The Year Hollywood Discovered Clearwater Beach
By Donna Malloy
Stairways to Nowhere. This photo of the unfinished "Old Hotel" at 880 Mandalay was taken in Feb 1951 by George Fulmer of Fulmer Photo. It is currently known as Regatta Beach Club and is located at the north end of Clearwater Beach.
The scene was one only Hollywood could conjure up; a beautiful young woman dancing with an imaginary soldier at an abandoned construction site. The year was 1944; the world was at war and our country yearned for a happy ending. The film was titled: "Sunday Dinner for a Soldier" and featured popular actors of the day Ann Baxter and John Hodiak.
This emotional war drama was shot on location at Drew Field in Tampa, Tarpon Springs and Clearwater Beach. Yes, Clearwater Beach, and specifically, at the construction site of what would eventually become Regatta Beach Club (RBC). But in the movie, the trampled sign calls the old hotel "Mar Vista Hotel."
Tessa, the protagonist, has been taking care of Grandfeathers (her term of endearment for her grandfather), and younger siblings after the death of their parents. They live in a small houseboat and there is never enough money; Tessa doesn't even own a dress.
Kenneth wants to marry Tessa and take care of her. Grandfeathers approves of the marriage and tells Tessa that it would be good for her because Kenneth "comes from a good family, has good character and money!"
Tessa asks Kenneth to give her one week before she makes her final decision whether to marry him or not. Then Tessa walks down the beach (in her heels of course) to an abandoned construction site where several levels of steps and columns leading to nowhere sit on top of a concrete slab. Tessa begins her dream-dance sequence with her imaginary soldier as the Gulf of Mexico sparkles in the background.
In the meantime, Tessa has filled out an Entertainment Ticket Order with the USO for one soldier to come to dinner "Sunday a week." Because her Entertainment Ticker Order never reaches the appropriate department, there will be no soldier coming to dinner this Sunday. But Tessa and her family don't know that yet.
Sunday arrives and each time the Tarpon Springs van pulls up to the beach, there is no soldier inside. But in true Hollywood fashion, a uniformed soldier just happens to be strolling down the beach and the kids think it's the soldier they have been waiting for all day long.
By late afternoon, Tessa and her soldier, Sergeant Eric Morrison, are falling in love. Later that evening, they walk down the beach and end up at the construction site. Eric hears the music as does Tessa and together they begin their dance sequence.
This is the same land on north Clearwater Beach that in the 1800's was sold as fish camps for $200 a lot and would later become prime Gulf front real estate. With the issuance of a million dollar bond in 1926, both Clearwater and Clearwater Beach began its growth period.
Eventually the residential building at 880 Mandalay Avenue, now known as Regatta Beach Club, would be completed in stages; but not without its stories. Even the Smithsonian Institute was interested in the 880 site when in 1904 it commissioned a dig for both Indian and Spanish artifacts. Ben Skinner, nephew of visionary L.B. Skinner who developed most of Clearwater Beach, noted in his Oral History that it was possible that Cherokee Indians from North Carolina worked on the construction of 880 because they also worked at his family's citrus grove picking fruit.
For anyone interested in learning more about our areas' rich history please visit Heritage Village's site at: www.pinellascounty.org/Heritage/archives.htm or call 727-582-2123 for public research hours or to make an appointment to view historic photographs, maps, postcards, scrapbooks and audio-visual collections. And don't forget to watch the movie "Sunday Dinner for a Soldier" while you're there.
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