By John Dolen
City & Shore Magazine
Fort Lauderdale’s International Boat Show celebrates its 60th year this month, tracing its first show back to 1959. The same year Fidel Castro took over Cuba. Ben-Hur won the Academy Award for best picture. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by the Platters and Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price were the most popular songs.
Boat Show visitors then may have been sporting bobby socks and Bermuda shorts.
In 1959 a local paper heralded the “opportunity for the pleasure boating business to display its wares in a two-day show at Pier 66.” Twelve local boat dealers displayed their products, including 13 boats, and the show drew 3,000 visitors. It was free, staffed by volunteers, and called The Pier 66-Marine Industries Boat Show.
This year’s show will last five days instead of two, will have 1,500 boats on display –
from dealers around the world – and 1,200 exhibitors. It will have miles and miles of floating docks, and ferries aplenty. This is an even bigger show than last year, which had $4 billion worth of boats and equipment, and sales upwards of $508 million.
Oh, and it’s not free anymore. (That’s unless you’re five years and under.) Today’s ticket prices are $34 for one day, $59 for two days. Parking at many garages can cost you $40. For kids age 6-15 the price is $15.
But the 1959 show 60 years ago actually was not the first for the city.
“The Boat and Sports Show” sponsored by the Downtown Kiwanis Club to benefit its “fund for underprivileged children” takes that honor.
News accounts at the time said the 1954 show featured “late-model boats, nautical equipment, fishing tackle, water cycles and motorcycles.” All this was provided by South Florida dealers. The vessels were “cabin cruisers and sports fishing craft.”
But wait, there’s more.
A “Miss Dream Boat” contest would determine who would “reign over the show.” Six young women “who survived elimination will participate.”
And forget about Pier 66 or Bahia Mar. This one was held at the National Guard Armory, and the following year at that venerable local warhorse, the War Memorial Auditorium. Yes, the first boat shows were inland and inside.
Since 1959, the boat show has – like all things Fort Lauderdale, including the boating business itself – grown by leaps and bounds. Back then, a 32-foot Hatteras was the star of the show. By 1968, the largest boat on display was 53 feet stem to stern. This year, in the first “Superyacht Village,” a 400-foot yacht will be for sale. Not to mention the personal submarines!
Special moments from the boat show
Turn on the Lights. In the shows from 1959 to 1963, events took place in the daytime. In 1964, the boat show committee decided to spend $5,000 for lighting at Pier 66. The modern era began, with day and night hours.
Whoops. The annual attendance figures are always a big deal for the marketing of the next year’s show. But in 1966, the attendance figure had to be estimated at 35,000. “There was a mixup in our traffic counter,” boat show committeeman Joe Schabo told the Fort Lauderdale News. “Mixup” is an understatement. “We got a 13,000 figure the first day,” he said, “then a gardener’s motor cut the wire on one of the machines on Saturday. And all we got was the outgoing flow. And the final day someone pulled the plugs on both and we didn’t get anything.” They were able, however, to get this sales count: 2,304 bottles of pop, 1,336 cans of beer and 2,760 hot dogs.
Attack of the Gopher State. In 1970, the boat show was held at Port Everglades, and it was the first year that admission was charged. But there was trouble. According to a Miami Herald report, “An unpleasant incident at the show occurred Saturday when a docked freighter called The Gopher State blew its stacks and spread black soot over many of the 500 boats on display.” County pollution control officials complained and the boat left port before sales reps could fully, perhaps forcibly, express their frustrations with the captain. (The report did not say this, but we feel we have to: Minnesota is the “Gopher State.”)
Here come the Purple Guppies. In 1972, a boating column noted the show would go to 11 p.m. each night, and cost $1 for adults and 50 cents for children. Also: “For fishing fans the show will stage a wild ‘Purple Guppy Fishing Tournament.’ There are no rules, no boundaries… and separate divisions for men, women, seniors and juniors (12 and under).” Prizes were awarded.
Jai Alai, anyone? In 1973, after three years at Port Everglades, the show moved inside the Dania Jai Alai Fronton. Did one have to dodge flying pelotas? The next year it returned to water in the Municipal Marina, which was on the South Side of the New River between Andrews Avenue and the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel.
Had to happen. Progressing from boats, nautical equipment to purple guppy tournaments, the inevitable came about in 1984: The newspaper headline for the 26th annual show read: “Shows of Nautical Fashion Help You Dress for Sea-cess.” (And, yes, ouch for that pun.) Fashion “exclusives” came from the Haberdashery of New England, with designs by “David Brooks, Cero, Corbin and Segrets.” (Who?)
Hello Bahia Mar. In 1976, the show took up residence at its current home at the Bahia Mar Resort & Yachting Center, and the shows were shifted from summer to fall when manufacturers showcase their latest models.
Goodbye Bahia Mar. Eleven years later, on April 11, 1987, the Sun-Sentinel headline read: Boat Show Casts Off from Bahia Mar. Bahia Mar, which had been charging $200,000 rent for the show, suddenly doubled it to $400,000. Kaye Pearson, whose company Yachting Promotions Inc. produced the show for 30 years, said in so many words, “Fine, we’ll take it elsewhere,” citing the doubling of rent and “restrictions imposed that made it impossible for us to perform.” Pearson said the show could even move out of Broward County if a suitable alternative wasn’t found. Chamber of Commerce VP Tommy Mercer said then, “It is a hell of a blow to the area.” In the end, a scaled-down show was held at Pier 66.
Hello Bahia Mar, it’s me again. After a year back at Pier 66, Bahia Mar finally said, in effect, “How about $300,000?” Other issues were also resolved, and, in 1988, the boat show was back.
Tech replaces the circus tents. Advanced exhibition technologies left the “big-tops” behind for sleeker “clear-span” tents that even without support poles could withstand heavy rain and strong winds.
The new age of yachts: By 2003, the types of yachts sold included Ferretti, Pershing and Riva yachts, one of those selling for $10 million. A Sea Ray sold for $1.3 million. Fourteen high-speed cigarette boats sold from $430,000 to $900,000 a pop. (And that was 16 years ago!)
The Kookie Connection. In 2006, a corporation owned by the son of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. – star of the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and The F.B.I. – bought the show’s long-time producer, Yachting Promotions Inc. Company president Kaye Pearson took a position to aid in the transition.
Work for thousands. In contrast to those days of Kiwanis volunteers showing a few boats, the modern era is gigantic. The show employs tens of thousands of people daily and just as many setting up (and later cleaning up). An official of Yachting Promotions Inc. said a few years back, “It’s like putting together Disney World once a year.”
Remember the hot dogs and soda pops? On the menu this year are conch fritters and an epicurean lobster roll. Oh, and don’t forget the raw bars and the sushi. In 1954, how many outside of Japan even knew what this was?
Photo: Exhibitors Party at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in 1979. (Courtesy).