Declarations of Independents

Page 5 of 6

In Hope's estimation, though, it may be too late to save Loxahatchee Groves. She says the slogan "Love it and leave it alone" is no longer an apt rallying cry for the area. "I would like it to be," she laments, "but I'm afraid to say it's probably not appropriate."

Also endangered is a sense of community, which is rare in South Florida, where many neighborhoods are either brand-new or inhabited by a transient population. Six years ago, when Hope broke her hip and was hospitalized, a county nurse visited her disheveled house and determined that Hope could no longer care for herself. "They wanted to say I was incompetent," she recalls, spitting out the word with distaste.

When word spread through Loxahatchee Groves that the state was planning to institutionalize Hope, her neighbors mobilized. In one weekend -- and without Hope's knowledge -- they basically rebuilt her house, installing a new stove and toilet, refinishing the countertops, and painting the walls. Before the work was done, "the kitchen was a real crime," Hope concedes.

She now has no plan to leave -- ever. "Not on my feet, I'm not," she says. "My preference would be, literally, to die here."

In the early '80s, Hope wrote a newspaper article about fellow Loxahatchee Groves resident Steve Sipek, a onetime B-movie Tarzan who has lived in the area for 30 years. In 1969 and 1970, Sipek (or Hawkes, as he prefers, his stage name) played Tarzan in two films.

Ride around Loxahatchee Groves long enough and undoubtedly you'll pinpoint the piece of property that belongs to Hawkes: It's the only one marked by four-foot-high lion busts and a sign on the metal gate that reads, "No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Eaten!"

Hawkes isn't joking. On the five-acre property, he keeps nine large cats -- lions, tigers, panthers, and a black leopard. If you want to see exotic cats, you could visit "Tiger Falls," the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park's brand-new, 20,000-square-foot exhibit, complete with 20 types of bamboo and a swimming pool. Or you could visit Hawkes and, as you wait for him to open the electronic gate, look around nervously each time the wind blows, hoping it isn't an 800-pound tiger planning to choose you as its next toy.

The property is as welcoming as a junkyard. It could exist only in the laissez-faire world of Loxahatchee Groves, where neighbors generally adhere to a live-and-let-live philosophy. Iron fences, about 12 feet tall, zigzag across the property, so as to keep the animals at bay. Several pieces of heavy machinery, including a forklift, sit in the yard. Hawkes is in the process of building a garage for his 1959 convertible Cadillac and 1969 Corvette (complete with lion's head hood ornament). Near the swimming pool is a massive statue of a musclebound man holding a globe atop his head.

You'll have to make do with a cage-side view of the animals, because the house (and most of the yard) is off limits. The cats have the run of the granite floors, from the swimming pool to the master bedroom, and they don't take kindly to strangers. Only Hawkes and his girlfriend, LeeAnn Lewis, can enter. At night Bobo, a tiger, cuddles up in bed with the couple.

The 58-year-old, Croatian-born Hawkes is a few inches over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a shaggy head of salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes are bright blue but bloodshot, and his vine-swinging arms are still ripped with muscles. Lou Ferrigno comes to mind, but with a middle-aged gut.

"I was seven years old when I saw Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees, and that was it," says Hawkes, explaining the root of his Tarzan obsession. By Hawkes' fabled account, he escaped communist Croatia at age 17 by hiking through mountains. He fled first to Austria, then Paris, then Canada, finally settling in Miami in 1959. The opportunity to play the lord of the jungle, his boyhood dream, came, according to Hawkes, after he sent pictures of himself to a producer, who then arranged an audition.

"How many people can walk among lions and tigers and survive?" Hawkes asks rhetorically. "Only Tarzan can do that."

The films in which Hawkes appeared usually are not mentioned in the same breath as the Weissmuller classics (or even the later Jock Mahoney films). One Website dedicated to all things Tarzan gives each Hawkes movie a single star, describing one as "an odd, inept movie." It does add, however, that "Hawkes' yell is wonderful!"

Not so wonderful was the filming of Tarzan y el Arco Iris (Tarzan and the Rainbow), during which a stunt went terribly awry. For one scene, in which Tarzan is tortured for information, Hawkes was tied to metal stakes planted in the ground. A fire was also lit for dramatic effect. But, as Hawkes recalls, too much kerosene must have been used, because the set went up in flames. The crew, he claims, fled the fire, but a lion dragged him from the flames, which burned 90 percent of his body.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko