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Neighbor doesn't faze club owner

The prospect of a new nudist resort next door prompts Riverboat's owner to plan a makeover for his own free-spirited place.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- Maybe it was the sound of Fleetwood Mac's You Make Loving Fun streaming from the speakers.

Maybe it was the relatively balmy 70-degree weather that had replaced a week's worth of winter chill.

Whatever it was, a 70-something woman with straggly gray hair, wearing only a shirt barely covering her thin frame, shuffled up to Riverboat Club owner Richard LaRiviere.

"Dinner tonight?" she asked LaRiviere.

LaRiviere looked up from his seat inside the Riverboat Club nudist resort's clubhouse, right beside a poster for the movie Striptease: "I can't. Lots of appointments. Maybe another time."

"Awwwwww!" the woman replied, before leaning over, grabbing LaRiviere around the neck and planting a kiss on his lips. Then another.

For a brief moment, LaRiviere, founder of Land O'Lakes' most risque nudist resort, a man with a reputation for hosting explicit parties, actually blushed pink.

As the woman walked away, LaRiviere playfully flipped up her shirt and explained how the woman and her husband camp at the resort a couple of months each winter.

The club, founded by LaRiviere in 1990, has always been a free-spirited island in a sea of rural conservatism.

But the seclusion Riverboat has enjoyed could end with the opening this year of Caliente nudist resort, an upscale walled community that will occupy 100 acres of pasture and forest that once buffered LaRiviere from prying eyes on U.S. 41.

Having a rich neighbor isn't all bad: Caliente has paved part of LaRiviere's entrance road and extended water and sewer lines closer to his gate. LaRiviere even hopes to lure a few Caliente visitors over the walls with some of his exclusive attractions:

Naked foam parties, yearly "Nudestock" rock festivals, Planet Nude pageants featuring staged exhibitionism, and naked pagan celebrations around roaring bonfires.

In the spirit of competition, LaRiviere is making over his place. His gate will soon feature a giant panther head made of polyurethane foam to represent his new "Panther Park and Campground."

A proposed new restaurant he calls Funky Angels Cafe. The illuminated Angels sign was cobbled from letters salvaged from a defunct Bojangles fast food restaurant.

A shack labeled the "Tampa Hilton" will become what LaRiviere calls an arts and crafts studio.

A pile of landscaping books influenced his decision to transform his resort into a garden paradise.

"It's all the class I can afford," said LaRiviere, a 56-year-old Massachusetts native with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair, glasses and a mustache.

Caliente spokesman Chuck Foster, who has known LaRiviere since the 1980s, when they both lived at Paradise Lakes nudist resort in Land O'Lakes, said his policy has been to ignore Riverboat.

"They won't bother us. They're 10 acres away," Foster said. "I don't want to throw stones at anyone, but we're going to be running a different organization."

Foster said he was instrumental in getting Riverboat booted from the American Association for Nude Recreation for unspecified "overtly sexual behavior."

LaRiviere scoffs at an organization he claims is run by what he calls "a bunch of right-wing Christians."

Save for 14 adult-only events each year, including an occasional evening Delite Dance Party, his club is suitable for children, he said.

He remembers the time when the association sent two women to the club to investigate, but they went away disappointed.

"The came to me and said, "We were told people would be (having sex) on the picnic tables,' " LaRiviere said. "I told them you have to order that in advance."

In fact, LaRiviere takes credit for unmasking one of the county's most notorious child pornography rings.

One weekend in 1991, Dennis Sobin arrived at Riverboat in an ice cream truck with two young children.

After Sobin spent much of the weekend videotaping the kids in suggestive nude poses, LaRiviere called then-Sheriff Jim Gillum.

A raid of the ice cream van turned up reams of pornography produced by Sobin's Washington-based publishing company.

Sobin, a medical doctor, was eventually convicted of child pornography and racketeering charges. But but not before he avenged himself on LaRiviere, publishing a fake newspaper called Inside Pasco that alleged orgies at the Riverboat Club.

Gillum, also falsely smeared in the publication, ordered most of the surviving copies into the garbage.

Born in Lowell, Mass., LaRiviere worked as a missile technician for the Raytheon corporation. But in 1968 he said he had a "vision" at his work desk that told him, among other things, that he would start an alternative community.

He said he quit his steady job and within a decade had amassed a couple of million dollars dealing scrap, selling electronics components and investing in New Hampshire real estate.

After moving into Paradise Lakes, LaRiviere bought a large piece of land at U.S. 41 and Carricker Road.

He spent more than $1-million getting rezoning approval for a nudist resort called Blackberry Lakes, which, after he lost the land during the 1987 stock market crash, became the model for Caliente.

The five acres salvaged from his financial collapse became the Riverboat Club. It contains campsites, a pond, an in-ground pool and a stage for performances.

He claims his stone circle -- which along with a maypole is used by visiting pagans -- is the largest in the United States.

"People say, "How come you call it the Riverboat if you don't have a river,' " LaRiviere said. "I say, "Saddlebrook doesn't have a saddle.' "

Foster, whose business partners offered $100,000 for Riverboat, described LaRiviere as a "brilliant guy" but a "space cadet."

"He's an all right guy, I suppose. But he doesn't live on this planet, that's the only problem," Foster said.

LaRiviere said Foster and his cronies in the nudist association suffer from lack of imagination.

"There are a lot of people in the world who are visionaries," he said. "Some people call them nuts."

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