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Chatterbox's decades-long run nears end

The bar that opened during Prohibition will fall prey to a retail complex after New Year's Eve.

By AMY ABBOTT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 13, 2001


TAMPA -- Last call is about to sound for the Chatterbox Lounge, one of the oldest bars in Tampa.

New Year's Eve will be the final day regulars and short-timers can enter the dark, polished-wood bar to kick back a few and dance to the music on the jukebox. Shortly after, the bar will be demolished to make room for a retail complex.

Ever since talks about developing the property began in February 1999, the fate of the Chatterbox has dangled in the balance for owner Dan Lea, who has seen his share of deals come and go.

For 21 years, the 5-foot-11, ex-offensive guard for the University of Tampa has rented the space that houses the Chatterbox from John and Elizabeth Ackermann. Before that he taught American history at Hillsborough High School, an interest evident in the bar's decor.

An antique cigar store Indian surveys the crowd from atop the middle of the bar. The temperamental jukebox is stocked with Frank Sinatra, Al Green and the Grateful Dead. Any open space, warped or not, is the dance floor, and the walls are tiled with mirrored promotional signs from the likes of Busch, Bud and Rolling Rock.

These days, despite an influx of flashy, bass-pumping nightclubs, people from every walk of life bump elbows on a nightly basis. Weekends are standing room only.

The feel is a straight-up, no-frills bar. And that has been just fine for generations of regulars and the seasonal ebb and flow of college students. It has also been fine for the likes of Hopalong Cassidy, who popped in once, Ray Charles, who played there in 1953, and Elvis Presley, who swiveled in before playing at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in 1954.

Lea said the bar opened in 1930 as the El Dorado Club, two years before Prohibition ended. Groceries were sold as a front while the booze flowed. It was named the Chatterbox in 1940, when it was populated mostly by flyboys from Drew and MacDill air bases.

When the place burned in 1947, two U.S. Air Force barracks from MacDill Air Force Base were moved to the spot and stuck together to form the building that now stands.

But it won't be there for much longer. The wrecking ball will swing in mid January to make room for the SoHo Pointe retail and office space development, a project by local developers Searing Merrill and Frank G. Cisneros Jr., and three minor investors.

A Panera Bread, an ice cream shop, a hair salon and a coffee shop will occupy the lower retail levels. Every interested retail party is a regional or national chain business. None will serve alcohol.

The deal has left Lea feeling bitter. He said he met with the developers in June and was under the impression the new complex would house the third incarnation of the Chatterbox.

Instead, Lea said, they made it clear to him at the end of October his business was not part of their vision.

Merrill said there was never any intention to mislead anyone. "Five months ago, it looked like we could do it," he said.

Merrill said the prospective occupants of the new complex didn't like the idea of the Chatterbox being there. "They came to me and told me they wouldn't want the kind of people the place attracts."

Despite the protests of workers and patrons, Lea is left to face the inevitable.

Everything that can be moved is going to be auctioned off to patrons, including the coveted jukebox and the wooden Indian. Lea will use the proceeds as a severance package for the employees who will lose health benefits the bar provides.

The possibility of relocating is on his mind. Lea said he is seriously looking at a few locations and plans to stay in the area if possible.

"It doesn't take me long to acquire junk for a new place," he said. "Ideally, we'd like to stay here. I know this micro-market. If not, then maybe I'll get back into teaching."

- Amy Abbott can be reached at 226-3374 or abbott@sptimes.com

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