By Michael E. Miller
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They still flock by the thousands to Mallory Square to catch the sunset, but in Key West there is no more Full Moon. For sixteen years a legendary late-night haven for the Conch town's rogues and writers, the Full Moon Saloon closed for good on July 19.
"We had as good a run as a couple of party people could possibly have had," says Vic Latham, who owned the bar along with Sidney Snelgrove (the two men later took on a third partner, John Hellen). Latham, who worked behind the bar at the Full Moon four nights per week, chain-smoking Salems, drinking Scotch and water out of a collins glass, and holding forth about Key West's Seventies' heyday and what he liked to call the Eternal Verities, was the subject of a New Times cover story in July 1992.
"We were broke," explains Snelgrove. "It's been coming awhile; we'd been hanging by a thread. The competition -- there are new bars opening every day. And we lost some key personnel. It was time for a change. It just reached a point when we didn't have any more money to put into the thing." The final blow was a visit from the IRS, Snelgrove says, which was owed about $25,000 in payroll taxes.
In 1977, with a good idea and about $2000, Latham and Snelgrove, who also owns part of the rollicking Duval Street bar Sloppy Joe's, came up with the Moon. At that time, people who worked in the bar business in Key West had nowhere to go after they got off work, no after-hours hangout. The Full Moon offered good food, good music on a good stereo system, and most of all, a good time. "It was basically a bar for working people," says Snelgrove. "A good drink for a reasonable price and open till 4:00 a.m."
Six years later, when the bar lost its lease and moved to the corner of Simonton and Catherine streets from its original location on United Street, Latham and Snelgrove's pub had accumulated a loyal and slightly off-kilter following that included such writers as Philip Caputo, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Thomas Sanchez, Hunter S. Thompson, and Shel Silverstein. Key West's mellowest magnate, singer Jimmy Buffett, also was a habitue. Along with the sunken, horseshoe-shaped bar with its leather armrest and cushioned captain's chairs, the Full Moon's most striking interior decoration was a twelve-foot, three-inch, 569-pound blue marlin caught by Caputo off the coast of Cuba in 1978. Caputo's marlin, which broke a record held by Ernest Hemingway, was put in storage when the bar closed.
Latham says that both the Moon's success and its failure are signs of the times in Key West, a town whose popularity as a laidback enclave has ultimately led, in some ways, to its ruination: "It was a nucleus of 50 to 100 of us that created a very colorful, fun place that you could go and still be in America. We did such a good job of not only creating it, but publicizing it, that we can no longer afford to live here.
"In essence, the area has become so tourist- and/or money-oriented that the 'color' of Key West, the people who made it what it was, can no longer afford to live here," Latham continues. "And we watched them almost daily -- the people that have been the heart of Key West, I like to think, and definitely the heart of the Full Moon -- move out of town."
As Snelgrove puts it, "Our old gang -- the gang we started out with -- most of them have grown up and had kids, gone to jail, or died." Snelgrove himself moved to Costa Rica for a time, to a small town on the Pacific that he says reminded him a lot of Key West in the Sixties and early Seventies.
As the "color" drained out, the writers abandoned Key West, too. "The creative people, the people that we all loved and that were so much a part of the community, have no impetus to come down here any more," Latham observes, "because their lifeblood -- the storytellers -- are all gone."
With his profitable interest in Sloppy Joe's, Sidney Snelgrove's fortunes have not fallen along with the Moon's. But despite his early successes in Key West, the 58-year-old Latham hasn't been so lucky in recent years. In the early Seventies, he tended bar at the tiny but sublime Chart Room bar in the Pier House resort and he subsequently opened the bar at Louie's Backyard. But in the late Eighties, a failed bar-and-restaurant venture at the Key West Resort golf course on Stock Island put him in debt. After an operation for cancer and a brief flirtation with the real estate business, he went back to tending bar for a living, first at a posh resort off Little Torch Key called Little Palm Island, and finally, in early 1992, at the Full Moon.
The closing of the Moon was followed this past week by a more personal loss for Latham; his ex-wife, Susie Gardner, whom he describes as "a sensational graphic artist" and who created the artwork for all the Full Moon's original advertising promotions and T-shirts, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
Latham had remarried several years ago; he and his wife Diana have two young kids. Diana recently went back to her hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas, to start a monthly arts-and-entertainment tabloid, but he says he isn't sure whether he wants to move there.
He is, however, working on a book. "Little sketches, disjointed stories from a bartender's point of view, about the characters that have come through this island and made it what it was. Like a self-styled karate expert, Killer Mike, putting on a demonstration in the Chart Room at the Pier House. Broke five bones in his hand. He also broke into the winter home of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey and tried to cut the tusk off an elephant with a Skil saw. The elephant stomped the shit out of him. Nutsos like that don't come along every day."
After a quarter of a century, the prospect of moving away from Key West is difficult to contemplate, at least right now. "I don't want to leave here under this pale of gloom," Latham muses. "I might try to open another place, pitch it more toward tourists. If I put it back together, it'll be so much better and so much stronger. You know, these past two years back at the bar, I've been sorta sober and paying attention.