Twenty Years Later

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, May 24, 2011 No Comment(s)

Wally Brewer, hosting and smiling face red, stood in front of his new joint, and said, not quite a shout, but more like an exclamation, “Bourbon Street; Bourbon Street.” No exclamation point needed.

It was late afternoon, cocktail hour, bar time, and Wally was looking up and down Second Street, admiring his conquest, as if he had been the first man to land at Normandy and survive. His tables were out near the street, a little too near we always thought, considering the way the idiots escaping the city parking garage came bouncing over the FEC tracks, not knowing what would lie, or might not lie, 20 yards ahead. A nice fat oak would have been in order to protect the outside diners.

But that is besides the point. To the west, now shadowed as the sun declined, rising above the 1925 buildings a block away with its lower parts shrouded by trees, there stood a salmon-colored wall of something or other, not possible to define from that distance. It was the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, not yet open, but close, and Wally Brewer was one of the first, if not the first, entrepreneur to bet that this building would generate a renewal of what had shortly before been a combination of industrial uses and sleeping-bum-in-the-doorway bars, a community blight.

And Wally saw in that building down the street an opportunity to get aboard first. What he also saw was Bourbon Street, a mimic of New Orleans, filled with action around the clock. It was already beginning to happen. Across Second Street there was new construction, places being built to look like they were clever renovations of old structures but were in fact brand new. It is where Tarpon Bend and its neighbors now sit, their sidewalks often filled with lunch and dinner patrons. Bourbon Street. In fact, the place that Wally opened in 1991, then Wally’s Olde Town Chop House, is now known as Bourbon on 2nd, perhaps an unintentional salute to the founder’s vision.

Wally got off to a good start. Blockbuster Video was just a block away and the lunches were often crowded with its people. The theater attracted pre- and post-play business, which is why Wally went there. When the new Florida Panthers won a big Stanley Cup game, Wayne Huizenga called at closing time to ask to Wally stay open. He was bringing in a planeload of 40 celebrating people. Wally did.

Wally Brewer had a partner who died young, and it turned out to be more work than the veteran owner needed. He eventually sold his place, got it back, sold it again, almost got it back. And it is still there, more of a late-night place, more Bourbon Street than Wally had foreseen. It has been 20 years hard to believe since he opened, and now the Broward Center is announcing a more than $40 million renovation, designed to keep it competitive and maintain its reputation as one of the most surprisingly attractive venues for big-time entertainment, especially for a market of this size. People in theater who see it for the first time are knocked out. This kind of class belongs in New York, Washington.

Today, it seems a natural, sitting above the curve of the New River, with a gorgeous evening view of the downtown lights reflected on the water. The location was picked a few years before construction began. Money was needed, and Carl Mayhue is credited as the man who started it all. We were not there at those early meetings, but the story has been told often enough that it must be true. When Carl Mayhue, who died four years ago, proposed that spot for a theater, people said, looking at the tawdry surroundings, “Carl, why this location?” He replied, “This location.” He saw something a quarter century ago that few others did. He probably did not call it Bourbon Street, but his mind saw something like that. Now everybody can see it. Thanks, Carl.

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