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Ask Billy Ader and he'll only say that in previous decades the 1800 Club has hosted most of the politicians from Miami and the Beach, along with journalists and prominent businessmen. "You know the things that happened in there over the years -- the girlfriends, the mistresses," he shrugs his shoulders and wrinkles his nose apologetically. "There's a lot of stories, but I don't want to mention names." He reconsiders and then offers up a couple of tales of regulars who are now far away. "There was an assistant Heat coach who had an affair with a bartender. He used to come in with his wife until [the bartender] got pregnant."
Ader pauses over toast and coffee at Smitty's, another city institution, on NE Second Avenue. He's a little squirmy, caught between trying to be helpful and wanting to protect the customers at the bar he spent a good portion of his life running. Then he remembers a story about Tony Rodham, one of Sen. Hillary Clinton's brothers who used to be a regular. "He was dating my bar manager Sandy," Ader chuckles. "He was kind of a character, a playboy type when he was in here. I got to meet the president through him. He told me he brought Clinton in for a Heat game and a steak sandwich when he was governor of Arkansas. [Tony's brother] Hugh Rodham came in sometimes. I had a fundraiser for him in here once."
The generally tight-lipped etiquette of the 1800 Club, surviving even after its demise, was one feature that made it so attractive to such an unlikely amalgamation of characters. Miami Commissioner Art Teele, who for years used the 1800 Club almost as a second office, describes it as reminiscent of a Washington cloakroom where people of all types rubbed elbows but minded their own business. "It was an escape club where people could go and pretend they were somebody else and nobody bothered them," he explains. "It was something about the darkness when you walked in. I guess you ascended or descended into a different world, but it was an illusory world. In the club you were sort of protected."
Teele notes that the low lighting and relaxed atmosphere often made for more productive meetings. "I've had more interviews with [New Times columnist] Jim DeFede at the 1800 than anywhere else. People talked more freely there."
Adds Marshall Ader: "The journalists who came in were discreet. Very seldom did they write about who they saw and what they saw them doing." Maybe because they were indulging in their own assignations, or nursing drinks and chatting up the friendly, good-looking barmaids, who for some reason tended to be British, Caribbean islanders, stewardesses, or all three. "The 1800 Club has a long history of popularity with Herald reporters," observes Arnold Markowitz, a 34-year veteran reporter who retired last year. "It was right down the street and they served a good, not expensive meal at late hours. If you were looking for people, chances were you could catch up to them at the 1800."
Markowitz patronized the place mostly in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when he became a Miami Heat season-ticket holder. Billy Ader offered free trolley rides to Heat and Florida Panther games at the Miami Arena and got a packed bar in return. "The first night the Heat played the Bulls was a wild night," Ader says, savoring the memory. "Buffett was there, [former NBA great and original team co-owner] Billy Cunningham and the other owners. Rothstein walks in and gets a standing ovation. They lost, but it was young team and people were patient."
Ron Rothstein, the Heat's first head coach (1988 to 1991) and now coach of the Miami Sol, wishes he'd had more nights like that. "It was a big love-in because everybody was thrilled to have pro basketball in Miami," Rothstein recollects. "We hadn't won a game yet, and I got a standing ovation. I thought, I have to keep coming back to this place!" Rothstein's successor, Kevin Loughery, maintained the tradition.
It was such a regulars' bar that strangers stuck out. Debra Douglas, a former bartender who now works at Picadilly Garden Restaurant and Lounge in the Design District, remembers an afternoon in April 2000 when a group of guys with the unmistakable odor of federal law enforcement strolled into the 1800. As a joke Douglas asked them if they were in town to nab little Elian Gonzalez. "They laughed it off and said no," she relates. "Then a couple of days later I see the same [INS] guys on TV." Some of them returned to the 1800 not long after the raid on the Little Havana home of Elian's local relatives. "They asked me how I knew," Douglas laughs. A good bartender just does.
When the walls come down later this year, the 1800 Club will be no more than a collection of fond memories for its many patrons. But remnants of the old crew continue to gather at Sax on the Beach, a new jazz bar down the street from the old club, in the lobby of the Bay Parc Plaza. Michelle Charman, a pretty British blonde who spent eight years tending bar at the 1800, still pours the poison of choice for a collection of characters. After a few they'll tell stories. For a moment it will be as if they never left.