On the night of any given show, Big Mike could be found smiling and eating sunflower seeds outside of music venues in St. Petersburg, his biceps bulging out of his sleeves.
Touring bands loved when he was working because he always knew where to point them, whether they needed a tailor or a cell phone repair shop. Folks from around town would pull over when they saw him working at the door, just to give him a hug.
“No matter what the situation was, he had a big smile that oozed confidence. There wasn’t anything that he couldn’t handle,” said Tony Rifuigatio, the owner of Daddy Kool Records who used to run the State Theatre. “I think people used to pay the entrance fee to go to the State Theatre just to see him.”
A beloved figure in St. Petersburg’s concert scene for over 30 years, “Big Mike” Lewis died from complications caused by the coronavirus on May 11. He was 58.
Lewis started working security in Tampa before coming to Channel Zero in St. Petersburg in the late ’80s. He worked at a variety of clubs in St. Pete, but was perhaps best known as the smiling man at the door outside the State Theatre, now the Floridian Social Club.
Co-workers remember Lewis as treating everyone with kindness, regardless of their age or how well they behaved.
“The fire marshals, the police department, everyone would see Mike out front and they’d be like, ‘Everything’s good at the State Theatre,’” said Kendra Marolf, a friend and former general manager of State Theatre.
When someone got rowdy, Marolf said, Lewis would diffuse the tension by yelling out “Welcome to Wal-Mart!” Troublemakers were pulled from the show to stand outside at “Big Mike’s Timeout Daycare.” If they calmed down, he would let them back inside. If not, he’d tell them to take some time away from the club as probation. But he always gave a second chance.
“One guy came back after about two weeks and brought him some cookies in hopes that he would let him back into the nightclub again,” said Rob Douglas, a longtime Club Detroit and Jannus Landing manager.
“He came off as this big tough guy,” his daughter, Micha Lewis said. “He was really just a big teddy bear.”
Early in the morning after shows, Lewis would head out to his other job, driving trucks. A former football player, Lewis lifted weights every day to keep in shape, bench pressing over 400 pounds.
He never drank or smoked, but kept a whole bar setup at his St. Petersburg house, just for his guests. He had a habit of buying too much to make sure there was enough for everyone.
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“His whole pantry was like an aisle at Sam’s Club,” Marolf said. “His house was your house.”
Lewis had four children and five grandchildren, plus a family of friends from the State Theatre and other venues where he’d worked. Coworkers remember how Lewis obsessively followed the Dallas Cowboys and drove up in cars outfitted in white and blue. He loved to sing to R&B tunes, rolling his body to Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly songs that played in between sets. He called himself “Sexual Chocolate,” and Rifuigatio used to joke about putting him on a bill one day.
For KD Miles, a friend and former coworker at the State Theatre, Big Mike was a father figure. Their friendship spanned outside of work, and they visited theme parks together, or hit up comedy clubs in Tampa.
“We always liked to sit up front so we could be heckled by comedians,” Miles said. “Most people shy away from that, but Mike liked it.”
Lewis tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago. On May 8, he went to the hospital with breathing problems.
“It scares me. We all think we’re all safe out there,” said David Hundley, a friend and promoter for No Clubs, who used to run the State Theatre with Rifuigatio. “The sad part is, it’s probably from dealing with people at the door.”
Dozens of tributes to Lewis have popped up on social media this week as friends recalled his hugs, his coconut musk cologne and his big smile.
“The number of people that he touched over time was unfathomable,” Hundley said. “He got a smile on your face, and then he let you in.”
A celebration of life for Big Mike is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday at Ringside Cafe in St. Petersburg. The memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at City on a Hill Church.
correction: A previous version of this story listed the wrong day for the celebration of life. It will take place Friday. Also, Big Mike died May 11. A previous version of this story listed the wrong day.