Uncle Willie in Florida

Vintage postcard of Hollywood Beach Hotel

It was Christmas vacation time in December of 1945. World War II had ended a few months earlier. I was three months shy of my 18th birthday, and at six foot one and 172 pounds, looked a little older. I had saved a hundred dollars and got my parents’ permission to accept uncle Willie’s invitation to visit him in Hollywood Florida.

The train fare was sixty-five dollars, round trip. Mom packed me a lunch/dinner, a combination of five or six sandwiches and fruit. My twenty-four-hour train junket started at New York Pennsylvania Station.

The coach seats all seemed to be taken on the left side of the train. I surmised that was the better scenic view. The vista on the other side was a load of shanty shacks, with porches housing an old ice box, and a hand wringer washing machine, along with a scarred rocker or two. The folks sat and relaxed, either on a ripped couch, with the stuffing oozing from its cushions, or an upside-down water bucket, as they waved at the trains. The locomotives were all powered by electricity, connected to a third rail or overhead wiring. When we got out of the northeast corridor, south of Washington, the locomotives switched to polluting coal steam engines. My seat companion was a West Point cadet, on his way to holiday with his parents in Palm Beach. His ticket to fame was that his room at the Academy was adjacent to “Doc Felix Blanchard.” During the war years 1942 through 1945, all the physically fit eligible college age students were in our armed forces.

Typical shanty town from the late depression and WWII era

Not too many schools had decent, if any, football programs; war had cancelled that aspect of college life. The major exceptions were West Point and the Naval Academy. The Army team was a powerhouse, featuring two all-American running backs. “Doc” Blanchard was Mr. Inside and Glen Davis Mr. Outside. Each won Heisman Trophies.

In 1944 and 1945, sleep time was limited. We were given a pillow and a light blanket, then did the best we could. The train made at least twenty stops, letting passengers on and off. It also gave existing passengers a chance to get out and stretch their legs and buy a soda, coffee, a candy bar, a newspaper or a magazine. You had a chance to use a real flush toilet. The train toilet had a large sign “do not flush at train station.” It had no holding tank. Here I encountered my first experience, and lack of understanding as to why there were two water fountains, and two separate rest rooms marked WHITE ONLY—and the other—COLORED.

When we got to the Hollywood train station, it was a dark early morning. An elderly couple and I were the only ones exiting. Seemed everyone else was off to Miami. As a city boy I looked for a bus or trolly. Characteristically there were none. The old couple got into a cab, and the driver asked where I was going. I handed him my piece of paper, and as he looked at the address, then “said hop in the front with me.” He asked the couple if they wanted to take the scenic route through town. With poop under their nose, they said “we have been here before.” I whispered to the driver, “I haven’t”. Downtown Hollywood Florida was composed of a traffic circle, which we went around counterclockwise, with a few retail shops and offices around the circumference. As we came around counterclockwise into the main street, it became a wide boulevard, landscaped with flowers and palm trees—heading east over a bridge, and there it was, the Hollywood Beach Hotel. There stood the twelve or fifteen story pink castle, facing where the sun would go down at about three in the afternoon. As Robin Leach of television would say, “for the rich and famous.”

Vintage postcard of Hollywood Beach Hotel

The cabby drove under the canopy, unloaded the luggage, and tipped his cap. I have no idea what he got in return. He then drove me the five or six blocks north to Uncle Willie’s one-story rooming house across the street from the beach. In case you are wondering, he did not have an automobile to meet me at the train station.

His so-called office was in a two-story motel. The lobby had the normal array of chairs and tables, a check-in counter, as well as a mini-variety store where you could buy newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, candy, and other sundry items of personal importance. This was Uncle Willie’s. The pride of his situation was the game room, appropriately identified GAME ROOM—ADULTS ONLY. Both the door and windows were sealed with black drapes, from the top to the floor, and as expected the door was locked. After you knocked, the door opened about two inches, and a cautious eye scanned from your forehead down to your shoes. If your lips gave the proper needed info, the door was opened wide, and you were admitted to the HORSE ROOM. A large blackboard across the entire length of the room listed all the active racetracks coast to coast, their respective races, and their estimated starting times. There was a bank type tellers’ cage where you placed your bets. All the clientele sat in uncomfortable wooden chairs that had recessed ashtrays. They sipped a complimentary drink while their undivided attention was focused on the blackboard as the timely race results of the win, place or show were posted. It was nowhere near as upscale as seen in the movie The Sting. At the finale of a race, everyone would look at their bet receipts, tear up their losers, then disgustingly discard them on the floor. I never got to the back room, where I assume they had a teletype and a sealed off money counting room.

My days were spent swimming and walking the beach, mesmerized over this fantastic place to live, as I was trying to cultivate a tan to show off to my freezing buddies back home. I hung around some with Willie when he had some free time. I did drag a floundering six- or seven-year-old kid out of the Atlantic undertow, who thanked me by vomiting half on me and the rest on the beach. His mother was ever so grateful and insisted on buying dinner for me. Willie was kind of proud of me and was invited to join us. Naturally, I ordered steak, which I had never had before, and when the waiter asked how I would like it cooked, I answered “same as you would have it”—period.

On the last night of this vacation, Willie and one of his friends, who had wheels, took me to the Hollywood Beach Hotel. While nursing a Canadian Club and ginger ale, I watched a performance by Myron Cohen, a well-known Jewish comedian. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights the Hotel contracted a big-name star to come up from Miami for a one-night stand. That packed them in eating and drinking. This was way before credit cards were popular in use, and what you paid was in cash. I was mesmerized when I saw someone sign his check. I thought, “boy, it would be nice to be rich or famous enough to be able to sign a guest check. After the show’s two drink minimum performance, we drove west through town, past the railroad tracks and then southwest to the edge of the Everglades, to this large warehouse building, called THE GREENACRES.

The front was like any other diner, but in the far corner was a black curtain; when Willie put his arm around my shoulder, they swung open the curtain, and closed it behind us. Two large bodyguards said Hi to my uncle, who said, “Hi Sam, lookin’ good, the kid is with me, and I am aware of the rules.” I asked, “what rules?” “You can’t participate in any of the games, or drink alcohol, and keep anything but your eyes off the girls. They will bring you a freebie, probably a coke to drink. Would not surprise me if they teased you a little.” I had never heard about Las Vegas at the time. But between the cigarette smoke, and the ladies of the evening screeching when their man made a big hit, I did think a little bit about growing up faster. I had a momentous week and showed off my tan for four or five days after my return; then it worked its way back to New York City pallor.

Click on the link highlighting "The Greenacres" in the body of the story for a look into the world of casino gambling, horse racing and mob influence in South Florida, with establishments in old Hollywood and along Hallandale Road run by proprietors such as Meyer Lansky, Vincent Alo and Julian Kaufman—Editor

Bruce Zimmerman was born and raised in New York City during the depression years. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, he served in the Korean War. In 1957 he and his family moved to Tampa, where he started his own construction company that remains in existence. Bruce began taking OLLI writing classes with “Writing your Life Story” and is a current member of the Imaginative Writing “crew.”

8 Replies to “Uncle Willie in Florida”

  1. Thank you for starting off my week so marvelously! “Same as you would have it – period.” Cracked me up like nobody’s business! Wonderfully storytelling!

  2. This story is rich on so many levels:, inviting us to share Bruce’s experiences and observations with vitality and joy. Bruce’s captivating storytelling prowess is perfectly paired with these vintage illustrations…

  3. Ah, we should all have an Uncle Willie in our pasts. A delightful piece–I particularly liked the hidden back room, where nefarious activities occurred, being called The Greenacres.

  4. Great Story Dad! I also got to visit Uncle Willie when I was 17 or 18 but he had moved up in his occupation to a pit boss at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas! He got us into a show with a 2 drink minimum as well….
    Following in your footsteps!!
    Love you.

  5. Thanks – born in the northern Bronx and raised in the Bronx Zoo …enjoyed your story.
    My first Florida visit was in 1960, a 2nd Lt. landing in a C-45 at Homestead AFB and being covered with mosquitos … now love Florida!

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