acre park opened in 1993 – it was modeled after the Splendid China in Shenzhen, China and similarly contained more than sixty, one-tenth scale, hand-crafted replicas of important Chinese cultural and historical sites including the Leshan Buddha and the Great Wall. The People’s Republic of China, which owned the park, invested as much as $100 million in constructing it.

From the outset, however, the Chinese government’s foray in the Central Florida tourism market was plagued with challenges. Early on, several of the performers brought over from China seem to have found their homeland something less than splendid when they applied for political asylum in the United States (after which they were replaced with local talent). There were numerous human rights protests and bans, which hurt attendance. The death stroke came in 2000 when the park’s president, Sunny Yang, was recalled to China amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

After the gates closed one final time on the last day of 2003, a horde of looters and vandals descended upon the abandoned attraction, making off with many of its tiny treasures. Next came the graffiti artists and urban explorers, who were followed by bulldozers making way for Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Resort.

Still, remnants of the park linger – most notably within a Winn Dixie grocery store (which occupies a distinctly Chinese-looking strip mall). Inside the store, pagodas now house beer, suntan lotion and other miscellaneous goods while animatronic figures now spend their post-park existence looking down upon capitalism in action with smiles forever fixed on their faces.

Friday, July 14, 2023

The Story Behind the Story: Post Angeles

 As some of you probably know, I've been gradually easing into the writing of fiction. With my fourth book, "Secret Orlando: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure," now in production and a fifth book underway, I'm feeling confident enough in my abilities at last to go from recording my exploration of the external world to documenting the world (or worlds) that exist internally. It's a shift, but one that stems from my historical and travel writing, which I'm finding ways to incorporate and reimagine. Ideas like the uniqueness of locations, the methods and motivations behind curiosity seekers, and ways of conveying wonder all are providing key elements to this new path I've been taking.

Which leads me to Post Angeles, the first of my new fiction to see (digital) print in The City Key. You can read it by clicking here: Post Angeles

It's a short piece (flash fiction, technically speaking), with a somewhat longer story behind it's development. Really it was the confluence of several things including:

1) Some time ago a friend of mine moved to Los Angeles and asked me my thoughts on the city. I hadn't been there in a while, but based on what I recalled, I told him that it seemed like a massive illusion sustained entirely by the power of its fascination with itself. More recently I thought back on that and found myself wondering, what if that illusion failed?

2) I've been reading a lot of fiction lately that's been making me rethink the idea of the city. A couple of the more notable visions/versions of which include The City by Ray Bradbury, about a living city that has kept itself alive for 20,000 years awaiting its revenge on those who depopulated it, and In the Hills, the Cities by Clive Barker, which was such a radically different take on "living cities." If Bradbury's story stretched my thinking on the subject, Barker full on broke it - but in a good way.

3) It was a new way to my non-fiction writing and research to work. After all, I've seen firsthand what happens when cities "unbecome" and leave ghost towns, if even that. Once booming areas that suddenly found the railroads and highways passing them by, or lost their major or only industry. And with large cities like Los Angeles declining in population over the last few years, well, maybe the illusion really is failing. (One reader of Post Angeles commented, "are you sure this is fiction?")

Anyhow, that's where my head was and where it is still going. If and when I have other publications on the fiction front, I'll try to give a bit more context and depth here for you.

Thank you, as always, for reading my mind.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Oldest Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Oldest Stilt Houses

Once again, as with Tampa Bay Scavenger, I failed to find a way to squeeze Pasco County into the book. It wasn't for lack of trying though. In the final rounds of edits, I decided that really this chapter would be a better fit for the Secret or Amazing series, as the stilt houses aren't just the oldest but also, as far as I'm aware, the only of their kind in the area. Still very much worth seeing for yourself, in my opinion, while you can.

Oldest Stilt Houses – 1916 to 1918*
Pasco County Stilt Houses

Typically, homes along Florida’s beaches and waterways are highly sought after, some fetching millions of dollars. But there are always those more affordable structures, built not next to water but rather directly over the water. On the edge of Miami-Dade County’s Biscayne Bay is the cluster of wooden houses known as Stiltsville, Cape Romano has its dome homes, and in the greater Tampa Bay area, near where the Pthlachascotee (aka Cotee) River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, are the Pasco County Stilt Homes. They are the area’s oldest and only such buildings.

Despite the curious appearance of these rudimentary structures, they played a practical purpose as camps built by fishermen, where they could catch and store mullet, snook, and other fish while also staying sheltered from storms. The exact date of their construction has been lost to history, but it is believed that they were first erected between 1916 and 1918. Similarly, credit for who first built them is a matter of speculation —different articles suggest either William John Baillie Jr. and his brother or James Washington Clark Jr.

Prior to Hurricane Gladys in 1968 there were as many as two dozen stilt houses. Following the storm, owners set out to survey and repair them, but the state balked at supporting the “squatters rights” claim that generations of fishermen had been using. After a fight, the state upheld its ban on the construction of any new stilt houses, but relented in allowing previous owners to rebuild them, so long as the owners agreed to lease one acre of underwater land. The Florida House of Representatives approved a bill in 1995 again allowing reconstruction of some homes after a storm two years earlier. Further restrictions have since been added, including being at least eligible for a historic designation.

The Stilt houses’ most famous guests were likely Johnny Cash and his friend Reverend Billy Graham, who visited Des Little’s fish camp in March of 1976. Cash is said to have paid for use of the camp with a Toyota truck.

As of 2022, just eight of the stilt houses remain.

* The houses are believed to have been first built between 1916 and 1918, but a more precise date is not available.

The easiest way to see the stilt houses is by renting a kayak, paddleboard, jet skis, or boats, or taking the sunset cruise from Gill Dawg Tiki Bar and Grill.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Recommended Reading: Selling Dead People's Things

Reading independently published books seems to me a lot like vintage and curio shopping (and I do a good bit of both). If you’re like me, that means spending countless hours closely examining things that don't always strike your fancy, but you continue to do it because you know that somewhere hidden under that cover or lid is some truly astounding treasure awaiting your discovery. Selling Dead People’s Things by Duane Scott Cerny is that rare gem, it’s the original Highway Men painting tucked away in some bin at the back of a St. Petersburg garage sale. Really, it’s that good.

Collectors are a curious lot, all of whom, for reasons each their own, compulsively return time and time again to that place where obsessions and possessions intersect. Quite possibly no one knows this better than Cerny, who has built an extraordinary career on his keen attunement to such ordinary madness – those (often weirdly) specific needs and desires of his mentors, neighbors, classmates, colleagues and customers. Given his unique window into what motivates his buyers and sellers, maybe its not entirely surprising that what emerges from the pages of his book is hard-earned wisdom, a straight-razor-sharp wit, and a cast of characters more memorably peculiar than any ever assembled in a David Lynch film. 

A brief list of those individuals includes the inimitable Hy Roth (an illustrator who rather than telling former bosses what to go do with themselves drew them detailed diagrams) and his Goth goddess wife Marilyn, an elderly collector in the market for muscle magazines and dentures, an octogenarian ventriloquist and his foul-mouthed, disgruntled dummy, and two very large sisters who may or may not have been the descendants of Mussolini’s gardener.

Then there are the objects themselves, every bit as fascinating as the people connected to them. From part of an iconic jet plane under a porch, to a menagerie of stuffed, two-headed animals, a haunted desk, and what might be the only surviving program from the Iroquois Theater the day it burned down.

Really though, this is a book about more than just things and their people. While Cerny never lets us lose sight of the fact that vintage is a business, beneath the clatter of cold, hard cash, he offers us glimpses of something far softer. Tender, actually. Even as he presents us with a seemingly endless variety of reinventions and resurrections, he reminds us that the prerequisite of each of these is a death. Virtually all of the stories in the book begin where some other person, place or thing has ended. In light of this it would be hard not to reach the conclusion that after all the countless transactions have been conducted, all the many lives altered for what they’ve gained or lost, what remains is the single greatest collection of all – the stories they leave behind.

Get a copy here: 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Eight Years / Writing the Wrongs

It feels wrong in so many different ways. Wrong that so much time has passed now, that the world has changed so much in so many ways you wouldn't have believed and didn't get to see. Wrong that I'll be there (virtually) this Friday for the Bar Mitzvah of your youngest son and you won't. Wrong that I go sometimes weeks without saying your name out loud. Wrong that I still haven't been to your gravesite, that maybe I'm just still not ready to see that and be forced to accept the reality of it. One day soon, I think I will.

But time keeps moving, and I've been moving along with it. My fourth book will be out on shelves soon, so if you were here I'd get to say that you were wrong to think that if something was going to happen for us as writers, it already would have. I'm working on a fifth and sixth book now as well, and suddenly writing fiction again. The floodgates are open like never before and I'm just trying to keep up with all the ideas that are spilling out of my head now. I wish more than anything sometimes that I could share those with you, but that, it seems, is exactly what it cost to find myself here - having left off a life of trying to be some person I thought others wanted me to be in order to become who I was supposed to be after all. To have the faith in my vision. Losing you, my friend, was in so very many ways the catalyst for all the creative success I've had since. It feels wrong that I don't get to tell you that in some other form or format.

And now, somehow it's just a couple days shy of eight years since you've been gone. The world makes even less sense without you, if you can believe that, but I'll try to keep it connected to you, and you to it, the only way I know how. Writing the words to right the wrongs. As best I can.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Oldest Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Oldest Drive-In Theater

This is another chapter I intended to include, but Lakeland was just a bit too far to be included in the Tampa Bay area. If, like me, you are fascinated by Americana and captivated by the magic of nostalgia, it is very much worth visiting.

Oldest Drive-In Theater – 1948
Silver-Moon Drive-In and Swap Shop
4100 New Tampa Hwy., Lakeland, FL 33815

In December of 2021 Fun-Lan Drive-In Theater and Swap Shop rolled the closing credits after 71 years as the oldest drive-in movie theater in Hillsborough County. Within the county, that title will pass to the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theater, which opened in 1952 showing “Singing in the Rain.” If, however, you consider Polk County to fall within the Greater Tampa Bay area, than the oldest drive-in theater is Lakeland’s Silver-Moon Drive-In and Swap Shop, which opened two years before Fun-Lan.

When I. Q. Mize and M. G. Waring opened the theater, the 35-cent admission price included a cartoon, short film, and newsreel, during which vendors would circulate selling popcorn, soft drinks, cigarettes, and snacks. 357 RCA speakers gave credence to the theater’s claim as “Florida’s newest most modern outdoor theatre.”

Mise had a close call when a tornado passed through on May 23, 1950. The screen was damaged, but Mize was unscathed under the office’s concrete roof. In July the theater reopened with “East Side, West Side,” a cartoon and an update on the Korean War.

In 1952 Silver Moon was acquired by Carl Floyd, whose Floyd Theaters chain would eventually own and operate more than 50 indoor and drive-in theaters. A neon marquee sign, modern concession stand, and restrooms were added to Silver Moon. In 1960 Hurricane Donna damaged the screen, which was replaced with an 80-foot-wide curved steel screen.

In 1969 Floyd named Harold Spears as his successor. Spears remained president of Floyd Theaters when a year later the company was bought by Burnup & Sims, Inc. Ultimately though the heyday for drive-ins was in the rearview after peaking at roughly 4,000 such theatres nationwide in 1958. In the early 1990s Burnup & Sims merged with Mastec and first sold the indoor theaters to Carmike before turning the knife to the drive-ins.

To save these endangered species of Americana, Spears formed the Sun South Theatres and purchased both Silver Moon and the Dade City Joy-Lan Drive-In, both of which continue to operate today and have enjoyed a recent surge in popularity as an unexpected silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic there were some experiments with drive-in concerts. Safety Harbor Art and Music Center took a different approach, creating a mobile, outdoor stage.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Giant's Causeway Pillar (Charleston, SC)

(This piece was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.) I've been thinking about a trip Jen and I took to Charleston (probably because I just finished reading "The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires," by Grady Hendrix, which is set there). I've also been thinking about Celtic folklore (which I've been delving into as inspiration for some short fiction I've been writing). Turns out that this little stack of stones I once wrote about stands at the intersection of both of those things on my mind. And now it can be on your mind too!

A stack of stones steeped in Irish folklore, much like the hero they're connected to, hide in plain sight.

Roughly 40,000 Basalt columns formed naturally from volcanic activity rise along the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Minus, that is, the one found outside of Charleston’s historic Hibernian Hall. The pillar section arrived in 1851, roughly a decade after Irish immigrants began arriving in the Palmetto State escaping the Great Famine. It was also exactly 11 years after Thomas Ustick Walter completed the Greek Revival style building where the column now stands.

According to Celtic mythology the Giant’s Causeway, as the name implies, was constructed by giant/hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool). In one version of the tale, he builds the bridge to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. In an alternate version, rather than battle his opponent, Fionn’s wife disguises him as a baby. Upon seeing such a massive child, whom Benandonner assumes is the offspring of his rival, he believes that Fionn must be a giant even by giant standards and promptly returns to Scotland, destroying the causeway in the process.

Given the frequent and massive labor needed to rebuild Charleston following fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, it seems somehow a fitting place for the fabled remnants of an Irish hero’s ruined bridge.