PINELLAS PARK — At the peak of its popularity in the early 1990s, Joyland drew up to 500 customers a night, many of whom drove from other counties to a place where they felt welcome.
They wore straight-leg jeans and cowboy boots, flared skirts and cowboy hats, belts with wide buckles and long-sleeved plaid shirts. They two-stepped and line-danced to live music six nights a week, their drinks refreshed by any of four bartenders working at top speed.
There was no place like it, really.
Walter Preston had owned and managed the club since 1986, inheriting a legacy of family-friendly entertainment from the 1960s, when a sign at the door reminded patrons to "Dress respectful. Shirttail in."
Mr. Preston and his wife, Betty, upgraded Joyland substantially as a nightclub and also squeezed revenue out of the large building at 11225 U.S. 19 N with special events ranging from mixed martial arts to monthly meetings of the Pinellas County Republican Club.
Billy Ray Cyrus played to a sold-out crowd at Joyland. So did John Anderson, Aaron Tippin and Jimmy Strickland.
Then patrons lost interest in country. The fad had ended.
Mr. Preston, who lived on Redington Beach, died Oct. 30 at Palms of Pasadena Hospital of prostate cancer. He was 78.
"It's probably one of the longest-established nightclubs in the state of Florida," said Jerry Lambert, Mr. Preston's stepson. "Anybody that had made their way to Florida kind of had heard of or knew about Joyland."
From the marquee on U.S. 19 with vertical red letters spelling J-o-y-l-a-n-d to the bands pumping out tunes the audiences craved, the club sold abundance and a sense of belonging.
"From a patron's point of view, it was incredible," said Mike Rowe, lead singer of the country band Darkhorse. "It was a place where, when you walked in, you felt at home. It was one of those landmarks. You come to town, and you go to Joyland."
The man behind the bonanza knew nothing about two-stepping or boot scooting and never learned. Neither did his wife.
"That was a rule we had," said Betty Preston, 75. "If you're going to run the place, you can't be on the dance floor. So neither of us ever learned how to line dance."
Walter Preston was born in Kokomo, Ind. A marriage to his first wife, Mildred, lasted 17 years and produced three children. After a divorce in the 1960s, he convinced Betty Friskey, a former diner waitress and factory worker, to move to Florida with him.
Mr. Preston ran a used car lot, bought and sold motels, and raced greyhounds out of Pensacola. Betty Preston, who married him in 1981, helped run his businesses.
The first Joyland opened in 1959 as an amusement park with carnival rides. A country and western bar opened under new ownership in 1964.
The 1970s saw a revolving stage in Joyland and a go-cart track outside.
Then came Urban Cowboy in 1980 and a surge in retailers of Western clothing. In the mid-1980s, country was still cool — and Joyland was on the market again. Mr. Preston bought Joyland in 1986.
"It was the kind of place where single ladies could come in and feel comfortable," said Jerry Lambert, Betty's son from a previous marriage. "And if anybody did anything inappropriate, we could deal with it immediately."
The Prestons opened the Wild West Club in Tampa in 1989, sending Jerry to manage it. In 1992, they opened Joyland III in Hudson, with Jerry's brother as head bartender. They also opened a Joyland in Bradenton.
"It spread us a little thinner," said Lambert, 54. "We personally oversaw it, and that was part of our success. It had a family touch to it."
In contrast to the polished indifference of discos, Joyland reached out to newcomers. Instructors taught large groups how to dance The Achy Breaky or The Boot Scootin' Boogie.
Mr. Preston bought a building behind the club and renovated it as a roller hockey rink.
"The best years were right before line dancing started getting so popular," said Betty Preston. But in the mid-1990s, clubs such as Pure Country Dance Hall in Pasco County, Dance Country in Hillsborough County and many more began to grab a share of the country market.
"It kind of split all the business up," she said. "It just wasn't as lucrative."
Then the bottom dropped out altogether.
"Country died out real hard in the mid-1990s," said Rowe of Darkhorse. "We would consistently play to crowds of 300 to 400 people, and within a couple of years we were playing to 50 to 100 people."
The city of Pinellas Park, which had annexed the stretch of U.S. 19 that included Joyland in 1991, shut the club down in 2000, citing "life-threatening" fire and building code violations, such as uncovered electrical boxes and a lack of fire walls.
"Walter has a unique way of approaching construction," said then-Assistant City Manager Mike Gustafson.
Mr. Preston had Joyland up and running after several months, but the crowds continued to stay away. He held boxing and mixed martial arts matches on the property, added a salsa club and opened the Crystal Playhouse Dinner Theatre to supplement Joyland.
None of it worked. Still, Mr. Preston could not bring himself to abandon the country format.
"We could have opened up a rock 'n' roll club that would have appealed to a lot of people," said Lambert. "It may not have been the best business decision, but we felt comfortable with it, and we liked the people in country dance and music. We just felt kind of dialed in with country, and we've stayed true to that."
Lambert now runs the Bradenton club on U.S. 41, the only Joyland that still stands. Mr. Preston retired to his home in Redington Beach, where he continued to enjoy golf and fishing.
Musicians still play on the Joyland stage on U.S. 19, but they are playing contemporary Christian music. Mr. Preston sold the original Joyland in 2003 to Crosspointe Baptist Church.
"For me, it was a sad day indeed when it closed," Rowe said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.