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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Tampa’s original big cat king: the saga of the Sea Wolf restaurant’s Gene Holloway

He was the skydiving, bear-and-big-cat wrestling, rags-to-riches man who built one of the most profitable restaurants in the nation, ran for president, faked his death, and was arrested in Canada.

TAMPA — Susan Wall’s friends frequently ask if she has seen Tiger King, the Netflix docuseries that features the murder-for-hire plot involving Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue.

“Of course,” said Wall, a resident of Niagara Falls, Canada.

But those friends aren’t interested in discussing the series at length.

They pivot, Wall said, and ask why a similar project hasn’t featured her ex-husband, Tampa’s original big cat guy.

Related: Carole Baskin says 'Tiger King' makers betrayed their trust

In the 1970s, Gene Holloway owned at least six that were often brought to his Tampa restaurant.

His story is not sinister like Tiger King, Wall said. “It’s more colorful.”

Holloway is the skydiving, bear-and-big-cat wrestling, rags-to-riches man who built one of the most profitable restaurants in the nation, ran for president, faked his death, and was arrested in Canada.

Holloway declined an interview, but welcomed a story, noting there were likely others who would discuss his time as tiger king.

He was right.

“Gene Holloway," laughed Rick Wilson, a Tampa native, campaign consultant and CNN contributor. “One of Tampa’s all-time characters. Why isn’t there a movie about him?”

Andy Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department, said Holloway is a fascinating story. “Gene was Tampa’s first brush with the new celebrity culture before reality television existed."

Gene Holloway and his then-wife Debbie Holloway and their collection of big cats were featured in the Tampa Tribune in 1979. [Times (1979)]

Holloway was born in Sulphur Springs in 1937. He spent his early years at a children’s home in Ballast Point while his father served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. His family later lived in a bus.

Holloway got married, enlisted in the Navy and claims to have climbed Mt. Erebus, the second-highest volcano in Antarctica, while stationed there.

“He told me that story plenty of times,” said Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda.

A 1979 Tampa Times article recounting the time when Gene Holloway climbed Mt. Erebus. [Times (1979)]

He returned to Tampa, divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried and divorced, all while starting a food brokerage company.

In 1968, the first Red Lobster opened. Located in Lakeland, it was Holloway’s client.

By the time Holloway was 36, Red Lobster expanded to nearly 200 locations with Holloway supplying most of the seafood. He then sold his company to General Mills for millions.

“That’s when things get interesting,” Huse said.

In the mid-1970s, Holloway married Debbie Ponton, a former Miss Tampa. At the wedding, Holloway skydived to the outdoor altar on the shores of Lake Hollingsworth.

The couple had fancy clothes, sports cars, lavish parties. They collected antiques and exotic animals.

Holloway opened two restaurants in the late 1970s, one in Lakeland and another in Tampa, both named the Sea Wolf after the Jack London book about a hunting expedition in the Bering Sea.

The Lakeland Sea Wolf was popular, but the Tampa restaurant near Busch Gardens was the main attraction.

It boasted antiques throughout, authentic Louis Comfort Tiffany glass paintings, a Steinway piano and two 1,000-gallon aquariums.

“It was tropical meets the British Raj meets overdone Victoriana," Wilson said. “I’ve never seen anything else like it.”

A wagon pulled by Clydesdales carried customers from the parking lot to the restaurant, recalled Miranda, who was a Sea Wolf manager and purchased the horses at an auction in Iowa.

“He had four dining rooms in Tampa, each with a different look, and gardens on the outside with animals like chickens and peacocks running around,” Miranda said.

But Holloway, dressed like he’d walked off the set of Urban Cowboy, was the main attraction, a man who understood his celebrity would keep customers coming.

Gene Holloway in 1980 wearing a button promoting his candidacy for United States president. [Times (1980)]

He ran for president in 1980 and dropped out after only a few months. Holloway never campaigned outside of the state, but his friend Tony Zappone, who managed the campaign, said it kept him in the headlines.

When all else failed, Holloway brought out his big cats. He owned at least three tigers, a jaguar, a cougar and a leopard. They lived on his 40-acre Thonotosassa ranch in pens with swimming pools and televisions, Miranda said.

Holloway would wrestle and play with them in restaurant commercials and television news segments.

Sometimes, they’d be let loose in one of the restaurant’s enclosed gardens. On one occasion, a pigeon flew inside the garden and got too close to a tiger. The bird was hunted and consumed as customers watched.

“That really happened,” USF’s Huse said.

Holloway once held a carnival in his Tampa restaurant parking lot. There were rides and live entertainment, including the opportunity to see his big cats, but the main event was him wrestling a bear.

It all worked, Miranda said. The Tampa restaurant seated 500 and had wait times that could last hours.

In 1979, it generated $5 million in revenue and was named the eighth-largest restaurant in the nation based on sales. The following year, he sold the Lakeland Sea Wolf. He did that to focus on Tampa, Holloway told USF’s Huse in a 2003 interview for the Sunland Tribune.

Still, Holloway was falling into debt.

“He kept buying things,” Miranda said. "The restaurant was making money, but everything has a limit.”

The stress was getting to the restaurateur, Zappone said, recalling the time Holloway met two 18-year-old women at Tampa’s Sea Wolf and wanted to take them to a drag show.

Zappone didn’t think that was appropriate, so he ushered the ladies to his car.

“Gene was mad,” Miranda said. “I told Tony he better get out of there.”

As he pulled away with the women, Zappone said, Holloway “fired six shots into my car. No one was hurt, but we could have been killed.”

Zappone did not file charges “and we made amends, but that was the end of our close friendship.”

Holloway’s wife Debbie filed for divorce in April 1981. The next night, the couple’s ranch house burned to the ground.

Investigators found evidence of arson, and Holloway was a suspect. Holloway leased the Sea Wolf to former Campbell’s Soup executive Bob Dourney on Sept. 2, 1981.

Two days later, Holloway went missing.

Friends told law enforcement that they went boating with Holloway. That he tripped and fell into the water. The Coast Guard could not find a body.

“I was in Miami when I heard,” Miranda said. “I didn’t believe it. He could climb a mountain. He was a strong swimmer."

That disbelief was legitimate. On Nov. 12, 1981, Holloway was arrested in Toronto. He had $270,000 in cash and was going by the alias James LaRue.

Gene Holloway and Susan Wall in Tampa. [Times (1985)]

Susan Wall had met him in a locals’ bar in Niagara Falls and said he “stood out like a sore thumb.”

“He had a full-length suede coat with a fox fur collar, a cowboy hat with feathers, cowboy boots," said Wall, who was 26 at the time. “Nobody dressed like that.”

What’s more, she said, he was tipping $20 in American money for each drink and buying rounds for strangers.

Still, he was outgoing, confident and fun, so she agreed to go on a few dates with the man she knew as LaRue. She later accompanied him to Toronto, where she said he got hair plugs and "his eyes done.”

Holloway’s limo driver gave them a shoe box filled with marijuana, Wall said, purchased at the request of a woman Holloway was with before meeting her.

“We didn’t want it,” Wall said. “So, we put it behind the ice machine in our hotel. But we were being watched by police."

The next day, Holloway was arrested in the hotel garage.

He was charged with possessing drugs with the intent to distribute and identified as Gene Holloway by his fingerprints.

The story made news across America, although it’s not clear why Holloway was being followed by Canadian law enforcement.

Wall said it was because, unbeknownst to Holloway, James LaRue was also the name of a Canadian criminal on the lam.

The Tampa Tribune headline reporting on Gene Holloway's arrest. [Times (1981)]

Back in Tampa, news of Holloway’s resurrection grew his celebrity status.

The Ballad of Gene Holloway became a local hit. A bar held a Gene Holloway look-a-like contest.

It remains a mystery why Holloway faked his death, though there are stories.

In 1982, Holloway told local reporters he did it so he could secretly help with a coup attempt in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Holloway told Huse in 2003 that he needed a break from his chaotic life.

Zappone heard Holloway had fallen into debt with drug smugglers who put a hit on his life.

Holloway told a similar tale in 2011. He said he was innocent, but pled guilty and accepted a five-year sentence for insurance fraud despite never seeking to cash in on his policy.

“There were still people trying to kill me,” he said, and prison was safer.

He was acquitted on charges of burning down his house.

Holloway and Wall married in 1982, divorced eight years later and stay in touch.

“Why did I stay with him?” Wall said. “He was charming and exciting and a nice guy.”

Holloway opened three new Sea Wolf restaurants between 1985 and 1990, but none lived up to the original that shuttered while he was in prison.

He later moved to Odessa and began a career as a treasure hunter along the coastline.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear from Gene Holloway again,” Huse said. “He seems to be always looking for that next great situation. He might find it.”

Editor’s note: Paul Guzzo interviewed Gene Holloway for Cigar City Magazine in 2011. This story is based on that interview, interviews with Holloway’s old friends and Tampa Bay Times archives.

Gene Holloway sits outside of his home in Odessa in 2006. [Times (2006)]