Miami in 1955 was a young town full of gin joints, aging mobsters, scruffy fishermen, Southern gentility, a swinging Harlem South in Overtown, and a little pre-Castro Cuban flavor. It was a good time for many. Land was cheap, dreams were big, and most zoning problems were fixed with a good cigar and a wink.
This is where Bill Ader, Jr., from Chicago landed in the early Fifties to build his own version of the Miami dream. And build it he did, all over Dade County: schools, apartments, bars. If you needed four walls and a roof, Bill Ader could provide. But his crowning achievement was a diminutive cave of a bar called the 1800 Club, which remained for decades the shadowy haven of the city's brackish pool of politicians, journalists, businessmen, and judges. And the cheating hearts among them all.
Squatting under Ader's apartment building at 1800 N. Bayshore Dr., the 1955 version of the club was just twelve stools and a bar. The barmaids, each one a vision of America's postwar bounty, wore tight white tops and gold lamé pants (later updated to spandex and other curve-hugging outfits). Ader soon had to add more stools. In the Seventies, as a nod to the zoning regulations of the day, the place was a private club, patrons paying a nominal fee for a membership card. Even when the club opened to the public in 1988, old-timers kept their cards as a fond remembrance of their youth -- and Miami's.
"It was a place everybody went -- and few brought their wives," recalls 82-year-old Marshall Ader, brother to Bill Ader, Jr., and a former county judge and county clerk. "After I was elected a judge, I stayed away from there." Well, at least after dark. Judge Ader, described by some as an Uncle Sam look-alike, was often spotted in the dim recesses of a wood-paneled booth with a friend or colleague during lunch, according to several bartenders and regulars.
Some found their wives there, including Bill Jr. and his sons Billy III and Bobby, who each met, married, and (except for Billy) divorced a former barmaid. Others lost their wives there, or at least forgot them for a time. "The original 1800 Club was definitely a cheating bar," admits Kay Ader, Bill Jr.'s third (and fourth) wife. "Sometimes wives would call looking for their husbands. We lived life to the fullest."
In roughly 46 years of operation, the 1800 attracted an eclectic group. Billy Ader, who largely ran the 1800 Club with his wife, JoAnne, through the Eighties and early Nineties, claims Sen. John F. Kennedy, Paul Newman, Frank Zappa, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton all passed through the doors at one time or another. Singer Jimmy Buffett was a regular during the early years of the Miami Heat, along with former Heat coaches Ron Rothstein and Kevin Loughery and Miami Herald stalwarts such as Carl Hiaasen, Robert Steinback, and many others.
But by the late Nineties, the 1800 Club had become merely seedy in an appealing way, a shadow of its former self. It was run by a series of managers who ultimately failed either to reclaim the old days or attract a reliable new crowd. In May of last year, Bill Ader, Jr., died of cancer. A few months later the club was closed for the final time. His sons agreed to sell the bar and the surrounding apartments to developer Michael Baumann of Miami Circle notoriety. Baumann plans to knock down everything later this year and replace it with a residential tower, including shops and a restaurant. The tower will keep the 1800 Club name. This Saturday the Aders will open the 1800 Club for one last bash for the old regulars.
Kay Ader took a job at the 1800 Club in 1967, a pretty barmaid in her early twenties. She met the dynamic 41-year-old Bill and later married him (twice). They often lived in the penthouse above the bar. "It was a little kingdom, Aderville," she says. "He just kind of liked the idea that there was a party going on downstairs anytime he wanted." In 1971 Ader sold the 1800 Club, plus a string of about a dozen other bars (trysting places, he called them) he had built around the county, to Joe "Big Daddy" Flanigan. But retirement at age 45 didn't agree with Ader, so he bought back the 1800 in 1973.
Bill and Kay remodeled the place, knocking out some ground-floor efficiency apartments to form a much larger bar with several rooms, seating about 130 in all. Ader brought in a French chandelier, dark wood paneling, rock-faced walls, cushy booths, and stained-glass windows. Kay covered the corners and the walls in bromeliads, ferns, and orchids that were rotated to an outside porch daily so the plants always looked healthy. "The place just worked," she reminisces. "When the lights are low, everybody looks better. After a few drinks, everybody looks really good. It was a different world."
Such a noir environment invites intrigue of one kind or another. And there were plenty, everybody says. "I can tell you that in that Peacock room [so named for its Tiffany peacock window] everything went on -- and I mean everything," confides Allen Fader, a general contractor and 1800 Club customer since the late Sixties. "Many a deal was made there." He recollects bellying up to the bar in the Seventies and Eighties heyday with Miami notables such as "old man Bacardi" the rum magnate, then-Mayor Maurice Ferré, and hotshot criminal defense attorney Roy Black. But extracting the specifics is almost impossible.
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."
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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.