By Jane Feehan
College students first came to Fort Lauderdale in 1935 as part of the Collegiate Aquatic Forum held at the Casino Pool during 10 days in December. The city extended an invitation to swimming coaches and students at 23 institutions the first year. By the 1950s, between four and five thousand students made their way to Fort Lauderdale during the annual swimming event and for Spring break; the city welcomed their business.
Things changed in 1961.
The movie, Where the Boys Are, released in December that year linked Fort Lauderdale and Spring Break antics in the national consciousness. Crowds surged and a riot in March spurred Mayor Edward Johns and Police Chief Lester Holt to demand that the students “get out of town.” Miami News reporter Henry Jones wrote that the “students … have given Fort Lauderdale a national reputation as the site of a spring orgy rivaling the exuberance of the Romans.”
Students ignored the order to get out of town and continued to flock annually - at times hundreds of thousands of them - to Fort Lauderdale. In 1982, two Yale graduates, Bruce Jacobsen and Rollin Riggs had a lot to say about Fort Lauderdale in their book, Rites of Spring: Students’ Guide to Spring Break in Florida. (Priam Books, 1982). Excerpts follow:
Fort Lauderdale is as loose on its morals as it is tight on its laws.
The town deserves its meat-market reputation: people are constantly sizing you up, weighing you and determining how much you cost with all the authority and insensitivity of a butcher.
A popular daytime diversion is to sit in lounge chairs or on a fence and heckle passersby. As one Fort Lauderdale veteran put it “the more drunk yell at the less drunk, and the really drunk fall off the fence.”
How could anyone want to leave the town that coined the term to scope (to eye the opposite sex)?
Fort Lauderdale has as much dignity as pro wrestling or roller derby but provokes the same illicit sense of pleasure. If you can keep up with the great pace for a few days at a time, you’re bound to return with some great stories.
Jacobsen and Riggs listed places to stay:
Bahama Hotel, Fort Lauderdale Motel, Holiday Inn (Las Olas), Jolly Roger, Lauderdale Biltmore, Wish you Were Here Inn and the Xanadu. Bar recommendations included: the Button, Elbo Room, Bojangles, Candy Store, and Mr. Pips. For dining they pointed to the Mai-Kai, Yesterday’s, Durty Nellie’s and the Crab Pot.
Most of those places are gone now – and so are the rowdy students. Fort Lauderdale clamped down on the annual event in the mid 1980s with open container laws and traffic re-routing. The annual swim meet, the granddaddy of it all, sedately continues at the International Swimming Hall of Fame (www.ishof.org) Copyright © 2011. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.
Miami News, Dec. 24, 1935
Miami News, March 28, 1961
Jacobsen, Bruce and Riggs, Rollin. Rites of Spring: Students Guide to Spring Break in Florida. Priam Books 1982
Fort Lauderdale history, Spring break history, Collegiate Aquatic Forum Fort Lauderdale, college students, Fort Lauderdale spring break