By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The ultimate success of the town may be an observation of Fiore's: "If you drive around the neighborhoods, it's a little on the boring side. It's just middle-class neighborhoods just like other middle-class neighborhoods." Extraordinary as Wilton Manors may be demographically, the town fosters nothing if not the mundane.
Georgie's Alibi fits that mold, a place that through its business and outside endeavors helped create a city that accepted gays as the commonplace folk so many of them are.
Because it's what's inside that counts, the Alibi's interior is always changing. Every year, the joint gets new carpeting, at least, and often something more: granite bar tops, new paint, a patio area reaching into a former parking lot, flat-screen video walls, kitchen remodeling -- in all, over eight years, it's expanded from about 3,800 square feet to about 5,300.
On a recent day in the newly refurbished back room, a bartender wiped the bar and a worker with toned, spidery arms sat atop a ladder to adjust a projection-screen television that would soon be playing the same music videos that pulse through the rest of the bar.
"Keeping up with the Joneses," says George Kessinger, the lanky, soft-spoken co-owner and namesake of the bar, as he surveys this from a high-backed chair near a brick wall featuring oversized posters of Campbell's Soup. Presumably "the Joneses" include Boom, a club across the parking lot that feels like the Alibi crossed with a South Beach dance joint, and Tropics, south on Wilton Drive, fresh off renovations. Whereas Georgie's used to have the game to itself, a host of non-threatening gay businesses threatens to take a cut of the business.
The confluence of a migrating gay population, a pliant City Commission, and a real estate rush, Kessinger explains over the noise of the bar, was not his doing. The bar's slogan, which he says he came up with at the bar's opening, was a nod to the fortune of circumstances. "'The Right Place at the Right Time,'" Kessinger says. "We've all been there, haven't we? Some time in our life?"
Others say the bar's culture was personality-driven from the start. Lois Kessinger recalls her son's childhood in Cincinnati, when younger neighborhood kids would troop to the front door to ask for Georgie. "He always came out, would play with them, take care of them, told them stories," she says. Soon after he enrolled in kindergarten, Lois received a call from his teacher, who said she didn't know what to do about Georgie: The class' attention was so squarely on the boy that the poor woman couldn't teach.
George Kessinger moved to South Florida 31 years ago, enticed by the weather and the oodles of service-industry opportunities. His first job was as a trainee at a Wendy's restaurant in Pompano Beach; his first business was a guesthouse in Victoria Park that, though long since sold, still features the wooden cutout gingerbread men he fashioned 20 years ago. He opened a bar on Sunrise Boulevard called the Fireside, bought out his partners, renamed it Georgie's on Sunrise, and in 1994, records show, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, forfeiting the building. "It's just business -- I tell people never to be ashamed of it," he says. He, Burnett, and Norman worked for a spell at a joint called the Club Caribbean Resort on Federal Highway, and then he managed a gay bar called the Stud. When the owner there, Ron Gofrank, decided to sell, the three entrepreneurs went hunting for a space big enough to hold another Georgie's.
When Kessinger describes what he found on Wilton Drive in the mid-1990s, he sounds a bit like the family friend in The Graduate who tells Benjamin Braddock that plastics are the key to his future. "The shopping center was pink; it was old," Kessinger recalls. "The trees were overgrown. You couldn't see our sign. But it had all the parking in the world. It had everything I needed: parking."
Poverello, a thrift store and food bank that benefits people with HIV and AIDS, was in the plaza, but not much else. "It was known as a speed trap, the consignment-store district," Norman says of Wilton Manors. The idea was that Norman and Burnett would tend bar, Kessinger would manage, and they would make a living. George Kessinger Sr. and Lois helped refurbish the place, an old bank, with the office in the vault; to cut a hole for an air-conditioning vent took seven hours.
Immediately, it took off. When the bar opened, it had abundant TV screens but initially didn't have enough glasses to serve the customers. Kessinger recalls a night in April of 1997, shortly after the bar opened, when Ellen DeGeneres declared her homosexuality on her sitcom. "You could have heard a pin drop," he says, and adds, by way of crowd comparison, "It was worse than a Thursday night," when the bar offers a massively popular Long Island Iced Tea special. It wasn't long after they opened that, Norman says, some hoods driving with a blacked-out license plate stabbed him in the leg as he walked out of the bar one night -- a case of wrong place, wrong time for Norman and another indication, he says, of how the city has changed.