God spared Skipper's Smokehouse. • He spared it from fires and floods, from hurricanes and hailstorms, from the pressures of decorum and decency and time. When change came calling, he had Skipper's look the other way. • Invoking the creator in the name of a rusty old oyster shack on the outskirts of Tampa is not as heretical as it sounds. That the bar has not only survived, but aged beautifully, must be providence, says owner Tom White. "Good karma," he says, smiling. • Opened as a restaurant in 1977, and purchased in 1980 by Air Force buddies White, Vince McGilvra (who retired in 2008) and Andy Bastman (who sold his share to White and McGilvra in the 1980s), Skipper's has evolved into one of the top blues clubs in America, hosting the likes of Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and John Mayall. But the road was long and circuitous, full of colorful characters, fortunate favor-trading and improbable expansion. • "Skipper's is, was and probably always will be a work in progress," said McGilvra. Or, to put it another way, says promotions manager Mark Warren: "Skipper's wasn't designed. Skipper's happened." • In 30 years, too much has transpired at Skipper's Smokehouse to recount in full. But how much of it lingers beneath the old oak canopy? As the club prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary next week, let's explore some essential elements of Tampa's favorite shack.
Who is Skipper? And where's the smokehouse?
Skipper's Smokehouse was named for its location on Skipper Road, which, the story goes, was named for John Skipper, a prominent area landowner in the early 20th century. The restaurant's actual smokehouse is long dormant. It's a shed that sits between the outdoor bar and the rear restrooms — the one with the tin roof and mermaid mural. Employees refer to the old smokehouse as "Hazel's," after a sign that used to hang there. Today, it's used to store beer. Food is prepared in a pressure smoker.
The trees were there first: century-old live oaks, thick with Spanish moss, spiring through the land that eventually became Skipper's. Each time the owners thought of expanding, they had but one edict: Do not harm the trees. Since 1986, the man charged with maintaining the canopy has been Land O'Lakes arborist Jason Bean, who scales the oaks to trim branches and make repairs. Skipper's regulars may recognize him for another role. Each Halloween, for the bar's annual Freaker's Ball, Bean climbs the trees in costume and waits for the perfect moment to swing down and terrify the crowd.
The Skipperdome was built from plywood planks and roof tin salvaged from the rubble of demolished barns. But what makes the walls pop is the colorful custom artwork at every turn, much of it donated by friends, patrons and staffers. The faded swamp tableau at the entrance was created by muralist Karen Stevens, who personalized it by painting White's face on a heron and McGilvra's face on an otter. Tampa artist Derek Washington painted a dance mural that's visible only by peering through a small window between the kitchen and dining room. And perhaps the most famous piece, a portrait of Jerry Garcia on the eastern wall, is Skipper's ultimate crowd-sourced masterwork. One night, artist Judy Eidge projected an image of Garcia on the wall and told concertgoers to pick up a paintbrush and start filling in the blanks like a coloring book. Hundreds did.
Skipper's used to go through 100 pounds of smoked mullet a week. In recent years, it's down to 25 or less. But the bony fish still holds a place of honor at Skipper's — employees call themselves Mullets, and their smoking deck is known as the Mullet Pen. So when asked for his favorite tchotchke on the walls at Skipper's, White points to a red mullet-shaped weather vane high above the coolers of free water. "An old girlfriend, when I first bought Skipper's, gave me this weather vane as a present," he said. "I don't know that it points to anything. But it's so unique."
The Tahiti Room
The Tahiti Room is a tiny cell of reinforced concrete at the heart of the Oyster Bar. It might seat 20 in comfort, 25 if you're feeling touchy-feely — and yet it once held a piano and even live concerts on Tuesday nights. The 360-degree mural, a crude undersea panorama, is staffer-drawn, but it's difficult to make out behind the hundreds of lamentations of love, loss and lewdness doodled by customers. "Hug a platypus" . . . "I smoke the purple" . . . "Grizzly was here '09." Every few years the room gets a little smaller, when it receives a fresh coat of paint. The only way to ensure your words of wisdom are not lost to history is to keep coming back.
Skipper's does not forget the regulars and employees who helped color its history. There was Chainsaw Gene, who once hopped onstage to carve chain saw art for customers when a band bailed on a gig. There was Snortin' Horton, who would suck an oyster up his nose and hock it back out right in front of you. There was, and is, Dancing Paul, Skipper's designated party-starter, who gets the dance floor moving during zydeco concerts. And there's Sandy Sawhead, Dumpster Don, Cosmic Dave, Herbie Ten Times and too many more to list. When oyster shucker Jimmy Michaelides died in 1999, the restaurant launched an annual tribute concert known as Jimmy Jam. A shrine to Michaelides sits above one end of the Oyster Bar. "Whenever weird things happen — things will fall off the shelf, the door will close for no reason — we just say it's Jimmy messing with us," said manager Vicki Dodds, who has worked at Skipper's since the '70s.
The memorial wall
Tributes to the lost appear throughout Skipper's Smokehouse — tokens from old workers, RIPs scrawled in the Tahiti Room. But one is more permanent than others. Backstage is a wall of photos memorializing friends and frequent performers who have died. "This is the wall you don't want to see your picture on," White said. Another photo may be added: Craig Van Tilbury, a local guitarist and the longtime love of former bartender "Freight Train Annie" Waddey, who died suddenly a month ago. On Sept. 27, Skipper's will host a memorial concert and fundraiser for Van Tilbury's family, the latest in a countless series of tributes the club has organized over the years.
There is a book that spills all of Skipper's secrets. It is called Skipper Tales, "an unauthorized, unexpurgated and unprecedented Mullet Memoir," and it was written by Skipper's historian Bonnie O'Connor to commemorate the club's 25th anniversary. Four or five copies exist, all in the hands of Skipper's most trusted and tenured employees, and no names are redacted to protect the guilty. It's all there — the feuds, the hookups, the nakedness, the unruly customers, the lawlessness of the '80s, the smoking (of mullet and more), the drunken antics of the blues' baddest bad boys. I have read this book, all 638 pages of it. It is funny, shocking and packed with affection for all things Skipper. But you'll never see it, not as long as Skipper's top brass walks the Earth — the skeletons are still too fresh. Still, the stories are out there, begging to be told. Spend a few nights beneath the Skipperdome, getting to know the regulars and the bartenders, and maybe, someday, you'll hear them.