Twenty-Four Hours in Margaritaville: Did Hollywood Beach Sell Its Soul to Jimmy Buffett?

Twenty-Four Hours in Margaritaville: Did Hollywood Beach Sell Its Soul to Jimmy Buffett?
Illustration by Scott Anderson

Noon, Saturday, November 14: The Hollywood Broadwalk is choked with people. Vendors hawk beer, shots, and margaritas on the ribbon of pavement along the beach. Couples trip over their flip-flops. Beers slosh in plastic cups.

Today is the grand opening of Margaritaville, a 349-room luxury beachfront resort parked right in the middle of Hollywood Beach. Groups of 20- and 30-somethings trek to the hotel's open-air tiki bar, where college football beams from expensive flat-screens. For the metaphorical ribbon-cutting of the $147 million project, the party is cranked at full volume.

A makeshift stage on the resort property across from the city's beachfront bandshell is festooned with wires, light riggings, and massive LED screens. Stadium-quality speakers shower the crowd with Top 40 and country-music standards. "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" collides with Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun." Rumor is that Jimmy Buffett himself will make an appearance. A fence keeps the nonpaying crowd behind the property line, riffraff pressing up like refugees straining at a border crossing, necks craning for a peek inside.

12:05: Rain begins to spit from the marbled sky. Pink-faced teenagers try to stay upright on boogie boards in the new wave pool, each toppling over like place settings upended when a tablecloth gets yanked. The crowd chuckles at every face plant.

12:10: I spot him! Beside the wave pool, so close I could bop his parrot head with a styrofoam pool noodle. Well-fed paunch? Yup. Pressed cargo shorts, T-shirt, ball cap topping graying temples? Yes, yes, yes. Beaked nose, ham-colored from the sun? Ivory-white face-splitting grin that comes with a fat financial portfolio? Here he was, the man himself. Buffett.

12:11: "That's him," I say to the stranger next to me. "Jimmy Buffett." An older woman in conservative beachwear — choice Buffett demographic — dead-eyes me suspiciously, then shuttles her look over to the musician. When she looks back at me, her eyes are wet with hope.

12:13: He turns. Dude having the time of his life? Yes. But not Buffett. Beside me, crushed hopes sink the woman's jowls. I consider throwing an arm around her shoulder in commiseration.

No need to pout. Buffett, like God, is all around us.

Against all logic, over the past four decades and thanks to a few insidiously catchy songs, the 68-year-old musician has commodified his no-cares beach-bum worldview into a worldwide lifestyle brand. Buffett alone is reportedly now worth $400 million, and Hollywood city officials are hoping some of that financial glow rubs off on the city's beleaguered sand strip. In 2011, Hollywood commissioners inked a deal leasing five acres of city-owned real estate for 99 years for the Margaritaville resort. The deal includes rights to use the Hollywood Bandshell. Construction on the 17-story hotel began in 2013.

All over South Florida's coast, big-money developments have been paving over affordable options and low-rent staples. Miami Beach today is a 1-percenter playpen. Fort Lauderdale is following suit.

Hollywood Beach — with its charming small businesses, its unassuming one- and two-story motels full of French Canadian tourists, its Russian and Mexican and Thai and Italian and seafood restaurants, and its blue-collar watering holes — has been the longtime affordable option in the region, though "affordable" can sometimes feel a little rundown. Many hope that Margaritaville, the sixth location of the chain, will be the city's savior, bringing well-heeled visitors and an infusion of cash. Others fear it will be the kill shot that puts away the exact good-time vibe the Buffett brand shrink-wraps and sells.

Scratch my back with a lightning bolt

Thunder rolls like a bass drum note

The sound of the weather is heaven's ragtime band

12:14: I wheel away from the wave pool. More security personnel ring the hotel than the Wailing Wall. The resort itself — with rooms going for $399 and up on opening weekend — is off-limits to nonpaying guests. Along the Broadwalk, the usually cheap restaurants offer outdoor seating for $100 a person.

12:15: I almost splash my Bud Lite against the Hawaiian print shirt of another Buffett. "Cheers," this Buffett nods before walking off. They are everywhere.

12:52: "Margaritaville," the 1977 chart-topper that put Jimmy Buffett on the map, plays as I walk south away from the resort. Before my full plunge into Buffettmania, I decide to touch base with the surrounding neighborhood.

1:00: A few blocks away, foot traffic is thinned out and the bass rumble of the music no longer audible. I am surrounded by shabby bars, empty retail space, and mom-and-pop restaurants doing light business thanks to the weather.

1:05: Maybe because of two Bud Lites on an empty stomach or maybe just because there's something about Hollywood Beach that makes you want to get weird, I tie a bandanna around my eyes and begin a blind walk up the pavement. Even sonically, I can tell I am entering a different tax bracket. The English hitting my ear is now of the redneck and faux-Valley Girl variety; the Spanish, not polished or cosmopolitan. There are other voices: thick, Eastern Bloc tongues.

1:15: I rip off the bandanna and peer up at Margaritaville's ghost twin — Oceanwalk, the mall sitting on the first and second floors of the chipped, pink, art-deco Hollywood Beach Resort Cruise Port. Back in the late 1980s, the complex had been trumpeted as the kind of economic slam dunk that would revitalize Hollywood Beach. Developers cut the ribbon on the $30 million project in February 1988. There had been 350,000 visitors on the first day. But within a year, the developer put the property on the market, and the complex began a long slide.

1:17: Inside, footsteps echo down grimy hallways lined with empty display cases. A bike-rental place is the only space filled. No one appears at the counter when I poke my head in. I feel as though I am in the capital of a war-torn country after a regime fall.

1:25: Back outside, a pulse of life is at Oceanwalk's beachfront, open-air tiki bar. Raucous laughter cuts through the Top 40 music piped from a stereo. Despite the rain, two hard partiers are already snoozed out in pool chairs.

1:27: I head back north to the resort. For the sake of all these little guys, the small businesses, and the funky people of Hollywood Beach, I hope that Margaritaville — and its 317 rooms full of visiting families — will be a rising tide that lifts all boats.

And now I must confess, I could use some rest

I can't run at this pace very long

Yes, it's quite insane, I think it hurts my brain

But it cleans me out and then I can go on

The author peruses some encased goods, available for purchase.
The author peruses some encased goods, available for purchase.
New Times Staff Photo

2:05: I meet up with a photographer whom I'll dub "M." We rendezvous at Le Tub, which is pretty much the capital of old-school Hollywood Beach, located on the Intracoastal Waterway, directly across A1A from Margaritaville. From the street, the bar is barricaded behind a heavy wall; inside, it looks like it was nailed together from driftwood that washed up after a storm, an indoor-outdoor bar hidden in jungle growth. By now, sheets of cold rain fall out of a slate-gray sky. The indoor seating is completely jammed with sweaty bodies sloshing down beers and hoisting bar food.

2:25: M makes the mistake of ordering a burger with bacon.

"No bacon," the waitress replies.

"No bacon?"

"In the whole place," she says. "The owner who founded this place was very specific about how he wanted things done even after he died." She nodded across the street to the resort. "They offered millions of dollars to buy this place, but it was a no-go."

Le Tub was founded in 1974 by Russell Kohuth, on the site of a gas station. The property became a favorite of the local scene, famed in particular for its hamburgers. After his death in 2010, Kohuth left the property to five former employees with strict marching orders: Change nothing — recipes included.

"The burger is going to take a half-hour," the waitress says, waiting for protests. I explain we need to be across the street soon for the festivities.

"It seems like it will be a lot of fun," I say.

"French Canadian fun," she jokes.

Cheeseburger in paradise

Heaven on Earth with an onion slice

Not too particular, not too precise

We weren't kidding when we said there was a giant piece of flip-flop art.
We weren't kidding when we said there was a giant piece of flip-flop art.
New Times Staff Photo

3:00: The gates of access swing open for media types.

3:30: With the Le Tub burgers swimming through beers in our stomachs, we strut up to the resort's lobby. At the doors, big-smiling PR women in their early 20s home in on us like Russian MiGs protecting national air space. Properly ID'd, we are ushered into the lobby, where the full crush of Buffett fans and hotel guests is milling about.

3:34: Buffett sightings numbers three, four, and five.

3:40: In this beautiful, budget-busting, five-star piece of the tourism economy, I begin to spot details. A huge, intricate chandelier swoops over the lobby. Instead of light fixtures, margarita glasses hang from the installation. A huge, blue art piece nearly a story tall is parked near the front desk. I eyeball the thing. "Blown-out flip-flop!" M cries. "I blew out my flip-flop/Stepped on a pop top." Of course.

3:45: M and I make our way to the LandShark Bar and Grill — named after the "official house lager" brewed by a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch — and a 400-seat Margaritaville restaurant. When the complex is eventually firing on all cylinders, there will be eight bars and restaurants sprinkled around the property, as well as a spa and three pools.

But there were undeniable economic benefits to the project. According to a report commissioned by the city, the hotel employed 500 construction jobs. Once fully running, the facility will provide 350 permanent jobs. Also, city and project backers forecast that as many as 3,000 jobs will be created directly and indirectly through the resort.

3:47: The restaurant's crowd of men and women is almost uniformly decked out in beachwear, Hawaiian shirts, sundresses, and sandals. At the bar, we hook a couple of margaritas in plastic cups.

3:55: We continue on our patrol (Buffett sightings numbers six, seven, eight, and nine), but the resort empties as guests all pool on the north end of the complex, where the stage is set up for the show.

4:00: We avoid the ground-floor chaos by hiking up to the second floor of the LandShark Bar, which is snug against the makeshift concert venue. This space overlooking the stage is crammed with jumpy Parrotheads, as hard-core Buffett fans are called: a lot of flower-print shirts and big bead jewelry. Parrotheads are beautiful people. The devoted even have Parrothead clubs, meet monthly, raise funds for charity, and throw killer tailgate parties with kiddie pools, balloon hats, and copious amounts of tropical drinks.

So barmaid, bring a pitcher, another round of brew

Honey, why don't we get drunk and screw

On the terrace, we find a choice spot for peering over at the guitars, drums, and other instruments that will soon be kicking loose dulcet tuneage.

4:15: I am swinging my eyes over the growing crowd when I feel hot breath brushing my neck. The space behind me is filling with a stampede of Buffett fans craning to see the stage. My tenth Buffett presses his beefy frame right up on my grill. M is invisible behind the scrim of squirming fans. Parrotheads are beautiful people — but when the scent of Buffett is near, they can get intense. I have a sixth-sense vision of my own horrible death, squashed like a roach in a claustrophobic death blender of Tommy Bahama shirts and Jimmy Choo heels.

4:16: I dart through the tropic print, reunite with M, and reload on drinks. Near a flight of stairs where the stampede of people was coming up from the bar's first floor, a Margaritaville employee, a young guy in his mid-20s, tries to stop the crowd.

"You can't line up there," he says to the Parrotheads who had filled in the spot where I'd been standing. "We've got to keep this passage near the stairs clear."

No one budges. "Fire hazard," he says, this time his voice cranked up a notch.

Reluctantly, some fans start to clear from the terrace. But as soon as any space opens up, new Parrotheads rush in.

"You can't stand here," the security guy says. "I've got to keep this area open. Fire hazard."

A woman jumps in his face. "WHY ARE THEY STANDING HERE IF WE COULDN'T STAND THERE?"

"No one can stand near..." he begins before getting smothered in complaints.

"WE WERE THERE!"

"I've got to clear out the..."

4:19: A conch horn blows a single, long looping note.

There is only one Jimmy Buffett, though there are many impostors.
There is only one Jimmy Buffett, though there are many impostors.
Courtesy of Michele Eve Sandberg

4:23: A barefoot Jimmy Buffett — the real one! — waltzes out on the stage as the sun begins to force itself through the thinning clouds overhead. The musician wears a canary-yellow T-shirt over purple shorts, his Easter-egg color scheme completed by a sea-foam-green Fender Stratocaster slung over his shoulder.

4:24: Delighted screams bubble up from the front rows. On the other side of the fence, shouts come from the Broadwalk crowd pressed in close to get a view of the stage. Screens flanking the bandstand beam up-close shots from the stage. The full band files in behind the megastar, then, all at once, shoots off on a set list.

"Let's drop the top down on this place," Buffett says into the mic as the music swells.

4:30: Some fans mouth the words to the music. Others have the holy-seer look in their eyes, entranced by the dad-rock spectacle. Buffett seamlessly threads product pitches into his stage banter: "Ooh," Buffett coos, "the LandShark is flowing good."

4:50: To be honest, I have no idea what songs he's been playing. Something about drinking and beaches and sunsets and boats and cars and good times. It had turned to identical mush in my ear. My mind had gotten up and started walking around. Just the night before, Paris had been gutted by terrorist violence, 130 dead at the hands of ISIS-affiliated psychos. French President François Hollande was clamoring for a united Western military response; now, a day later, it seemed real and tangible that the entire world could soon snowball into armed conflict.

All day, none of the hundreds of flat-screen TVs at the resort I'd passed by were fixed on the news. It was like we'd gotten some distance from whatever was devolving outside. But still — there was a price point to getting that distance. By the end of the good-times-tunes set, I was sad.

I think about Paris when I'm high on red wine

I wish I could jump on a plane

And so many nights I just dream of the ocean

God, I wish I was sailin' again

4:55: But then I understood. Call it a moment of conversion. The big jump into belief. We need this. Perhaps more than ever, we need what Buffett is selling. A sense of community. A cold beer. An escape hatch. Dare I say? Hope.

5:01: The band swings into "Margaritaville."

But there's booze in the blender

And soon it will render

Thatfrozen concoctionthat helps me hang on

Crowds pressed up against a fence, hoping to get a peek of the troubadour.
Crowds pressed up against a fence, hoping to get a peek of the troubadour.
Courtesy of Michele Eve Sandberg

10:30 p.m.: Rain had cleared Margaritaville shortly after Jimmy Buffett waved goodbye from the stage as night was falling. A bucking bronco wind had driven most of the fans back home or up to their rooms. By 10 p.m., the excitement that had been juicing the resort all day had been dialed completely down. Now, a full-on monsoon is blowing in from the ocean as M and I walk back to the Oceanwalk bar, trying to find a place that seems happening.

10:32: We order Bud Lites. Above us, CNN catches us up on the strengthening war whoops from across the Atlantic Ocean.

10:35 p.m.: Judging by the sound coming from a bathroom stall, someone is either battling a serious sinus problem or Hoovering illicit substances up his nose. Weed smoke fills the air. Raucous shouts from a pack of frat bros echo from the corner. Behind the bar, waitresses in short and tight clothing hoist cheap drinks. This is more like the scene Jimmy Buffett has pocketed, packaged, and price-tagged.

Well, the wind is blowin' harder now

Fifty knots or thereabouts

There's white caps on the ocean

And I'm watchin' for waterspouts

It's time to close the shutters

It's time to go inside


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