On a melancholy Friday evening in May 2009, glasses were clinked and rum was swallowed as South Florida bid its most legendary bar a fond farewell. The Wreck Bar was drawing its gangplank, forgetting the debauchery of yesteryear, and preparing to fade away into the annals of Fort Lauderdale history.
No one, including Marina the mermaid, who had swum through the depths of the Yankee Clipper's swimming pool and past that bar's portholes more times than she could count, knew if it would ever return.
Well, all that worry and sorrow was for naught. Less than a year later, the Wreck Bar is back and better than ever. So when I heard that, I drove my happy ass out to Fort Lauderdale Beach and spent some time sipping mojitos and staring at sexy sirens' perky cleavage.
Marina the mermaid wove through the water, her enormous gold-red fishtail and curtain of black hair floating in tow. She moved with utter grace; her slender body cut through the water, and not even her spectacular, buoyant boobs caused her resistance. She lithely dipped, casually turned a somersault, and glided out of sight. In her wake, a blond siren with immaculate makeup and shells braided through her hair bubbled by, paused gracefully at the window, and bestowed a heavy-lidded look upon the jam-packed, shipwreck-themed bar. The dozen little girls on the edge of their chairs went nuts with squealing glee as their mommies tried to snap camera-phone pics and their daddies sucked down stiff drinks. Tinny, wordless island music played happily in the background.
The Wreck Bar, once charming for its dark ambiance, collection of skuzzy locals, stiff drinks, and fantastic nostalgia of old Florida's kitschy, booze-inundated, spring-breakin' heyday, now boasts a collection of ribbon-wearing little girls oohing and aahing over mermaids. WTF? Ladies and gents, a new era of the world-famous Wreck Bar is upon us.
"We always knew we were going to reopen," said Jason, the suit-clad bar manager, who later did not validate my parking ticket. "It's a piece of history; the Wreck Bar is even featured in the movie Analyze This with Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal."
The entire Yankee Clipper hotel — now the Sheraton — received a makeover of epic proportions. The hotel is now endowed with sleek white hallways, a poolside tequila bar, expansive reading areas, and an ice cream parlor. The bar itself, still modeled after the interior of a sunken ship, replete with Day-Glo aquariums and a portal to peek beneath the surface of the hotel's swimming pool, is now half the size (maximum occupancy: 45). A dazzling copper-plated mermaid sculpture embosses one wall, the place is alarmingly well-lit and clean, and the bar's motley crew has been replaced by a pack of homogenous, beautiful young waifs.
I took the only empty spot left in the entire place, a two-person table in front of a tank of clown fish and beneath a spot in the ceiling where the wooden beams had been carefully busted out.
Elizabeth, a blond waitress, dropped a strawberry mojito off in front of me. The menu still boasts a boatload of scotches, malts, bourbons, vodkas, tequilas, and everything else you need to forget that this piece of charmingly grubby Florida history has been altered forever by the appeal of homegrown Americana family fun.
"Tell me about the renovations," I said.
"We've got all new carpets, a refinished bar — though we kept the part that people have been signing since the '30s — and added two new aquariums," she said brightly.
"Also, that musty Disney-ride smell is gone," I noted. "What's the same, then?"
"We're still missing the chunk of wood in the service bar," Elizabeth said. "The old owner cut a piece out so Marilyn Monroe could sign it while she was here."
As I was ripping into my mojito, the mermaid show ended, and most of the little girls vanished from the bar. It wasn't long before a more adult crowd settled in now that the kiddies had been taken home to bed. I noticed a dazzlingly beautiful blond with dripping hair take a seat beside some toolish-looking guys at a table. Why do hot girls always associate with douchebags?
I rushed over to steal her attention with my charm.
"I'm sorry — you appear to be wet. Is it safe to conclude that you are a mermaid?"
She laughed and nodded. I got up in her face and stared into her eyes like the creepy fuck that I am. "Your eyes don't appear bloodshot from the chlorine."
"We mermaids have our secrets," she said coyly. Kami, a Brazilian-Polish sweetheart and recent addition to Marina's mermaid "pod," is a sleek-bodied veterinary student. She met Marina when they were belly dancing together, and soon after, she started her apprenticeship into mer-dom.
A few minutes later, after one of her friends interrupted me and I drunkenly offered to drag him outside and beat his ass (100 percent true), Kami graciously brought over Marina herself to speak with me. Marina, known as the Fire-Eating Mermaid, was wearing jeans and sporting a huge flower in her hair. Her energy was amazing: She was like a coked-up poodle set on fast-forward.
"It's like a Lord of the Rings brotherhood thing," Marina told me when I asked about her pod of mega-hot mermaid compatriots. "I train them, make their tails, and give them mermaid names. One of them even got a tattoo after her training ended."
"Is it weird to be a celebrity in tiki culture?" I asked. Tikiphiles love mermaids about as much as they love their barrels of rum.
"It's cool when I go out jogging and people yell, 'Hey, that's the mermaid!' " She clasped her hands to her chest and batted her eyes.
"You know, they thought having a mermaid was a dumb idea when I first pitched it to the hotel managers here," she said. "But then I worked out a deal where I could come 'practice' — in full costume and makeup, of course — and eventually, it caught on."
"Yeah, people don't hate watching hot, wet women swim around," I said.
Just then, a shy little girl in a jean skirt walked up to Marina, her blond mother in tow.
"Can I have your autograph?" the little girl said timidly, staring at Marina in wide-eyed wonder.
Marina swept her up in a huge hug, then grabbed the paper and pen and pretended to consider thoughtfully what she was going to write. Then she began to sketch an elaborate drawing of a mermaid.
Marina asked where the girl was from, and she shyly said, "Connecticut."
"Do you have mermaids in Connecticut?" Marina asked.
"There's nothing like that there," said the girl, still in awe.
"Maybe you should open something," Marina suggested.
"I could be the mermaid," the little girl said thoughtfully.
Meanwhile, teenaged boys had taken over the pool and were taking turns swimming down to the windows to peer in at the crowd of drinkers. A very shocked couple — who had a few drinks in them by now — were surprised to recognize their own sons. A man with glasses turned around.
"It's fine now," he shouted to the pair. "Just hope they don't decide to moon us!"
When she returned to my table, Marina was aglow from the little girl's adoration. She said that any time I'd like to swim with them, I was welcome.
"Once we had a guy dressed like an evil monkey swim with us," she said. "We acted scared, and we could even hear him roaring underwater."
"Wow, there's an audience for evil monkeys?" I asked.
"The mermaid act strives to have something for everyone," she said. "Girls love the whole mermaid idea, and the guys love my cans. It's the perfect show."
And at the heart of it, the Wreck Bar is really a chameleon club with a bit of something for everyone. Yeah, there's a family quality to the place now — at least, no one's screwing under the tables or nothin' — but you still can't beat the strong mojitos. Or Marina's fabulous cans.