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Doo Wop Cafe hops, bops back in time

A couple of '50s aficionados turn their home into a private club that revives and celebrates the era.

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Maxine Cabrera tries the Hula Hoop at Doo Wop Cafe.

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


CARROLLWOOD -- Step through the front door of Raul and Maxine Cabrera's house and go back in time.

Their living room is a scene reminiscent of the 1950s television show Happy Days.

There's a jukebox, a Coca-Cola machine, chrome furniture and scads of memorabilia from the 1950s, including Hula Hoops, figurines, posters and vinyl records on the walls.

"All of these knickknacks have sentimental meaning," Raul Cabrera said.

Welcome to the Doo Wop Cafe.

The Cabreras have transformed their three bedroom house at 15513 Hutchison Road into a place where friends can hang out, spin records and dance the jitterbug and the swing.

"The first time I came here I walked back outside to make sure I was not in a time tunnel," said Ken Burger, 51. "The music, the figurines. You don't see too much of this anymore."

The Doo Wop Cafe is the home of the "Boppers," a group of 1950s enthusiasts who started dancing together in 1984 when swing was hot at clubs such as Chevy's in Carrollwood and Studebaker's in Clearwater.

Most people in the group have their own memorabilia from that era, but none can compare to what the Cabreras have done.

"It's really cute and it kind of keeps the '50s alive," said Ernie "Wolfman" Guerra, 57. He and his wife, "Hotrod" Hope, are founding members of the Boppers. "We have a lot of friends who enjoy this stuff and we come over here to party."

* * *

Known as "Cool Raul" and "Li'l Queenie Maxini" on the swing circuit, the Cabreras met on June 19, 1975, at a dance party at a hotel on Cypress Street. They dated four months and married on Oct. 19, 1975.

Their love for swing dancing and their fascination with the '50s brought them together, and it keeps them close after nearly 26 years.

"We had so much in common," Raul said, referring to their first date. "We danced alike and we did the swing the same way. So it was easy for me to lead her in the steps, and she followed real good."

These days, they don't dance nearly as much as they used to. They used to go nearly seven nights a week when the Boppers would follow such 1950s bands as Bo Santos and the Impacts.

Raul, 56, retired after 30 years in printing, then he worked eight years making air bags for Breed Technologies in Lakeland. Maxine is an investigator with the U.S. Department of Defense, where she has worked for 31 years.

The history of the house is as colorful as the couple who own it.

According to the Cabreras, it was one of the first houses on Howard Avenue. It used to sit at the southeast corner of Howard Avenue and Gray Street, across from the Florida National Guard Armory.

"We found a newspaper article stuffed between the walls for insulation which had a story about the sinking of the Lusitania," Raul said, referring to the German attack on a cruise ship which led to U.S. involvement in World War I.

They moved the house to Hutchison Road in 1978. Raul said they had to remove the roof so the house would fit underneath Interstate 275.

"I would never do that again," he said. "It would be easier to build a new house."

Things didn't get any easier after the move.

"The neighbors (around Hutchison Road) signed a petition to move us out because the house really looked like hell," Raul said. "I built it little by little."

He said over the years, they have invested about $70,000 remodeling the house. It's an ongoing project. So is their vast collection of memorabilia displayed throughout the 2,000-square-foot house.

Their prized possession, however, is a pink 1967 Cadillac convertible.

"When Mary Kay came to Tampa in 1994, she hired us to drive her," Maxine Cabrera said.

* * *

The Doo Wop is a private club, but people can rent the cafe for private parties. Although the Cabreras do not sell drinks, Raul said he obtained a license to run a bottle club so that he could serve friends and they could bring drinks to his home if they wished.

"I didn't want someone to see the sign Doo Wop Cafe and get me into any trouble with the county, so I just wanted to get it legalized," he said. "I just wanted to make sure everything was on the up and up."

Jon Grogan, 45, is among the younger regulars at the Doo Wop Cafe. He met Maxine Cabrera through work.

"It's been a party spot since I came to Tampa 21/2 years ago," Grogan said. "It's my second home. That's a true gift of Maxine and Raul. They make everyone feel welcome."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or grant@sptimes.com.

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