Elbo Grease | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Elbo Grease

Once ground zero for Fort Lauderdale's legendary spring breaks, much of the still-scruffy block at Las Olas Boulevard and A1A has quietly been purchased by a developer intent, apparently, on transforming the area.

The block north of the intersection still evokes an earlier era, with small shops that sell T-shirts, sunglasses, and Fort Lauderdale snow globes. Loud, sticky-floored bars blast Bob Marley and Bachman-Turner Overdrive while dispensing beer in plastic cups. Tourists jam the outdoor tables, craning for a view of the surf across the street.

It's a scene that hasn't changed much in 50 years. But it may soon be history.

The El Ad Limited Liability Corp. — formerly of Fort Lee, New Jersey, now with offices in Hialeah — in October paid $54.3 million for 11 parcels that make up two separate chunks of the block, records at the county property appraiser's office show.

And according to people who work in and own the shops on the beach strip, El Ad plans to turn the area into a gleaming, mixed-use, high-rise condo complex with a ground-floor shopping center.

If, that is, the company can purchase the rest of the block.

Daniel Setton owns and manages Clothes Connection, which sells beachwear, souvenirs, and clothing monogrammed with memorable phrases such as "If You Think I'm a Bitch You Should Meet My Mother" and "Instant Asshole, Just Add Beer." He says he's just waiting for the right price before selling out to El Ad.

"I'll definitely sell," he says.

According to Setton, he's already turned down one offer from the developer, but he's confident that El Ad will come back with a better one soon.

Not everyone on the block, however, is so ready for an offer.

The Elbo Room, perhaps the bar that most typifies the Fort Liquordale era, straddles the famous corner. It's the block's anchor, bringing thousands of tourists and local regulars to the neighborhood, day and night, rain or shine. And according to Michael Penrod, who along with his sisters owns the Elbo, the bar is most definitely not for sale. The Penrods also own the internationally known Nikki Beach chain of high-end bars and restaurants, and, with that kind of cash, may not be so easy to dislodge.

Though the Elbo draws a distinctly different crowd than the Nikki brand does — more tank tops, fewer Versace blouses — Penrod claims that history alone is reason enough to keep the bar open.

"The place is one of only a few Fort Lauderdale landmarks. We're not interested in selling," Penrod told New Times while on vacation in Aspen, Colorado.

Opened in 1938, the Elbo Room was popular with sailors stationed in Florida during World War II. During the 1950s, it became a spring break destination for Northern college students.

It was in 1960, however, that the Elbo Room helped make Fort Lauderdale the center of the spring break universe. The bar starred as a backdrop for Connie Francis and George Hamilton's beach blanket cavorting in the teen movie Where the Boys Are.

The bar became the spot for fresh-faced Midwestern coeds to guzzle beer and do the frug. Hundreds of thousands of spring breakers descended on the town for the six-week spring bacchanalia, causing numerous riots.

In time, the city fathers had had enough of the puking and public nudity. After a record 350,000 spring breakers rocked the town in 1985, officials attempted to recalibrate Fort Lauderdale's image, courting Europeans and families. The Elbo Room rolled with the punches, adding a kitchen and a few sidewalk tables after being granted the city's first outdoor café license.

But further renovation is unlikely: The Elbo Room is so old, fixing it up would mean tearing it down first.

Penrod says that the venerable drinking establishment is still relevant and claims that the Elbo's website, with cameras that show real-time images of the party inside, gets millions of hits.

"We really don't want to close down the place, just because of tradition," Penrod says. "It's an institution. There's no other place like it, especially with its history."

Penrod says he recently turned down a purchase offer for the bar but couldn't say from whom. He knows that whoever develops the block will also build a shopping area.

He says he can imagine a more upscale, Nikki Beach version of the Elbo Room as part of a bigger project.

"We asked [the developer who made the offer] if they'd want to build a new version of the Elbo Room in their shopping center," he says. "We haven't heard back."

Charles Curley Jr., a Jacksonville attorney who is listed as the registered agent for the El Ad company, would not comment on the possible development of the block. Calls to El Ad's office in Hialeah were not returned.

For now, the block is blissfully unchanged. On a recent weekday afternoon, beachgoers with Northeastern accents and attitudes padded about, barefoot and sandy, plastic cups in hand. German tourists in short pants, dark socks, and fanny packs smoked at crowded cafés.

At the Elbo Room, half full and noisy, its patrons spilling out into the street, a girl who looked on the young side of 17 pleaded with a large and unconvinced bouncer.

"I know the picture doesn't really look like me," she said. "It was before I got this haircut."

Meanwhile, at Clothes Connection, owner Daniel Setton hangs Hawaiian shirts with floral prints and floating martini glasses.

He smiles, pondering the future of his business and this neighborhood.

"Everything is for sale," he says. "Except my wife and kids."