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Arnie's is a memory, but former owner isn't

For a dozen years, Arnie's Supper Club has been a Pasco County landmark.

Not because of the rather nondescript building set so close to U.S. 19 that a second row of cars in the front parking lot puts front bumpers frighteningly close to passing traffic.

And not because of big-name bands, because Arnie's hasn't needed the big-timers in order to draw a big-time crowd.

It's other stuff.

Mainly, owner Arnie Becker, decked out in wild island-style shirts, playing his steel guitar, singing, smiling, laughing and, on "singles night," dancing with new, unaccompanied ladies while loudly proclaiming them not only new, but also, well, available.

But only for dancing, of course.

It's also remarkable for the patrons, people of a certain age who are almost an anachronism in their genteel, courteous, courtly ways.

Now Arnie's Supper Club is just a memory. On Saturday, it celebrated its last night for "good food, good drinks, good fun!" as Arnie's business card said.

Arnie Becker, 73 going on 74, has sold his supper club. Signed the papers Friday to sell to three families who plan to put in a Chinese restaurant, just what U.S. 19 needs _ but, hey, a buyer can do what a buyer wants.

Don't think that Arnie will be gone, though. He has been playing in bands for 56 years, the last 24 of them in Florida, and he's not about to stop now.

"I'm just getting my second wind," he said Thursday as he finished cleaning out a dozen years of his life at the supper club. "I'm going to play wherever they want me to play. Our people said, "Arnie, you've got to play somewhere,' so we are."

He and his cohorts, keyboardist Steve Daniels and percussionist Eddie Graham, will play from 8 to 11:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the new Copa Cabana on Main Street in New Port Richey. Just as at Arnie's, there will be no cover charge, but there will be a two-drink minimum. "And it doesn't have to be alcohol," Arnie is quick to say.

There is a lot more to Arnie and Arnie's than dancing and singing, though.

It all started in 1974, when a patron lugged an old oak limb into his place in Palm Harbor, Arnie's Lounge and Shipwreck Bar in the little red schoolhouse on Alternate 19.

The song Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree was popular at the time, and, just for fun, a customer who sold shoelaces tied about 100 yellow laces on the tree.

"Somebody said, "This has got to have more green,' and put $5 on it'," Arnie recalls. "Someone else said, "That's cheap,' and put a $10 on it." From then on, every time someone had a birthday or anniversary, Arnie would ask for donations to the tree. As the money grew, someone suggested giving it to a worthy cause.

"One of the guys suggested UPARC (Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens), and I invited them to come get it," Arnie said. There was more than $300 on the tree at the time.

Arnie thought that was the end of it, but no sooner had the UPARC people gone through the door than a woman walked up and put a fresh $5 bill on the limb. "It started all over again," Arnie said.

For 20 years, Arnie collected money on that tree, both at his place and when he and his band went out to play other venues. At one time, he donated $2,200 in one lump sum to UPARC. When he moved to Pasco County, he started donating it to Pasco's retarded citizens.

Arnie said that by the time the tree was taken down three or four years ago, his patrons had given more than $150,000 to organizations for retarded people.

"It's so great to see people in a giving mood," he says.

He plans to keep playing as long he can and as long as his voice holds out.

"We've had good success here," Arnie says.

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On another matter, several people have called to ask when I am going to write a review of Hello, Dolly playing Thursday and weekends ending March 23 at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill.

Some of them saw me at preview night March 4, others know that I have a long tradition of reviewing Stage West plays, and they all wondered what was keeping me from writing.

The reason for no review is that I missed most of the second act because I was out of the theater being ill.

No, no, no. The play didn't make me sick. I really enjoyed what I got to see, especially the chorus, supporting players Roy Jenkins and Shawn McNulty as the two clerks, and the truly terrific multiple sets.

It's just that a couple of weeks earlier, I had had a little surgery on my big toe that, unfortunately, went south on me. The pain and the painkillers made me ill and caused me to miss most of the big numbers in the second act.

Since I didn't see the whole play, I didn't think it would be fair to write a review. I would like to go back and write one now, but my calendar is filled for the remaining performances, so it appears that I'll be forced to let this one go by.

Apparently, those who got to see the whole play told a lot of other people they liked it. The run of the musical is sold out.