Time for Fort Lauderdale to honor late 'Father of Spring Break'

Gregg Newell deserves Walk of Fame recognition

You might not recognize his name, but surely you know Gregg Newell's legacy.

Newell was known as the Father of Spring Break, a propeller-beanie-wearing entrepreneur whose bars, nightclubs and exuberance led to Fort Lauderdale becoming the hot spot for a generation of partying college kids.

Connie Francis and "Where the Boys Are" might have put Fort Lauderdale's beach scene on the map in the 1960s, but it was "Crazy Gregg's" raucous beer bashes and wet T-shirt contests at The Button that kept the kids coming back through the 1970s and 1980s.

Many who got their first exposure to South Florida through Spring Break returned to live, work and put down roots here. I'm one of them.


Hollywood Doggie Beach Pictures

The excesses of the past have been tramped down, but now there's an effort to give Newell his due — 11 years after his death — with a marker on Fort Lauderdale's beachfront Walk of Fame.

"Spring Break is a part of Fort Lauderdale's history," said Tim Schiavone, Newell's friend and owner of the Parrot Lounge in Fort Lauderdale. "It should never be denied, and Gregg shouldn't be denied his rightful place in local history. It would be like writing about Woodstock without mentioning Jimi Hendrix."

When Newell died of cancer at age 69 in 2003, friends and former employees came from around the world for his funeral. They recited his favorite saying: "Love and spinach. Peace and carrots." Dan Santoro, who worked at The Button, placed a bottle opener and film canisters filled with sand and ocean water from Fort Lauderdale beach in Newell's casket.

"I'd say he's one of the people most responsible for expanding and growing the great reputation of Fort Lauderdale," Santoro, of Pompano Beach, said Monday. "He wanted everybody to have fun."

Yet there's no official nod to Newell on the beach strip he made famous (and infamous). In 2010, Fort Lauderdale started an annual tradition of honoring prominent locals with engraved pavers on the sidewalk across from the Elbo Room, along A1A north of Las Olas Boulevard. The Button was at Las Olas and A1A, on what is now a parking lot.

Francis was the first Walk of Fame inductee. Since then, the city has unveiled new additions during its Great American Beach Party on Memorial Day weekend.

Among those honored: Businessman H. Wayne Huizenga, tennis great Chris Evert and her father Jimmy (a legendary tennis instructor), astronaut Brent Jett, radio personality Rick Shaw and former St. Thomas Aquinas High football coach George Smith.

But no Newell.

"I was like, 'How can a person who brought 350,000 people here every year not have a star?' " said Greg Boyette. "I see so many people stop and look at those things on the sidewalk. And that was his corner."

So Boyette has launched a Facebook page calling for Newell's Walk of Fame induction.

Boyette, 44, originally from North Carolina, didn't know Newell and has only been in town for a year. "I'm a nobody," he said. But he considers himself a Spring Break history buff, and he knew all about The Button, rival Penrod's, and the Elbo Room (where Newell was a manager who ran "crazy" beer promotions in the 1960s, leading to his nickname).

Santoro and Schiavone caught wind of Boyette's effort, and are now mounting an organized bid to honor Newell. Schiavone said he's filling out the city's formal nomination form, which is due by April 4. A committee overseen by the Parks and Recreation Department will make selections next month.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, a South Florida native, said he brought his University of Notre Dame classmates to The Button in the 1980s. But he was noncomittal about honoring Newell.

"He certainly had an impact," Seiler told me. "But we don't want to end up with egg on our face."

Seiler said there are others — like the Penrod family — who also had a hand in Fort Lauderdale's Spring Break development. Boyette said there should be plenty of room to honor all those who deserve it. There are already Walk of Fame stars honoring the Gill family, prominent beach hoteliers, and Jack Drury, a public relations executive.

Newell was known for his generosity of spirit, giving breaks and jobs to kids who had recently arrived in town. He funded a school for impoverished youth in Bimini. A few months before he died, he went to the Parrot Lounge and gave Schiavone a check for $1,000. "When they bury me, make sure you throw a good party," Newell told him.

Newell was eulogized at his funeral by then Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, who paid homage by wearing a Hawaiian shirt (one of Newell's trademarks). At the service, Naugle said: "He was a businessman, a friend, a great entertainer. But I like to think of him as a great teacher."

Newell taught the right mix of respect and irreverence, responsibility and irrepressibility. He showed how to squeeze every drop of joy from life and give plenty back, too.

The least Fort Lauderdale could do is give him a little love (and spinach) in return.

mmayo@tribune.com; 954-356-4508.

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