Friday, February 26, 2010

If teens in the Eisenhower-era didn't have an official Spring Break destination, the 1960 beach-blanket flick Where the Boys Are, shot on the sands of Ft. Lauderdale, surely gave them one. Starring Connie Francis and George Hamilton, the film produced box-office bling-bling and firmly established Ft. Lauderdale as collegians' bachnallian hot-spot.

Each year thereafter, spring breakers arrived in ever-increasing numbers, pumping millions into Ft. Lauderdale's economy. It was win-win.
All that changed, however, over the three-day Easter-weekend in 1967, when a full-scale riot erupted between spring breakers and police.

Trouble began on Friday, March 24, at the town's main drag, the intersection of Las Olas and Atlantic Boulevards. A group of famished students flagged down a passing bakery truck and helped themselves to bread and cakes. The group then commandeered a soft-drink truck, and looted its contents, too.

When police arrived in an attempt to restore order, events took an ugly turn: Empty bottles flew. Kids stomped over the tops of cars. A small mob surrounded a city bus, smashed out its windows, and rocked it with such force that it nearly overturned. Aboard, twevle occupants, including a mother and infant, scrambled to safety.

The crowd surged onto a side street and looted a fruit and vegetable stand. A paddy wagon arrived and police--now in full riot gear and dodging tomatoes and green peppers --made the first of 30 arrests.

That evening, Police Chief Robert Johnson sent 200 cops on patrol, the youngest members working undercover by donning swimtrunks and mingling with the crowd.

Saturday morning's melee erupted as police observed a game of "blanket-toss," in which comely co-eds are bounced up and down on blankets, trampoline-style, by male admirers.

Cops attempted to break it up. Beer cans flew. A chant went up: "Ft. Lousydale pigs!" and "Police brutality!" Baton-swinging cops arrested offenders and hauled them to jail.

At the courthouse, Municipal Judge Stephen Booker, flooded with over 100 cases, promised to "stay until midnight if necessary." Most violators receved two nights lodging at city expense and a $50 fine.

Overhead, a plane towed a banner which read: "Welcome Collegians--Gilbert's Bail Bonds."

As night fell, city officials set up roadblocks at city bridges and turned back everyone without a beach address. Students headed for the bars. As the sun rose Easter morning, most of the town's 30,000 visitors, bleary-eyed from drink and sleep-depravation, were busy arranging transportation back to campus. "Hopefully," a cop told reporters, "the Easter spirit will prevail. But we're ready if it doesn't."

It didn't.

Another mele erupted. Once again, beer bottles sailed like frisbees. Again, police worked their way through the crowd flailing batons. Cops collared 20 kids and threw them into the paddy wagon. Halfway to jail, the wagon erupted in flames, the inferno ignited by a student with a cigarette lighter.

All told, Ft. Lauderdale's three-day riot resulted in over 500 arrests and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage.

Eventually, Ft. Lauderdale would tire of hosting Spring Break. By the mid-1980s city fathers said: Enough. The city erected a wall to keep revelers contained to one side of the street. Breakers got the message and took their annual rite to more hospitable climes.

But it was the Riot of 1967 that provided Ft. Lauderdale's first glimpse at the ugly side of paradise, a wake-up call that times had changed: Modern teens, a product of the post-WWII baby boom, disdained authority and revelled in rebellion.

No doubt about it:

Connie Francis and George Hamilton they were not.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida, Issue 20