One hot Sunday during spring break of 1983, high school junior Jeff Ryan bought a fake ID and snuck into Bahia Cabana, a 70-room hotel, restaurant and tiki bar at the southern tip of Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale.
Ratt’s “Round and Round” was blaring overhead. Scantily-clad partiers played volleyball in a nearby pool and fourteen college women frolicked in an enormous jacuzzi near life-sized statues of the Blues Brothers.
Ryan and his buddy ordered two Coors Lights and held their breath as the bartender examined their licenses.
No problems here.
“We thought, man this is the shit,” Ryan says. “We hung out and people were partying their asses off. It was like the movie Spring Break.”
And it was. With its Key West vibe and reputation for debauchery, Bahia Cabana was like spring break year-round. It had a special kind of magic, like a love spell that lures you back again and again.
And so, Ryan stayed. Not just for the day, but for 35 years.
“For us it was like going to Disney World when you are five,” he says of the hot days and steamy nights spent at one of Fort Lauderdale’s most notorious party spots.
Like so many others, Ryan got caught in the proverbial web that was Bahia Cabana – a place you never leave and that never leaves you.
Today, at almost 51, Ryan is at Bahia Cabana again. But there are no parties going on. There is no frosty Pain In the Ass in his hand, no tropical music, and no friends meeting him. In fact, no one is around at all, save for a demolition crew (of which Ryan is a part), that has been hired to level the 1.8 acre property, which faces an uncertain future.
The tiki hut is the last structure standing amid mounds of concrete, wood and nails. By this time next week, it, too, will be gone.
Bahia Cabana, originally built in 1972, was shuttered abruptly in September 2017 after a new owner was unable to obtain the permits necessary to build a 40-story hotel. The closure stunned longtime customers and employees, like Gail Perkins, who was a server at Bahia Cabana for over 30 years.
“I thought we were going there to do clean up, and they cleaned us up,” Perkins says of getting canned the day after Hurricane Irma. “It was a raw deal.”
Perkins was hired as the first female bartender on August 5, 1985. She remembers the exact date, because it is when she became part of the Bahia Cabana family, her family, which has now been torn apart.
“It was horrible,” she says. “I’m older, and I’ve gone through my savings. You’re just thrown out one day. It was pretty devastating.”
From regular folks to celebrities, everyone adored the friendly Perkins. “Kelsey Grammar came in one night on my birthday and asked why I was getting all the attention,” she says. “He jumped on the stage and sang happy birthday to me and hung out with me and my friends all night.”
Perkins still keeps in touch with former customers and the old crew through a Bahia Cabana Facebook page. She found work at Brewfish and Big Dog Station, but it’s not the same. “I’m pretty emotional right now,” she says, tearing up. “It’s kind of crazy.”
Jeff Hallick owns Brewfish and knows Perkins from his time at Bahia Cabana. He says that Perkins, like many former patrons and staff members, still struggles with Bahia Cabana’s closing.
“They’re kind of walking the Earth like nomad zombies right now,” he says. “Bars like that were where the black sheep go – people that no one else in life wanted. So, for thirty years these people all went and saw their dysfunctional family, then all of a sudden, they have nowhere to go. They are really having trouble just moving on.”
Ryan, too, finds it difficult to say goodbye. But he will always have his memories, like working as a “bag boy” in the '80s. “A boat would pull up and you’d get two life jackets [stuffed with cocaine] that weighed about 45 pounds each and take them up to the third floor,” he says.
He remembers the owner’s suite where the drugs were repackaged for distribution: mirrors surrounding a king-sized bed, sunken tub, wet bar, kitchen, and huge party room, all surrounding a massive black onyx table.
“They would literally crack open a kilo, slice it up, and just drop it right there on the table for whoever was gifted enough to get in,” he says of the cocaine free-for-all. “It was wide open.”
Hallick, who is friends with Ryan, remembers pot being the big thing in the '70s. “We’d watch the charter fishing boats go out and come back in and unload bails of marijuana into vans,” he says. “Then everyone would come hang out at the bar.”
Hallick began working as dishwasher at Bahia Cabana when it was built in 1972. He was only 13 years old. In 1974, he helped build the tiki bar, pounding nails into the Dade County Pine.
Like everyone else, Hallick never left, and he eventually became managing partner from 1985 until 2000.
“The bar was a potpourri of drug dealers, people hiding out, business men, city leaders, famous actors,” he says. “That’s what made it this phenomenal stew. You never knew who was sitting beside you.”
Rodney Dangerfield, Lee Majors, Kelly Clarkson, David Cassidy and a host of actors, musicians and athletes could be found there on any given day. Because it was off of the main strip, Hallick says it was the perfect place for celebrities to not be seen.
“David Lee Roth came in one time and spent about eight hours partying in the hot tub with a bunch of girls,” Hallick says. “He actually fell down the front steps getting into his limo and cracked his head open. He laughed, though. He didn’t feel it.”
Revenge of the Nerds 2 and Paul Newman’s Harry & Son were filmed at Bahia Cabana. Musicians like Jimmy Buffet and Old Dominion jammed on the tiny wood-planked stage. Even jazz great Jaco Pastorius was a regular. “He was actually living in the bushes there and we were giving him food,” Hallick says.
And that was OK, because that’s just how Bahia Cabana was – a judgement-free zone. “That’s a lot of the essence of why this was such a cultural phenomenon,” Hallick says, “It was almost like a pirate hideaway. It was a place where you could go and be who you are and be thoroughly accepted.”
But those days are gone, and this afternoon, Hallick and Ryan are together at Bahia Cabana, maybe for the last time. They are having their pictures taken – the final images of the iconic hotel that will live forever in the hearts and minds of those who love it.
It is unusually hot for November; the sun is blazing, and the air is thick and heavy. Hallick and Ryan lean on the bar, which is covered with a thick layer of demolition grime.
Behind them hangs a faded wedding photo, a picture of someone’s laughing child, a group of girlfriends mugging for the camera. The license plates that adorned the walls are gone. A pair of ski boots rests on the bar near a half-empty case of ketchup and an array of liquor bottles.
Hallick and Ryan move slowly around the bar, like the ghosts of those who have come and gone over the years but will never be able to return. They make feeble attempts to smile, unable to disguise their emotions.
When the photoshoot is done, Hallick steps out from behind the bar and up onto a small mountain of debris. There are crashing sounds behind him as the last of the eastern hotel rooms are demolished. But he doesn’t turn to look.
Ryan steps away from his old friend and takes a long sip of warm beer from a six-pack they brought for one final toast. He walks across a rickety wooden plank in front of the old stage and sighs deeply, raising his eyes toward the 20-foot mounds of rubble that seem to share his sorrow.
“How can I smile?” he says softly, apologizing for his expression in the photo that he does not yet know captures the essence of this shared loss, and is absolutely perfect.