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    Clearwater club keeps fun on agenda

    Five-O-Five, a private social club, offers networking with bigwigs and meetings at bars.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- As president of Downtown Five-O-Five Club, Brinn Helton carefully planned her fashion statement for the group's annual "Formal Above the Waist Ball" Saturday.

    She chose a gold-sequined halter top and Calvin Klein navy boxer shorts. She accessorized with a black boa and rhinestone earrings.

    The shoes were the hard decision.

    "I'm kind of torn between the flip-flops -- my khaki ones with the marlin on them -- and the jelly shoes," she joked before the event. Helton, 38, a marketing executive for a local medical company, finally went with the jellies.

    That's life when you're the reigning figurehead for a private social club that bills itself as "exclusively for the fun and enjoyment of the members and having no civic redeeming value whatsoever." Aside from Saturday's half-formal, the group meets once a month, at 5:05 p.m., at various local bars -- thus the moniker.

    But the Downtown Five-O-Five Club is not just any social club.

    The group includes many of the county's movers and shakers, who cement friendships and business deals over the cocktails.

    "It's a great networking organization, not only a great place to hang out and meet people," said Clearwater Rolex watch dealer Gary Zumbaugh, 53, a former club president. "I've probably done well in excess of a quarter-million dollars in business with members."

    The Five-O-Five Club's roster has included County Commissioner Karen Seel, former County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall, former County Administrator Fred Marquis, Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst, Hooters founder Ed Droste and defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming.

    Once upon a time, a group of bigwigs used to gather and mull over the day's events in a bar called the Judge's Chamber across from the county courthouse. Later, the place to be at 5:05 p.m. was the First National Bar.

    But the old watering holes closed. So participants decided to create a group and regularly meet at different locations.

    "Everybody kept saying Clearwater is a boring place," Five-O-Five founder Joe Burdette said. "So we decided we're going to get 50 people and do something once a month. If everybody brought somebody, there would be 100 people. Then it grew."

    Since the Clearwater-based Five-O-Five's birth in 1996, membership has swollen to more than 350, Burdette said. Bars playing host to club events have to erect tents to accommodate the crowd.

    Despite its well-heeled membership, the club is open to everyone, from truck drivers to certified public accountants, Burdette said. It is apolitical, all-ages-welcome and gender-neutral.

    But you better have a sense of humor. The club dubs its leaders the Board of Mis-directors. The bylaws are really "by-suggestions," Burdette said.

    As for the membership application, you must be invited to a gathering by two of the initiated. Then you write your fax number on the back of a cocktail napkin. Next time, they'll let you know where happy hour is.

    There is no avowed civic purpose, although the club sporadically holds fundraisers for charities.

    "We always say we're like Seinfeld," Burdette joked. "We're about nothing." Members don't even like to call it a drinking club.

    Ron Stuart, 59, another of the "founding fathers" and former editor of the Clearwater Sun and Tampa Bay Business Journal, sums it up this way: "Basically, the only requirement is to have fun. It's almost too loose-knit to be termed a club."

    Reigning over the club's nomadic cocktail hours is the Five-O-Five Club president. This job is so rigorous, members joke, that the honor must be passed to someone new every three months. The position amounts to this: Don a green golf shirt at inauguration, then do nothing.

    The president's honorary toasts are limited to less than one minute.

    Presidents are enshrined on a wall at Tommy Duff's Irish Aviation Pub in Island Estates, where 2-foot-tall cardboard cut-outs of the leaders' heads are displayed. The photographic cut-outs float above bronze plaques with club members' names.

    Most prominently placed amid the memorabilia is the image of the current president, Helton. In her portrait, she wears a patriotic bikini top that she flashed while putting on the presidential green golf shirt at her inauguration.

    Helton blushed when she saw the cut-out, but she says she is a very good sport. An area resident since childhood, she has truly enjoyed being a Five-O-Five member.

    "I'm 38, I'm single, and it's nice to go somewhere, have a drink for happy hour, and know three-quarters of the people there," she said. "It's very comfortable, and I'm not into the typical bar scene. I like my little Five-O-Five Club."

    Burdette, a 52-year-old public relations consultant and retired developer, remains the club's amiable core.

    To publicize upcoming events, the club e-mails members a quirky newsletter, the Downtown Five-O-Five Club Review, which could be titled The World According to Joe Burdette. The weekly content includes humorous quips on politics, news and culture. (All rights are reserved, it notes, although they're not sure why.)

    "FYI," says the recent 230th edition of the Review. "North Dakota has topped the entire United States in the category of "Parking Availability.' Whether you are visiting Lawrence Welk's birthplace . . . or the Fort Union Trading Post, you are pretty much guaranteed a parking space right out front."

    And in election news: "Both George W. Bush and Al Gore have now been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. It has affected the race. This week the presidential polls show Oprah leading."

    Besides the newsletter, the club takes pride in creating one of the toughest tickets in town: its annual boat yard bash at Ross Yacht Sales in Island Estates every spring. The casual affair draws more than 800 people, who bring covered potluck dishes to share. The Five-O-Five Club is responsible for serving a main course such as grilled fish.

    "It's the biggest private party that I know of locally," Burdette said. About 50 corporate sponsors are allotted tickets, which are hard to come by when April arrives.

    The Downtown Five-O-Five Club has had such appeal that it has been imitated by North Pinellas business people, who started their own Five-Thirty-Five Club. (Their shops don't close until 5:30 p.m.)

    "I used to go have a drink with Joe Burdette and his gang, and it was a lot of fun, so we decided to do something up here," said Ted Freidinger, a Palm Harbor certified public accountant, who co-founded the 5:35 p.m. club.

    He added that Five-O-Five helped him with more than business connections.

    "I met my future wife, and our first date was their Formal Above the Waist last year," Freidinger said. "We've been inseparable ever since."

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