Backstage: The Hard Rock Cafe Deals Hard Knocks

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: The curse of Key West.

Key West is a throwback to simpler times, its unique attitude and free-spirited populace offering a modest equivalent of New Orleans, at least

in terms of its penchant for partying. I saw this all up-close while having a hand in the grand opening of the Hard Rock Cafe's Key West restaurant -- the franchise's southernmost location in the continental U.S. -- on Duvall Street in 1996. We got to see all the sites --

the so-called Southern White House, the bars, the restaurants, the bars,

the hotel swimming pool, the bars, the local radio station (where I

scarfed up several discarded CDs), and oh, did I mention the bars? That

part of the excursion was all good fun, providing an after-hours respite

after struggling with the horrendous heat all day. Call it partying

with a purpose.

As promotions and public relations manager for Hard Rock Cafe in Miami's Bayside Marketplace, I was recruited due to the proximity. What I remember most is how damned hot it was in Key West in September, a month that's sweltering in our environs but particularly punishing due to the heat and humidity so far south. I was part of a three-person team that traipsed around the city in the weeks prior to the planned opening, meeting with community leaders, plotting out the logistics, and scoping out the circumstances in general. In truth, I mostly observed; the other two members of our team were buddies, and while they chatted and joked among themselves, I trailed behind and strode about breathlessly, always in anticipation of the next air-conditioned sanctuary. Unfortunately, the local AC rarely assuaged the unbearable heat.

It was decided that the grand opening would take the form of a massive free street party, in which a stage would be set up in the middle of Duvall Street directly in front of the restaurant. Duvall was closed to traffic, and several blocks were appropriated for our purposes. It was my idea to secure KC & the Sunshine Band as the headliners, not because I was a great fan of their music (I'm not) but rather due to the fact that KC was a South Florida native son, his music loaned itself to the festivities, and I had previously done some PR for him. Joan Osborne -- who had scored a hit with "One of Us" -- and the reggae group Inner Circle were also tapped for the festivities. Of course, Jimmy Buffett would have been a natural choice, but he had his own interests in Key West -- namely the Margaritaville Cafe, which, at that time, was destined to be one of Hard Rock's chief competitors. 

The evening began with a pep talk to the restaurant's employees by Hard Rock's then-CEO, a former music teacher who had made the transition from education to executive. It was never completely clear as to whether he had made that move successfully, as his oversight abilities seemed somewhat misplaced. For example, my colleagues and I were charged with overseeing security, roles that clearly we were unaccustomed to assuming. A lady friend who had accompanied me seemed determined to distract me the entire time; as I stood at my post, nervously keeping my eyes on the proceedings, she imbibed the liquid refreshment and draped herself around me. Normally, that wouldn't bother me, but I was worried that the squinty-eyed CEO would see this as a dereliction of duty. 

As it turned out, the CEO also asserted himself by insisting that we had to keep the area spotless. It would have been a reasonable request if it had been made after the fact and once the concert was completed. However, in the midst of overseeing the production and ensuring that the acts entered and exited the stage area accordingly -- especially Osborne, who branded herself a bit of a diva -- it was somewhat ludicrous to worry about every discarded bottle and every scrap of paper that littered the backstage area during the show itself. And yet, he was insistent. Every time he walked by, he would berate us for not attending to even the most insignificant bit of litter. Clearly, this was an example of how an inept administrator can skew his or her priorities. 

Fortunately, I had a pleasant respite with my lady friend later that evening -- our hotel room was equipped with a hot tub, after all -- but there was no lingering afterglow for the hard work we had put in as preparation for this extraordinary concert, the biggest grand opening Key West had ever witnessed. In fact, in lieu of thanks, we were all laid off only a couple of weeks later. That's right! Hard Rock decided to initiate a series of layoffs of its PR people that would eventually affect the company as a whole. Unfortunately, the cycle started with me when I was unceremoniously ushered into the general manager's office and told I had been dismissed... sans the end-of-year bonus I had been owed based on our location's performance. I had to return to my office after hours under the watchful eyes of a former colleague to remove my personal belongings. It was, in a word, humiliating. 

I was bitter for many years after, especially since this former music teacher was obviously inept and I was the victim of his stupidity. The "Love All, Serve All" credo seemed somewhat hypocritical. I served my employer, but they didn't love me for it.

I'm happy to say that that CEO is no longer in charge, and neither are any of those who carried out his edicts. The Seminole tribe now steers the Hard Rock domain, and I can once again don my Hard Rock leather jacket and wear it without any sense of remorse or antagonism.

Indeed, I'm feeling the love once again.

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Lee Zimmerman