I’ll admit it: I am completely biased, but Mark Watson is one of the most wonderful and genuine souls who lives in Key West, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting at his bar or being waited on by him at Aqua Nightclub, you’re missing out. His heart is as big as his megawatt smile and there is something about the kindness in his eyes that melts all of your cares away. Who needs Xanax when you can have a Mark instead?
Mark moved to Key West in 1998 from Charlotte, N.C. Prior to moving to Key West, he toured as an actor for many years and he vacationed on the island whenever he could. “I’ve always been drawn to the ocean, he says, “so island living suited me perfectly. But it was the overall vibe when you are in Key West that I haven’t felt anywhere else in the United States outside of here. The people, the atmosphere, the whole package is just too tough to think about living without.”
When Mark first moved to Key West, he worked in a kiosk on Duval Street selling water sports and activities for Fury Catamarans. “It was a great way to get to know the island and all it had to offer,” he explains. But soon, opportunity came knocking and the familiar siren-call of the stage drew Mark back into his old thespian ways.
Mark started working at Aqua Nightclub “pretty much when the doors first opened, about 15 years ago,” he remembers. “I had created a musical revue at La Te Da called ‘Broadway 3-Ways’ and Jill McDonald (the owner of Aqua Nightclub at the time) had invited the group of us down to guest bartend for Hot Shots, which was the charity happy hour at Aqua with ‘celebrity’ bartenders. The ‘Broadway 3-Ways’ trio did a show and drew a huge crowd.
“My partner, Mark Barauck, owned La Te Da at the time,” Mark continues, “and we had gotten to be good friends with both Jill and her partner, Sandy Thomas. Jill wanted (local drag star) Randy Thompson and I to try a variation on what we did that day on Mondays during happy hour at Aqua. She called it ‘Dueling Bartenders.’ Mark said ‘OK’ and the rest is history. Dueling Bartenders is a tradition to this day. I’ve managed to do other jobs at Aqua since then — practically all of them — but that’s how it all started.”
Fifteen years at one establishment is a lot for anyone anywhere in Key West, but Mark still loves working at Aqua. “Working at Aqua as long as I have, those of us who have worked there alongside each other for so many years have become a sort of dysfunctional family, which is really nice,” he muses. “And the repeat clientele that vacation with us year after year have also evolved into close friendships that span the globe, which is very cool.”
Mark’s favorite things about the island are “definitely the people, the history, the spirituality, the ‘live and let live’ mentality, and, of course, the great weather and ocean breeze.” When I ask Mark what he does in his free time, he laughs and says, “Free time? There is such a thing?” He winks. “I go out with friends, I bar hop, much like everyone else in Key West. I love to get out on the water, but I don’t get to nearly as much as I would like. I also write, but again, not nearly as much as I would like.”
Mark does still perform when he can and he is incredibly civically engaged. “I love to get on stage from time to time, but, much like the water and the writing, not nearly as much as I would like,” he reflects. Mark also won the title of King of Fantasy Fest in 2015 after a hard-fought campaign. “I take a lot of pride in being Fantasy Fest King 2015 and it’s a nice affiliation with AIDS Help. But, having lived here nearly 20 years, I’ve raised hundreds of dollars for all the charities Key West and Monroe County have to offer and that’s a great feeling.”
As for working for a nightclub famous for its drag shows, Mark loves his affiliation with that lifestyle. “Do I ever do drag?” He bursts into laughter. “I live in Key West! Every man on this rock has a tutu in his closet! But yes, ‘Broadway 3-Ways’ was a drag show and I still do a gig on Fire Island every year, which is a blast. I love Fire Island for the same reasons I fell in love with Key West years ago.
In fact, I call it the Northernmost Key West.”
Although Mark’s tutus don’t make as many appearances these days as they once did, it’s still such a pleasure to watch him work. Catch him at Aqua Nightclub most nights of the week and let him regale you with a tale or two of his colorful life in Key West. ¦
Aqua Nightclub 711 Duval St. www.aquakeywest.com