Bobby Rodriguez helped Joe Redner get his start in nude dancing

TAMPA — Of the two men who made Tampa a strip club mecca, most people have heard of just one.

The one you know is Joe Redner, the ambitious ponytailed baron of successful clubs such as Mons Venus.

The one you don't is Bobby Rodriguez, a testy and hard-knuckled man who repaid those who crossed him with broken bones, bloodied faces and maybe even burned-down businesses.

In contrast with Redner, an eight-time political candidate, Mr. Rodriguez preferred to work his influence behind the scenes. He kept up contacts, called in favors and dished out retribution.

He was willing to use violence to get results. He had a lengthy arrest record on charges ranging from battery to concealed weapons to arson, most of which were dismissed.

Perhaps most important, he helped launch Redner's career, once employing him as a bar manager and later co-owning the Tanga Lounge with him.

Mr. Rodriguez, a key player in a seamy side of Tampa history, died Aug. 29 from complications of Alzheimer's disease and heart disease, according to a paid obituary. He was 76.

"He was a wanna-be mobster, that's who he was," said Redner, 71.

His ex-wife describes a romantic man, albeit one with a quick temper, and a doting father.

"There was more good than bad," said Judith Ann Rodriguez, 55. "He grew up on that side of the street where he had to protect his family."

Mr. Rodriguez owned Deep South, a Tampa go-go bar in the mid 1970s, and drove a Trans-Am. He met Judith Ann Conway around 1974 at another club.

She was 18. He was at least 20 years older.

Upon seeing her, Mr. Rodriguez turned to a friend and said, "She's mine."

They later had a daughter and married in Key West.

Around the same time, Redner, who managed Deep South for Mr. Rodriguez, felt it was time to open a nude bar. Mr. Rodriguez introduced Redner to another bar owner named Gene Radney.

Mr. Rodriguez and Radney opened the Night Gallery in 1976, the first nude dance club on Florida's west coast. Redner would later take part ownership in the Tanga Lounge on the Courtney Campbell Parkway, which became a landmark nude club.

Mr. Rodriguez had his hand in pursuits other than strip clubs.

In 1981, he was arrested in connection with a smuggling operation after authorities seized 11,025 pounds of marijuana in Aripeka. Mr. Rodriguez got probation in exchange for testifying against others involved.

Nonetheless, he was able to buy half of the Tanga after authorities revoked its liquor license in 1982. He continued to rule there with a heavy hand.

According to his ex-wife, the burly Mr. Rodriguez took offense after two men expressed admiration for her in the Tanga.

"I was wearing a low-cut dress," she said. "These two guys said, 'Whooah!' "

Within moments, she said, "they were both on the floor." Her husband broke a bone in his hand from throwing the punches, she said.

Robert Evelio Rodriguez grew up in Tampa, the son of a Cuban cigarmaker and a mother of Spanish descent. He spent four years in the Air Force before entering the bar business.

Despite his tough-guy image, he showed a vulnerable side to the women closest to him — though at times he was arrested for beating them up.

"Bobby was very needy," his former wife said. She laid out his clothes each morning for most of the decade they were married, made his cappuccino and set out his vitamins.

He enjoyed cooking for groups of friends, treating them to paella, black bean soup and filet salteado.

The success of the Tanga emboldened Redner to open other nude clubs without Rodriguez, often in violation of local zoning laws. Redner said he was banking on winning in court, but Mr. Rodriguez took exception to his methods.

"He felt that I was putting the Tanga in jeopardy," Redner said. According to Redner, Mr. Rodriguez also resented being left out of the new businesses.

As Redner tells it, tensions came to a head the morning Mr. Rodriguez showed up in Redner's office at the Tanga Lounge and immediately removed his shirt.

"I said, 'I'm not going to fight you,' and I walked down the hall," he said. "He put a police choke hold on me. I passed out. When I woke up, I was being kicked on the floor."

The incident cost Redner two broken ribs, but he declined to press charges. "I didn't see where that would get me," he said.

In 1986, three Tampa-area nightclubs that had been owned or operated by Redner caught fire. Authorities charged Mr. Rodriguez with arson.

He was charged the same year with arson after a fourth club, the Hitch n' Post, burned down, this one owned by Judith Ann Rodriguez. At the time, she and Mr. Rodriguez were divorced and she was engaged to another man.

All the arson charges were dismissed.

In 1993, Mr. Rodriguez suffered a personal tragedy when Randy Rodriguez, his 25-year-old son, was fatally shot by a 17-year-old with whom he had been arguing. Mr. Rodriguez's family did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

He had resumed friendly relations with his ex-wife and they remained in contact until his Alzheimer's disease worsened, she said.

Though many friends had died off, those who remained turned up for his funeral Wednesday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. His ex-wife also attended.

"I think I was the only one who cried," she said.

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>BIOGRAPHY

Robert Evelio 'Bobby' Rodriguez

Born: Aug. 5, 1935.

Died: Aug. 29, 2011.

Survivors: Daughters Amy Pickford, Bobbiann Rivera and Samantha Rodriguez; son Chase Rodriguez; six grandchildren.

>>BIOGRAPHY

Robert Evelio 'Bobby' Rodriguez

Born: Aug. 5, 1935.

Died: Aug. 29, 2011.

Survivors: Daughters Amy Pickford, Bobbiann Rivera and Samantha Rodriguez; son Chase Rodriguez; six grandchildren.

Bobby Rodriguez helped Joe Redner get his start in nude dancing 09/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 10:01am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...