April 2016 - McCormick Place
Last month the Sun Sentinel had an interesting piece on the history of spring break. It reported on a documentary tracing the beginnings of the now legendary spring rite of passage for college kids. It gave the usual credit to the 1960 film “Where The Boys Are,” but it also noted that as far back as the 1930s, Fort Lauderdale (then a very small place) attracted college swim meets. It also said that during World War II, college students came to Fort Lauderdale to ease the tensions of a war they might soon be in.
There is undoubted truth to the impact of “Where The Boys Are” in attracting the enormous crowds of young people who took over Fort Lauderdale's beach, generating raucous behavior, which eventually caused the city to crack down and discourage the kids from coming in such numbers. Our late attorney friend George Hess was among those who came to Fort Lauderdale after seeing the film. George was from the Philadelphia area, but was in college in Colorado when the film inspired a visit to Fort Lauderdale. He enjoyed his spring break so much he was two weeks late returning to school. Moreover, after law school he returned to Fort Lauderdale to practice for the next 40 years.
We like to think, however, that one movie does not deserve all the responsibility for making Fort Lauderdale famous. Our first trip to Fort Lauderdale was in 1959, on a public relations assignment for RCA. That was a year before the film, and we knew all about Fort Lauderdale's reputation as a college playpen. For some years in the 1950s the La Salle College (now university) crew visited Florida during the Easter break. A lot of northern schools do that today, but then it was unusual.
La Salle was a rowing power among smaller schools. There were three La Salle oarsmen in the 1964 Vesper Boat Club eight-oared boat, which won the Olympics. One reason for its success was the spring trip. It was still cold on Philadelphia's Schuylkill River; occasionally the river was blocked with ice. La Salle had a training advantage by coming to warm Florida. It rowed separate races against Tampa, Rollins and Florida Southern. Rollins was good competition, sometimes winning in Florida, but usually losing later in the season when it came north for the big Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, by which time La Salle's conditioning had caught up.
Anyway, after the rigorous three-race schedule within a week's time, the La Salle guys came down to Fort Lauderdale to unwind. As the word spread on campus, guys who weren't on the crew began tagging along for the adventure. It may have been just one school, but the spring break charms of Fort Lauderdale were common knowledge at La Salle and its famous Boathouse Row several years before the film appeared.
We further note that one man who took credit for inventing spring break, the late “Crazy” Gregg Newell, first came to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in 1955. Newell ran the infamous Button lounge on the corner of A1A and Las Olas Boulevard, right across from the historic Elbo Room. The Button was in a Holiday Inn, which was so abused by the hordes of kids who crowded six to a room and soaked the carpets with beer, that it was torn down to make room for a parking lot. It is not likely that the man who came to Fort Lauderdale for spring break could have invented the thing that brought him here.
The film, however, took the event national, and there we were in the mid-1980s when Notre Dame brought two busloads of students to participate in the frivolity. By then, the crowds not only immobilized A1A, but had spread to the routes leading to the beach. Florida resident Mark McCormick was aboard one of the buses, which was stuck in traffic. We mean really stuck. It was on Sunrise Boulevard near the Galleria, literally within walking distance of its destination—the Sheraton Yankee Trader Hotel. But it was not moving.
Mark suggested to the bus driver that he show him a shortcut by cutting over to Las Olas Boulevard and coming to the hotel by the back door. The driver said he had his orders to follow this route, and no other. He was a real marine. Mark then got four friends to disembark, and walk the mile to our place near Las Olas. The boys hung out for about half an hour, before we took them down Las Olas and up Birch Road (still one of South Florida's best and little-known shortcuts).
It had been at least an hour since they jumped bus on Sunrise Boulevard. We arrived at the Yankee Trader just as the Notre Dame buses were crawling to the entrance. Such numbers of young people and the fact that they shut down A1A for several days did not go unnoticed by the city fathers. We did not know it then, but the days of such numbers were numbered.