Regulars and employees, neighbors and friends gathered at colorful tables and benches under the glow of neon bar signs and Christmas lights at a storied Tampa establishment Monday to say goodbye to one of the men who helped create the beloved music venue more than 40 years ago.
Roughly 50 people came to Skipper’s Smokehouse to celebrate the life of one of its co-owners, Vince McGilvra.
McGilvra died of unspecified health causes Oct. 13. He was 75.
McGilvra met his Skipper’s Smokehouse partners, Tom White and Andy Bastman, in Alaska in the early 1970s, when they were all serving in the Air Force.
White, who was originally from Miami, moved to Tampa in 1976 and opened a handful of stores selling Japanese pinball machines. McGilvra and Bastman moved to Florida that same year to help him run the business. But the three dreamed of opening a bar together, White said.
Enter Skipper’s Smokehouse. When the trio first discovered the place, it was a small takeout joint with “a couple of hippies playing guitar out back,” White said. In 1980, the three purchased the restaurant from the couple that owned it.
They initially intended to flip the business, and their plan called for them to run it for five years before putting it back on the market. But the five years quickly turned into a decade, which turned to 15 years, as the bar quickly became a beloved live music venue.
White said McGilvra was a quiet, hardworking guy who never hesitated to take on any task that needed to be done.
“He would just jump in and get in the trenches with the employees, you know, and wash oysters and whatever,” White said. “He was very easy to work with.”
It was at the bar that McGilvra met his future wife, Bridget. She was dating a Skipper’s oyster shucker at the time and was at the bar. Bridget said she carried a water gun with her wherever she went, and she squirted it at a bald spot in Vince’s hair. In return, he sprayed Bridget with the bar hose.
That was in 1985. Shortly after that, they began dating. He had been a bachelor for awhile, Bridget said, and was skittish about the idea of marriage. They went on a trip to Hawaii for two weeks in 1986 and Bridget’s coworkers sent her off with a big party, expecting she would come back engaged.
That didn’t happen, she said, but a few months later — on Feb. 15, 1987 — he proposed. A month later they were married.
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“Really, the first date we ever had was at his townhouse up here, and he had candlelight and classical music and a fancy dinner that he made,” Bridget McGilvra said. “He was very romantic.”
At the event Monday, friends remembered Vince McGilvra as a kind, respectful and reserved man.
“He beckoned respect. He was always very relaxed, even if it was a tough situation,” said Jenni Richards, a bartender at Skipper’s and an employee for 20 years. Richards first had worked at a bar nearby, but she said she was a regular at Skipper’s and asked about openings. It took awhile for an opportunity to arise, she said, as the place tended to retain its workers.
At Skipper’s, McGilvra was known as the “master stapler” for the many staples he had used at the venue. Staff even created a plaque for him with the title, in honor of the more than 1 million staples he used during his time at the business.
“If he saw something loose, he’d go fix it,” said Bobbie Fager, a regular since 1980. He never let a poster sag, Fager added.
In 2008, McGilvra retired from his post.
“You know I’ll still be here,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2008. He said he wanted to spend his retirement gardening, swimming, seeking spirituality and traveling with his wife.
And travel he did. White said after McGilvra retired, he would come to Skipper’s about once a week or once every two weeks — whenever he was in town. He would sit with the regulars and show them pictures from his vacations: a safari, a journey to Machu Picchu in Peru, the Great Wall of China, all over Thailand and Cambodia.
McGilvra and his wife took up pet sitting in exchange for places to stay across the globe, White said. Just as countries began shutting down due to the spread of the coronavirus, they were in Egypt. White’s girlfriend helped coordinate the couple’s return to the United States before it closed its borders.
At his celebration of life, rock songs by The Doors and The Jimi Hendrix Experience played from the stereo system on the stage. Those gathered there feasted on pulled pork, coleslaw, beans and rice, among other typical barbecue fare. Friends sipped Singha beers from Thailand in his honor. It was his favorite beer and, when he retired, Skipper’s gave him a monthly case of Singha beers as a retirement stipend, said Cricket Larson, who leads Skipper’s marketing, among many other tasks both big and small.
Gino and Ellen Sassani played at Skipper’s benefit concerts and had a CD release party there in 2005. They said they met McGilvra 20 years ago, when the couple moved into the neighborhood where he and his wife lived. McGilvra was hosting a staff party for Skipper’s employees at his home and the Sassanis wandered outside to see what was going on. McGilvra invited them into his home to join the party.
The couple said they already were familiar with Skipper’s Smokehouse, and they were impressed when McGilvra told them he was one of the owners. Amid the pandemic, the bar closed down and Gino Sassani said he heard it might not reopen.
“There was talk at one time that they weren’t going to come back, and I was so glad they did,” Gino Sassani said.
“And he got to live to see that,” Sassani added, referring to McGilvra. “He knew that they reopened.”