The singles scene in Fort Lauderdale in the early decades of the 20th century had to be a hit-or-miss affair, as most of the region’s high life was either south in Miami Beach or north in Palm Beach.
There wasn’t much singles action before 1906, as there were only 65 people receiving mail in Fort Lauderdale then. The road to Miami had only recently been upgraded from sand to rocks. You could have enjoyed a cozy stagecoach ride there, but it would have taken you 36 hours.
Stranahan Park was featuring concerts in its bandshell around the time that The Lyric, our first “moving picture” house, opened on Brickell Avenue. (What’s more romantic than a dark movie theater?) Two years later, in the fire of 1912, the theater burned down, along with most of the wood structures downtown, but it soon reopened as The Rex. By the time The Birth of a Nation played there in 1918, other theaters had opened, including venues for live productions (eliminating the need to use the high school auditorium). The Queen Theatre welcomed a “company of 35” – singers, dancers, comedians – in the show Pretty Baby in November of 1918.
In 1928, the Las Olas Casino Pool opened near the beach and eventually became a popular gathering spot, especially after the construction of a bridge and a road. Now that you no longer had to pick up a motorboat from Frank Stranahan’s trading post, the odds for meeting other singles became a lot better.
If your sweetheart was a nature boy, or girl, there were 263 miles of waterways. In addition to fishing charters, a precursor to today’s Jungle Queen prowled the New River carrying gawkers, tourists and young lovers alike. Called “The Abeona Scenic Route Jungle Cruise,” the three-hour excursion cost one dollar and passed, according to the literature, Seminole huts, a jungle park, gators, otters and “beautiful island estates.” Ads touted “a riverway so narrow one can reach out and pick custard apples or wild guava.”
New hotels and restaurants came along to rival Ivy Stranahan’s tea room/restaurant, The Water’s Edge Inn. If you were the sort who gazed upon your dinner date musing, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” you were probably at The Amphitrite. Named after the goddess wife of Poseidon – and built on a Navy monitor that saw action in both the Boxer Rebellion and the Spanish-American War – this floating hotel and restaurant sailed in in 1931 and quickly became a fine dining oasis.
Newspaper ads for The Amphitrite extolled “seafood delightfully fresh from the surrounding waters” and “fresh vegetables from the gardens of the Everglades.” If you could afford to take a date there, you’d feast on broiled lobster for $2.50 per person. Originally moored near the site of the future International Swimming Hall of Fame, the ship was relocated twice during its 12-year run here, before being transported up the coast.
Another option for a night out had come along a few years earlier, on a little chunk of an isle just north of the city. Customers boarded a boat for the short ride to Club Unique, a collection of shacks nestled in a clearing surrounded by pine and cypress trees. Captain Theodore Knight had built the place as a restaurant and speakeasy specializing in fresh seafood and gambling tables. Later renamed Cap’s Place, it attracted people as diverse as Al Capone and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and is still doing business today (as a restaurant, not a casino).
Records from 1934 list eight drug stores in Fort Lauderdale, many of which surely had soda fountains. There is a tendency to view earlier generations as naïve and unsophisticated, but sipping a vanilla shake through two straws with a companion beats sitting in a coffeehouse staring at iPads.