THE STARE

My father (1901–1994) lived a long and often colorful life, all of it quite coherent until his last three years spent in a nursing home, alone with his own dementia. He’d lost the bearings of time and place. He was forever at his golf club, and the time was always now. No sense of duration, therefore, no sense of confinement. A gift. Another gift was that he always recognized me.”Hey Champ,” he’d exclaim with every visit. He called me that from birth, I was told. We never hugged. Men hugged women. We shook hands. That was just enough. But in his diminishment, I could touch him, even shave him, and comb his still luxuriant hair.

THE STARE

With a basin of warm water and a towel
I am shaving my father
late on a summer afternoon
as he sits in a chair in striped pajamas.

He screws up his face this way and that
to make way for the razor,
as someone passes with a tray,
as someone else sobs in a corner.

It is impossible to remember
such closeness,
impossible to know too
whether the object of his vivid staring is

the wavering tree tops,
his pale reflection in the window,
or maybe just a splinter of light,
a pinpoint caught within the glass itself.


Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002–03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “The Stare,” ©2010 by Billy Collins, originally appeared in Horoscopes for the Dead (Random House) and is reprinted with permission

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

HE’S THE EARL OF THE CHICKEN STRIP

Central Floridians have known Robert Earl (above left) for years, thanks to the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood. So, when you team Earl with a character like Guy Fieri (above right and below) you’re likely to get something like Chicken Guy!, one of numerous poultry places along Winter Park’s burgeoning Chicken Strip.

Not long ago I dined at one of Winter Park’s best-known restaurants with a connected companion. He had arranged for a sampler to be waiting for me via a dozen or so delicate paper cups filled with savory concoctions dreamed up by the restaurant’s celebrity saucier. 

A nearby diner, gawking at the delicate beakers filled with the likes of “Cumin Lime Mojo” and “Nashville Hot Honey” on our table, wondered: “How come you got so many?” 

“I have some influence here,” said my companion. It was something of an understatement. He owns the joint.

Robert Earl is a British-born, 70-year-old international restaurateur and entrepreneur, best known in Orlando for his ownership of Hard Rock Cafe and for opening one of his Planet Hollywood franchises at Disney Springs. 

Since moving here in 1981 Earl has invented or acquired numerous themed chain eateries, including the one where we met, dubbed Chicken Guy! 

Its presence since December just north of Fairbanks Avenue, where Steak ’n Shake stood for decades, is within honking distance of four rival chicken joints: a PDQ, a Chick-fil-A, a recently opened Chick’nCone and a soon-to-close Popeye’s.

This proliferation of poultry places has inspired a nickname among locals for the busy stretch of U.S. Highway 17-92 just a few yards away from our table: “The Chicken Strip.” 

Robert Earl is the strip’s cock of the block along with the “Guy” in Chicken Guy! That would be collaborator and fellow restaurateur Guy Fieri, a chef and television personality.

Fieri is best known for his series on the Food Network, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which once garnered a left-handed compliment from The New York Times for bringing “an element of rowdy, mass-market culture to American food television.”

The pair bonded while Fieri was in town tuning up the menu at Planet Hollywood and came up with the fledgling franchise, which Earl wanted to explain to me while we dined. 

I first asked him why, at age 70, he wasn’t content to enjoy a life of ease with his longtime wife, Tricia, with whom he shares a gated lakeside mansion in the posh Windermere community of Isleworth.

“Retirement is not in my vocabulary,” he said, then conceded, “You have to adjust the pressure on yourself” before adding a nostalgic non sequitur: “I’m on the Scarsdale diet. It doesn’t work.” 

The menu at Chicken Guy! — I haven’t used so many exclamation marks since my alma mater won the College Football National Championship — revolves around pressure-cooked chicken tenders served on sandwiches, skewers and in salads. 

Earl has a theatrical way about him, perhaps having absorbed it from his father, who was an actor. He seemed to channel it into a maître d’ persona, doling out our rapidly disappearing sauce samples to passers-by one moment, flagging down a manager he called “luv” to get a vacated table bussed the next.

I knew that Earl had owned several other area restaurants but was surprised when he told me that one of them was the old Park Plaza Gardens on Park Avenue, whose elegant presence he misses. On the other hand, he’s clearly engaged by the more mundane challenge of the high-volume, high-tech strategies involved in a fast food — he corrected me, “fast casual” — restaurant franchise.

Earl coaxed me into sampling a chicken sandwich, one that combines a generous stack of seasoned tenders, nicely sauced and smooshed down beneath what appeared to be half of a well-constructed tossed salad. It was the best fast-casual sandwich I have ever knowingly consumed, and it put me in my happy place.

Then I remembered how grouchy I am about the traffic on 17-92. You tell me how a chicken could possibly cross that road at rush hour, with drivers making left turns from hell into dining places such as this, causing traffic to congeal into the kind of slow-motion vehicular sludge I associate with New York City cab rides.

I groused about it. Earl blithely shifted the conversation to the restaurant’s cleverly engineered parking lot just steps away from our table. Being from the UK he referred to it as a “car park” — which sounded more like “cah pahk” given his accent — and explained that it’s laid out not only to handle traffic from drivers who dine in but to smoothly channel those who don’t to a two-lane pickup window. 

Then he mentioned another pet project, Virtual Dining Concepts, which fosters franchises called “ghost kitchens” that function strictly as delivery-based diners. Chicken Guy! is also set up with a special system to speed third-party delivery, so diners can enjoy their Cumin Lime Mojo minus migrating en masse to 17-92.

Otherwise, see you in the cah pahk. 


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.

WON’T YOU BE OUR FRIEND?

To paraphrase Mister Rogers: “Won’t you be our friend?” Actually, that should be “Friend” with a capital F, since it’s now an official designation for readers who join a new program called “Friends of Winter Park Magazine.” Here’s how the idea came about:

Several years ago, when visiting homes in Winter Park for various gatherings, I began to notice that collections of Winter Park Magazine were being displayed not only on coffee tables but saved in bookshelves. I hadn’t seen that since my grandmother collected every issue of National Geographic a generation ago.

I came to realize that many of our readers think of Winter Park Magazine as indispensable. It’s carefully read and frequently shared — but not discarded. I also increasingly received calls from readers who just wanted to say “thank you” for providing a publication that truly captures the spirit and the vibe of this one-of-a-kind city.

“This magazine has changed our lives here,” one prominent local businessperson told me. “We’ve always been proud of Winter Park. But now, when we’re asked why, we can just show any issue of Winter Park Magazine and there’s the evidence.”

Great stuff! In addition, readers routinely offer suggestions for content. (Did you know most of our stories are initiated that way?) Other readers — more than a few, in fact — ask how they can more tangibly support what we do beyond just the compliments (which are much appreciated, by the way).

So, we’ve implemented an exciting way that you can bolster award-winning, grassroots publishing locally through an annual gift in any amount you choose — with some terrific perks just for members.

There are three levels of participation: “Publisher’s Circle,” Editor’s Desk” and “Reporter’s Roundtable.” Select one and enjoy not only the benefits of continuing to receive Winter Park Magazine but “extras” that are just for you! 

By logging on and signing up, you’ll enjoy every-
thing from attendance at Friends-only special events, to valuable offers from our advertisers, to complimentary gift subscriptions for friends and family. You’ll even get a fun and funky Winter Park Magazine tote bag! 

We’re extremely thankful to you for reading what we believe is a beautifully designed and smartly written tribute to Winter Park — unquestionably the coolest city in Florida. Now you can help to support the cause in a more formalized way. 

This is a fact: No other U.S. city the size of Winter Park has a magazine like this one. And we look forward to publishing it to for many years to come — with your help, encouragement and participation. 

So, will you do me a personal favor? Type the link in the adjacent blue box into your search engine, or point your smartphone camera at the QR code. You’ll be directed to a Friends of Winter Park Magazine page that will allow you to join the club online — no muss, no fuss — and to learn about its benefits.

Thanks in advance for your readership, your good wishes and your membership — and thanks for everything you’ve done for us so far.

Click on the link below or point your smart devise at the QR code to join Friends of Winter Park Magazine. 

winterparkmag.com/friends


Correction

HARRY AND HAMILTON: HERE'S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

In the Spring issue of Winter Park Magazine, a story about former Rollins College President Hamilton Holt’s lifelong quest for world peace (“Holt’s Elusive Dream”) conflated the dates of several events involving the college, Holt and U.S. President Harry Truman. The story said that Truman visited the campus in 1946 to receive an LHD (an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters) in ceremonies at Knowles Memorial Chapel and listened as Holt delivered a pointed “Open Sermon” on disarmament and world government. In fact, Truman was scheduled to visit the campus on February 11, 1946, but abruptly canceled the trip two days earlier because of an ongoing steel industry strike. (Actress Greer Garson received an honorary degree that day instead.) Holt delivered his Open Sermon, in which he directly addressed Truman, on May 2, 1948, without Truman present. On March 8, 1949, Truman did come to Rollins during a Florida vacation and received his belated honorary degree. During the event, he graciously congratulated Holt, who was to retire that year, for his many accomplishments. Since many readers use Winter Park Magazine’s local history stories as a reference, we are usually scrupulous about the details. We apologize for this error.

Greg Dawson, one of our top feature writers, has a poignant connection to Ukraine through his mother, who as a young girl in 1941 escaped a death march following the country’s invasion by Nazi forces. A previously published book and a newly released book tell the tale. And you’ll hear it firsthand from Greg in the summer issue.

ON WAR, IDEALISM AND RESILIENCE

Robert Rivers (left) and Hamilton Holt (right) responded to war in general through art, in the case of Rivers, and activism, in the case of Holt. Abruptly, their stories became more relevant with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the human suffering that the world is witnessing from inside the war zone.

Quarterly magazines don’t cover breaking news. At least, not intentionally. Because we work so far in advance, many of the stories that appear in this issue were written in January or early February — before Russian President Vladimir Putin began raining hellfire on Ukraine in an unprovoked attack that continues at this writing. 

No one knows what the situation will be in early April, when Winter Park Magazine arrives in your mailbox. But as of now, the Ukrainian people are demonstrating patriotism and heroism in the face of astonishing brutality and long odds against them

Coincidentally, we had already planned for the spring issue to include several feature stories that dealt with the common theme of war. 

One, about former Rollins College President Hamilton Holt, focused on his lifelong advocacy for world government as a means to prevent armed conflict. One major premise: A multinational military force — by design the largest in the world — would be granted the authority to punish aggressor nations. 

Although much has been written about Holt’s educational reforms, this controversial crusade has received considerably less attention.

The other, about artist Robert Rivers, focused on his print series The Promised Land, which he created (and is still creating) after losing his nephew, Thomas, a service member in Afghanistan, to an improvised explosive device. 

Rivers has also explored themes of war in a series of prints inspired by The War Prayer, a provocative prose poem by Mark Twain that we’ve published as a sidebar to the feature.

As we were putting the issue together, Putin’s forces moved in. And suddenly, our long-established editorial lineup had become relevant to today’s headlines — which is an unaccustomed situation for a magazine that primarily covers local people, local history and arts and culture.

Current events didn’t make Holt’s quixotic notion seem wise in hindsight — it was not wise, for reasons that will seem obvious to readers — but writing about his passion for this lost cause served as a reminder that periods of relative peace can be deceiving and are constantly vulnerable to terrorists or thuggish madmen who command armies. 

At least Holt’s heart, if not his logic, was in the right place.

And then I remembered that one of our top feature writers, Greg Dawson, had an extraordinary story to tell about his Ukrainian mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya, who as a young girl in 1941 had escaped from a Nazi death march with her sister, Frina (Greg’s aunt). 

The pair survived by assuming Christian identities and entertaining the German invaders with their skillful piano playing. Ultimately, Zhanna married an American soldier and moved with him to Bloomington, Indiana. She didn’t reveal her experience to her children and grandchildren until decades later.

Once his mother decided to tell her terrifying tale, Greg, ever the reporter, quizzed her (gently) for more detail and eventually traveled to Ukraine, where he visited some of the cities that we hear about today on the evening news. The result was a book, Hiding in the Spotlight: A Musical Prodigy’s Story of Survival, 1941-1946 (Pegasus Books, 2009).

Again coincidentally, the story has been retold in a just-released book aimed at younger readers. Alias Anna: A True Story of Outwitting the Nazis (HarperCollins, 2022) was written in verse by Susan Hood, an acclaimed author of more than 200 children’s picture books, with Greg as co-author. 

Greg Dawson, one of our top feature writers, has a poignant connection to Ukraine through his mother, who as a young girl in 1941 escaped a death march following the country’s invasion by Nazi forces. A previously published book and a newly released book tell the tale. And you’ll hear it firsthand from Greg in the summer issue.

I’m pleased to announce that you’ll learn more about Alias Anna — and read a first-person account of how Greg followed his mother’s perilous pathway through Ukraine — in the summer issue. It’s strong stuff and will surely raise chill bumps with writing like this:

“I had to walk their final walk — their exact route, on the same day, in the same weather — to the killing field of Drobytsky Yar. I needed to see the spot where my mother jumped out of line into the woods, cheating Hitler.”

Perhaps there’ll be better news out of Ukraine come summer. But whatever happens, stories about resiliency of the human spirit are always timely.  

“I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of character actors and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his whole adult life immersed in the world of art.” — Terry Teachout

FOND FAREWELL TO A ONE-MAN BAND

Terry Teachout, shown here in 2011 when he was commencement speaker for the Hamilton Holt School, could do it all, juggling his day job as drama critic for the Wall Street Journal with writing two plays, authoring seven books and playing bass in a jazz band. To him, Winter Park was like a parallel universe where he could savor the balmy nights whose stars weren’t crowded out by bright lights and concrete canyons.

Maya Angelou, Paul McCartney, Gloria Steinem, Ken Burns, Jane Goodall: As executive director of the Winter Park Institute, a speaker series that brought an eclectic roster of celebrity artists and intellectuals to Rollins College before being shuttered two years ago, Gail Sinclair saw plenty of overachievers come and go. 

Then there was Terry Teachout: occupation, one-man band. 

What the longtime Wall Street Journal theater critic lacked in mainstream name recognition, he made up for in versatility — juggling his day job with writing two plays, crafting lyrics for four operas, authoring seven books, filing numerous book reviews for the The New York Times and maintaining several blogs, including a candid one recounting the joys and trials of his personal life.

Oh: and he also played bass in a jazz band. That may account for his gift at improvisation. 

In 2009, two years following a WPI lecture entitled “Confessions of a Critic,” Teachout was invited to return to campus as a visiting scholar. One night, Sinclair asked him to moderate another speaker’s post-lecture Q-and-A, when audience members are asked to scribble questions on small cards and pass them up to the podium to be read aloud.

“What Terry was handed that night was mostly a blank stack of cards,” Sinclair remembers. “He calmly flipped through them, adding comments such as, ‘Oh, here’s a really interesting one,’ and proceeded to make up question after great question.”

By then, Teachout had fallen in love with Winter Park. In an essay he wrote that year for this magazine, he mused that the town had come to feel like a parallel universe to him: He could visit restaurants on Park Avenue that rivaled his favorite haunts in New York City while savoring the easygoing atmosphere and balmy nights whose stars weren’t crowded out by bright lights and concrete canyons.

Unlike most big-city critics, Teachout, born and raised in Sikeston, Missouri (population 1,600), enjoyed writing about regional theaters — and during visits to Winter Park would review productions throughout the state. In 2011, he also oversaw the staging of a play of his own, Satchmo at the Waldorf, a one-man show about Louis Armstrong, the early 20th-century jazz trumpet and cornet player, at Orlando Shakes.

While making new friends in Central Florida, he also renewed ties with an acquaintance of long standing: Gail Sinclair’s husband, John — a music professor at Rollins and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. The fellow Show Me State natives shared an alma mater, William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.

“I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of character actors and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his whole adult life immersed in the world of art.” — Terry Teachout

“We were cut from the same cloth,” says the musical Sinclair (his wife is the literary one). “He was my little brother in our fraternity. He was also one of the smartest people I ever met.” 

When it came to music, says John Sinclair, Teachout could hold his own. “I remember once we were in Winnie’s Chinese Restaurant, having lunch with several local jazz musicians,” he recalls. “I said to Terry: ‘Right now, I’m the least cool guy at this table.’”

But the two were members of a mutual admiration society. In 2016, the Bach Festival Society debuted a newly commissioned cantata in celebration of its indefatigable conductor’s 25th anniversary at the podium. Music, Awake!, was composed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec and featured lyrics by none other than Teachout, who wanted to honor his friend’s commitment to the arts.

Critics, by definition, are critical. Teachout’s reviews were tempered by his small-town upbringing and a sympathy born of firsthand experience. He once wrote: “I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of character actors and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his whole adult life immersed in the world of art.” 

Given the circles in which he ran while in Central Florida, it was inevitable that Teachout would catch the attention of Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, two of the region’s most generous philanthropists and patrons of the arts.

The Winter Park couple had been looking forward to hosting Teachout as an honored guest at one of the early productions staged in Steinmetz Hall, the long-awaited and newly completed acoustic theater at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The hall was named in the couple’s honor following a timely $12 million donation that jump-started the project.

But Teachout would never visit Steinmetz Hall. In January of this year, at age 65, he died in his sleep of congestive heart failure while at a friend’s home.

“He was so astute. His knowledge was so broad-based,” said Margery Pabst Steinmetz. “But what set him apart from most theater critics was that he thought about and often wrote about the audience — how did they like it.” 

No doubt he would have done exactly that, if given the chance to write about a theater that meant so much for the people — and for the place — that had come to mean so much to him. 


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.

“I try to write not as a lofty figure from on high, smashing stone tablets over the heads of character actors and prima donnas, but as someone who has spent his whole adult life immersed in the world of art.” — Terry Teachout

OSPREY

Traditionally, poets are expected to be familiar with the fauna and flora around them, or at the very least know the difference between the two. Osprey inhabit their high perches up north but not in the abundance I encountered when I moved to Florida. The poem admits my ornithological ignorance but also stresses the urgency of my need to fill in the blank, the bird taking priority over my usual routine. As for its form, the poem is one sentence broken into quatrains and addressed to the osprey itself. But what’s that white one with the long neck stepping slowly across the Publix parking lot?

OSPREY

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,

as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,

before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink —

I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon —
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.


Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002-03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Osprey” originally appeared in Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. ©2013, reprinted by permission of Random House.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

WINTER PARK, TIME TO TAKE A BOW

Winter Parkers have their names on two of the three indoor venues at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Recently completed Steinmetz Hall (above) is named for Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz (below). Another theater is named for Jim and Alexis Pugh (bottom). Jim Pugh is also the arts center’s original (and current) board president. Photos by Rafael Tongol (Steinmetzes and Pughs)

When Steinmetz Hall at downtown Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hosts its first performances in January, among those taking a bow ought to be the citizens of Winter Park. Several, though, have earned additional bravos.

Among them are Chuck and Margery Pabst Steinmetz, who in 2015 announced that they would donate $12 million for a planned third venue, an acoustically pristine 1,700-seat hall to complement the 2,700-seat Walt Disney Theater and the more intimate 300-seat Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater — which is likewise named for a pair of Winter Parkers. 

Additionally, Jim Pugh is the original (and currently presiding) chairman of the arts center’s board of directors and was a driving force behind making the decades-long dream of a world-class, multivenue campus a reality.

Although only the Steinmetzes and the Pughs have theaters emblazoned with their names, many Winter Park residents are significantly invested. Next time you attend a show, just peruse the list of directors and supporters printed in ArtsLife or Broadway at Dr. Phillips Center. You’ll recognize plenty of neighbors.

In fact, along with the heavy hitters, everyone who lives in the city has pitched in to some degree. In 2014, local elected officials — namely Mayor Ken Bradley and Commissioners Steve Leary, Tom McMacken and Sarah Sprinkel — stepped up and voted to allocate $1 million to the project, to be paid in 10 annual installments of $100,000 each. 

The money comes from a city trust fund earmarked for organizational support. Other beneficiaries include the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts, Mead Botanical Garden, United Arts, the Winter Park Day Nursery and the Winter Park Historical Association. 

Such largess hardly breaks the budget. Contributions are equal to .0025 percent (that’s one quarter of one percent) of revenue collected for the general fund and utilities services. The not-so-grand total is about $350,000 per year.

For context, if you divide $350,000 by the 14,600 households within the city limits, you get about $24 per year per household. But, because that calculation fails to include revenue from utilities customers in unincorporated Orange County, even $24 is an overstatement. 

Be that as it may, let’s avoid more complicated math and concede that maintaining the trust fund costs every bit of $24 annually for city residents. If that’s the case, then about $7 per household has gone to the arts center. I’ve paid more for a pint of Guinness Stout at Fiddler’s Green.

Sure, $1 million is a lot of money. But the city’s donation was modest in the scheme of things, and more important symbolically than financially. It came at a pivotal time, and no other municipality (except for Orlando) had skin in the game.

Bradley, Leary, McMaken and Sprinkel knew that the project, even with an address in Orlando, would disproportionally benefit residents of Winter Park — a place where support for the arts is embedded in the civic DNA. And they were right. The last time I checked, people who use 32789 as their zip code made up the second-largest block of arts center ticket buyers.

So, when all is said and done, what has that $7 per year helped to buy? Here’s how Jim Pugh put it at a recent press preview for Steinmetz Hall, the opening of which marked completion of the complex as it was envisioned more than 20 years ago: 

“We set out to build one of the greatest performing arts centers in the world — one that could transform our region and serve as a model for the future — and I think we did exactly that.” 

Plenty of people agree. Even prior to the opening of Steinmetz Hall, more than 2.5 million people had attended 2,400-plus performances that ranged from ballet to Broadway. And more than 633,000 people had enjoyed educational programming through the arts center’s AdventHealth School of Arts.

Was it cheap? No, but anything worth building is worth building right. The 698,312-square-foot facility has cost some $612 million, with support coming from more than 14,000 individual and corporate donors as well as the state, the county, and the cities of Orlando and Winter Park.

Each venue is state-of-the-art, but there are only a handful of buildings on the planet that can match Steinmetz Hall. It was designed to achieve an “N1” sound rating, which is the lowest level at which humans can detect sound. That means it’s built with “unplugged” performances in mind. 

And, as a multiform venue, the hall can change its configuration to suit any kind of performance — from full orchestras to small ensembles to dance troupes to solo recitals. 

In addition, the first 22 rows of seats in the lower orchestra can pivot forward 180 degrees and are stored upside down when the angled floor is flattened. In that way, the space can accommodate up to 1,000 people for a cocktail party or up to 688 people for a seated banquet. You have to see it to believe it. 

So, bravo Winter Park, for having the vision seven years ago to support an effort that would elevate the region internationally. Now it’s time to take a bow.

TWO SURGEONS WITH AN AXE TO GRIND

The Axe Trap (above) is definitely an aesthetic improvement over the suggestively domed strip club that it replaced . But more than spiffing up a scuzzy block of Lee Road, entrepreneurial vascular surgeons Manuel Perez and David Varnagy (below, left to right) have enlivened the city by combining food and drink with an oddly therapeutic form of recreation (bottom).

With all the new buildings turning up in Winter Park, you may have missed one that was completed last spring on Lee Road, just east of I-4: an upscale, family-owned enterprise that encourages patrons to enjoy a snack with a beer or a cup of coffee, then pick up an axe and throw it at the wall.

It’s called “The Axe Trap.”

The name is a droll reference to the corner lot’s previous occupant, a strip club that had gone by various names over the years but was best known as The Booby Trap — a creepy up-nod to the club’s architectural profile, once described with characteristic savoir faire by Billy Manes, the late and beloved Orlando Weekly columnist, as “two suggestive domes.” 

Seven years ago, Winter Park officials had a suggestion of their own.

They approved a plan to buy the property for $990,000, have the building torn down, offer up the lot for sale and hold out for a buyer with a business model more apropos for the northwest gateway to the City of Culture and Heritage. 

Eventually, two unlikely takers emerged: vascular surgeons David Varnagy and Manuel Perez, who’ve been partners in an Orlando practice for eight years and best friends for longer still. They have frequently and cheerfully enmeshed families, leisure activities and vacation plans — so why not join forces on a business venture?

“We complement each other,” says Perez, who is from Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

“I always know what he is going to like, and vice versa,” adds Varnagy, who is from Venezuela.

The bond extends to their being unusually well-matched as surgeons. Perez is right-handed and Varnagy is a southpaw, making it easier for both to operate using their respective dominant hands from their places on either side of an anesthetized patient. 

The notion of partnering in an after-hours enterprise evolved after Perez’s son took him to a trendy millennial nightspot in downtown Orlando: an axe-throwing bar. Think craft beers and dart boards, only with bigger targets and heftier projectiles.

Perez was initially unimpressed — “It was all particle board and chain-link fence. It looked like aisle 15 of Home Depot” — but intrigued enough to make a second visit and bring along his bestie, who announced: “Manny, we can do this better.” 

As they have.

The pair bought the lot for $950,000 and spent half again as much to build an airy 5,000-square foot venue with the feel of a converted circa 1920s waterfront warehouse. 

A rear entrance via a deck leads to a quiet seating area featuring industrial-chic couches, semiprivate cubicles — and a yet another homage to the past: a stripper pole fashioned by Perez, a handyman who did much of the interior work himself. 

Perez also installed a hidden door that can be swung into place to hide the pole — which is, of course, for decorative use only — if its presence offends a guest.

An ornate bar is in the middle of the venue, cushioning the lounge area from the staccato thuds and generalized hubbub that begins emanating in late afternoons from the poplar-lined walls of the five netted bays on the far side of the facility. 

Axe-throwing ranges from leisurely to competitive as coached and safely stewarded by Ian White, a young devotee whose fixation with the Canadian lumberjack-born pastime dates to his childhood. 

There’s plenty of cross pollination between the two sides of the place among patrons, as evidenced by Jessica Sudler, a 28-year-old online program manager who works remotely and frequently turns up at the venue, laptop in hand.

“I just have to get out of the house sometimes,” she says. There’s that, plus the late-morning coffee and spinach-artichoke dip, plus the chance for Sudler, who played varsity softball as an undergrad, to head over to the axe-throwing side to wing a few and work out the day’s stressors.

Perhaps you remember Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John, the two combat surgeons on M*A*S*H, the feature film and 1970s TV series, who would retreat to a makeshift bar for mingling and martinis after a tough day tending to the wounded. 

I’m reminded of these fictional Korean War medicos when Perez and Varnagy turn up at their new venture in the evenings, sometimes still in their scrubs, clearly enjoying the surroundings.

“They have people’s lives in their hands,” says Varnagy’s wife, Miriam, who has been drafted as the venue’s manager. “They needed a place like this.” 

Maybe that accounts for a second sign on the back side of the enterprise. It applies to the doctors. It applies to the patrons. It applies to the City of Culture and Heritage. 

It says, simply: “Remedy.” 


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College.

THE MAN IN THE MOON

For much of my childhood, I couldn’t see the Man in the Moon. I thought my parents were making him up. Or could only adults see him? But one night, all my mother’s pointing paid off, and there he was. I remember feeling sorry for him, being so far away and always looking down at me with his sleepy blue smile. On this poem’s winter night, the moon kept rising and falling teasingly behind the woods I was driving through. When he finally showed his face, he looked different, younger, and, somehow, in love. Like a crooner. But that’s all in the poem, isn’t it?  As Frost said, to paraphrase a poem is “to say it worse.”

THE MAN IN THE MOON

He used to frighten me in the nights of childhood,
The wide adult face, enormous, stern, aloft.
I could not imagine such loneliness, such coldness.

But tonight as I drive home over these hilly roads
I see him sinking behind stands of winter trees
And rising again to show his familiar face.

And when he comes into full view over open fields
He looks like a young man who has fallen in love
With the dark earth,

A pale bachelor, well-groomed and full of melancholy,
His round mouth open
As if he had just broken into song.


Billy Collins is a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2002-03) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “The Man in the Moon” originally appeared in Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins. ©2001. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

Photo by Suzannah Gilman

HIDDEN GEM WILL GET EASIER TO FIND

Ena Heller (above left), director of the Rollins Museum of Art, is eagerly awaiting a 2023 move to a new facility (above right) in downtown Winter Park, next to a new facility for the college’s Crummer Graduate School of Business. Then the city’s “hidden gem” of a museum will be hard to miss. Photo by Rafael Tongol (Ena Heller)/Rendering courtesy of Rollins College

When travel guides call the Rollins College Museum of Art “a hidden gem,” Ena Heller takes it as a left-handed compliment. She’s fine with the “gem” part. It’s the “hidden” she could do without.

For nearly a decade, Heller has been director of the museum, built in the late 1970s on the far side of campus, where Holt Avenue dead-ends at Lake Virginia. 

It’s a great location for solitude and scenery, but sorely lacking in two necessities for an institution that’s open to visitors: convenient parking and nearby foot traffic. 

This relative seclusion will end in three years, when the museum is scheduled to move across Fairbanks Avenue to Winter Park proper and into a two-story, $22.6 million facility that will triple its current size and encompass an auditorium, a café, larger galleries for exhibitions and study rooms for students. 

As for parking, there’s the nearby SunTrust garage. As for foot traffic, Park Avenue is just a block away.

The new museum will be situated at the corner of Interlachen and New England avenues. That puts it directly across the street from the Rollins-owned Alfond Inn. There, the college has already established a bustling beachhead where works from the museum’s growing Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art are displayed. 

Next door to the museum will be a 44,000 square-foot building designated for the college’s Crummer Graduate School of Business. These three buildings — the hotel, the museum and the business school — have been dubbed the “Innovation Triangle” by college planners. 

To usher in this new and more high-profile era, the museum’s name was changed this past summer from the Cornell Fine Arts Museum — in honor of Rollins graduates George and Harriett Cornell, the couple who funded its construction — to the Rollins Museum of Art.

You’d expect Heller to be over the moon about all of this. She is. But when she calls the move “a once-in-a generation opportunity,” she has more than location, location, location in mind.

When the job at Rollins became available, Heller was living in New York City and managing a busy kunsthalle, a facility that mounts temporary art exhibitions. “But I was always more interested in teaching,” she says. “And in the back of my mind, I had the type of museum where I would like to be one day.”

Heller, who immigrated to the United States as a child whose family fled Romania to escape a communist regime, has social activism in her blood. That’s obvious from the wide-ranging exhibitions the museum has hosted that emphasize inclusion and multiculturalism. 

Clearly, Heller’s push-the-envelope approach has worked. Despite its obscure location, the museum’s annual visitor count has quadrupled during her tenure.

A recent example of the museum’s more intellectually challenging direction is American Modernisms at the Rollins Museum of Art, which highlights an often-overlooked, multicultural trove of 20th-century artists. The exhibition runs through May of next year.

Such changes reflect a rapidly accelerating evolution among other American art museums, particularly those connected to institutions of higher learning. Many are transitioning away from “being about something to being for somebody,” in the words of the late Stephen Weil, who was emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Museum Studies.

That decades-long movement involves engaging modern audiences by reassessing marginalized artists, emphasizing multicultural art and creating exhibitions that reflect contemporary sensibilities and issues. The trend has intensified in recent years in light of changing demographics and heightened social unrest. 

Heller says she’s intrigued by the dynamic of exploring that fresh artistic landscape in the middle of Winter Park, given its “label of elitist.” She also praises the late Hugh McKean, past professor of art and later president of the college who, with his wife, Jeannette, founded the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. 

McKean — an anti-elitist despite his patrician personality — strove to make art more accessible and less inscrutable. An early name he chose for his collection was “The Museum of Living Art,” through which objects were distributed to various on-campus buildings rather than being ensconced in a single place. 

In 1941, he opened the college’s Morse Gallery of Art — which preceded the modern-day museum, unaffiliated with the college, on Park Avenue. That means, upon completion of the Rollins Museum of Art, downtown Winter Park will be anchored on the north and the south by two very different but equally intriguing arts attractions.

By the way, it’s likely that by the time the Rollins Museum of Art moves into its new home, two other Central Florida museums will have relocated or expanded.

The city of Orlando’s Mennello Museum of Art has a $20 million expansion planned that will encompass its current home in Loch Haven Park, while the nearby Orlando Museum of American Art hopes to celebrate its 100th birthday by adding a second location in a 33-story five-star hotel bordered by Church and Pine Streets in downtown Orlando.

The travel guide folks will have plenty of gems from which to choose. And none of them will be hidden. 


Michael McLeod, mmcleod@rollins.edu, is a contributing writer for Winter Park Magazine and an adjunct instructor in the English department at Rollins College. 


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