Institutions are individuals or events, usually hallowed by time, that represent the character of a place, or even of an entire culture. The image of Key West as a wild and woolly, all-inclusive, good-time town is built upon a number of these institutions, past and present. Consider treasure hunter Mel Fisher and Monroe County Mayor and Fantasy Fest Queen (when in her 80s) Wilhelmina Harvey. They and many other events and individuals have served Key West very well and have added to that image.
LGBT Key West, however, is younger, louder and more colorful. It was conceived in the 1960s (when a few gay professionals from Miami began purchasing property), birthed in the quiet opportunity of the ’70s, tempered by the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s when Key West lost many of its icons, first among them Mayor Richard Heyman, (one of the first openly gay mayors in the country) and who is remembered at the city of Key West-sponsored AIDS memorial located at the Atlantic Ocean end of White Street.
But never fear. Other LGBT institutions are alive, well and thriving — iconic, lasting and just a little bigger than life. Buttery, the Monster and Atlantic Shores may be gone, but there remains the most historic of these institutions: the deluxe guest house, restaurant and club at the historic building at 1125 Duval St. now known as LaTeDa, with its iconic Sunday afternoon tea dance.
What tea dance has evolved from only adds to its mystique. 1125 Duval St. is historic not only in its late 19th century (1892) construction as the home of Key West’s premier cigar manufacturer Teodoro Perez, but of the role Perez and the home played in Cuba’s successful revolution for freedom from Spain. Jose Marti, the hero known as the Father of the Cuban Revolution, was a close friend of Perez’s and spoke from the home’s second-floor balcony, “La Terraza de Marti” or “The Balcony of Marti.” Hence, LaTeDa, the name that continues into the 21st century — and a place to have a gay old-time on a Sunday afternoon.
The origin of tea dance at LaTeDa is now apparently shrouded in the mists of time. But members of the community who came to Key West in the early 1980s remember many extraordinary Sundays.
“We’d start off a brunch at LaTeDa — everyone went to LaTeDa,” a longtime local remembers. It didn’t start until noon, because in those days alcohol sales were controlled by Blue Laws: no booze sold in the city before noon.
Brunch lasted until time to set up for tea dance, which started at about 4 p.m. with a local DJ and tables cleared from the pavilion at the far end of the pool (hotel rooms have been built there now) for a dance floor. The pavilion was owner Lawrence Formica’s private dining room and there were a number of satellite bars around the two-story property.
Tea dance in those days lasted until time to replace tables and set up for the dinner crowd at about 7 p.m. Hard-core tea dancers walked a couple of blocks down Duval to the late, lamented original gay/lesbian resort, Atlantic Shores on South Street, where Southernmost on the Beach is now. The Shores hosted a late tea dance, approximately 7 till 10 or 11 p.m. At some point, according to our old-timer, folks went home for “a change of costume,” then went to the upstairs bar at 801 Bourbon to hear pianist Suzie Michaels, then to the Copa for dancing and more drinking. Drugs may or may not have figured into the equation.
If the Copa was too crowded, there was always Saloon One at 524 Duval St., where Virgilio’s now sits. Jimmy Gilleran, co-owner of 801 and Bourbon Street, bought the right to Saloon One’s name and it is now the notorious back bar at
8018 Duval St.
These days, tea dance is marginally al more sedate. The music is louder, there are still deejays, Molly Blue and
RudeRu Girl, and there is still a different theme for each week. Sunday brunch at LaTeDa is still very popular and the menu was only enhanced when Best Chiefs America designee Christopher Rounds purchased the property in 2013.
The city of Key West’s official motto, “OOne Human Family,” is evident in the welcoming atmosphere at virtually every inn, every venue, every restaurant and every bar in town, and especially at tea dance. ¦