On any normal weekend day by the pool of the Sheraton Four Points, there would be a scene of pasty hipsters in reverie throwing back pills and the Bloody Marys to chase them. On this recent Sunday morning there is only a pudgy family of snowbirds drying off and looking for their keys. Two lone life preservers drift in the shallow end of a pool that has seen far more action than it has families of pudgy snowbirds. A faded Budweiser label peels from the side of the tiled tiki bar. And all of a sudden the legend of the hotel formerly known as the Harley has died.
Inside the hotel, where there's an up escalator but no down, the lobby shows few signs of life. Three freshly scrubbed businessmen tap figures into their laptops, a maid vacuums up very little dirt and the front-desk crew stands motionless: nothing to do.
"So, um, when are you closing?" I hazard.
"November 5th," the clerk smiles wanly.
It wasn't always this way. The history of Orlando's Harley Hotel reads like a dog-eared Jackie Collins novel, rife with money, greed, drugs, death and rock stars.
The location itself entered the history books in 1922 as Orlando Junior and Senior High School, and became Orange County's first junior high school in 1925. Over the years it matriculated such notables as Buddy Ebsen and astronauts John Young and James Irwin. But the real shooting up would come later.
The school was torn down in 1961, and the Robert Meyer Hotel (later coined the Kahler Plaza Inn) was erected on the site. In 1973, Harry Helmsley bought it and added it to his chain of Harley hotels. (The name is a blend of Helmsley's first name with that of his wife, Leona.)
In its day the Harley's discotheque ("Reflections") was Orlando's Studio 54, right down to the mirrored tables and shiny decor. Leona Helmsley's only son, Jay Robert Panzirer, died of a heart attack in the Harley in 1982. According to a Newsday article, the married Panzirer, in his early 40s, "fell unconscious during a meeting." The hospital where he was pronounced dead said that his heart had "virtually disintegrated."
Harry Helmsley died in 1997. The Harley went into a slow decline under Leona's stewardship, prompting a sort of rock & roll aesthetic to pick up where the Helmsley dynasty left off. In the end, Sheraton picked up the property and injected $9 million into shaping it up. All they really got for their money was that stupid paint job.
But the real story is in the people who infested the property, the rock-leaning locals, the second-tier musicians, the curious and the depraved. Simply put, the Harley became Orlando's version of New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel: the lowlife bottom of the fabulousness ladder. Following are a few reminiscences from some people who swung from the rungs.
Skotty Pitts, hairdresser to the stars, occasional bartender:
Jack Off Jill were playing in the tent shed at the Edge, we called it "Shell Hell," opening for Marilyn Manson. They were both staying at the Harley. There was a big party in Jack Off Jill's room, and I had to pee really bad. The girls weren't coming out of the bathroom; I don't know what they were doing ... taking a shower or whatever girls do in the bathroom with guys. So Jessicka `the band's singer` told me to just whip it over the edge of the balcony. So, as soon as I started sprinkling, somebody walked underneath. Apparently I peed on Marilyn Manson's head. A minute later he called up to the room and was like, "Somebody just pissed on my head! Who is it? I'm gonna come up and kick his ass!" Jessicka was like, "Skotty, you're a little bit too drunk and Marilyn's gonna come up and kick your ass." I said, "I'm not afraid of him!" But I knew I was drunk, so I stumbled down, got lost in the parking garage looking for my blue, bitchin' Camaro, found my car and I left. Driving with one eye open. But don't tell anyone.
Chris Robison, Orlando-area actress:
From one `end of the` spectrum to the other, some of the best names in the business stayed there. Some of the best names in the entertainment industry shot up there, too. It kept that vein all the way through its existence when it started to go downhill, that's where all of the wayward people would stay, and they would still shoot up. It's always had a heroin-esque reputation. When Tropical Theater went underwater, literally ... we were trying to find a space to perform in and we looked into the Harley Hotel. At that time, the man who showed us inside the Harley, he was also the realtor for the Love Theater `a peepshow theater` and he told us that all the porn stars that would perform at the theater would stay there. So they had a lot of performers, including Gypsy Rose Lee. Yes, the Gypsy Rose Lee stayed at the Harley Hotel. There was a poster of her on the back of the theater from the old Love days. It's a great part of Orlando history. It's gonna be difficult to recover from that. It's a landmark. If you've lived here a long time, you know what it is.
Jim Faherty, Sapphire Supper Club progenitor, promoter:
My problem is that with the level of drinking that was involved with that place, the memories seem to blast. For me, basically, because I've been going there for 15 years and every band that ever played Sapphire, and before even, we put all the bands there, there were after parties, pre-parties, swimming pool parties, y'know, late-night stuff. The bands loved staying there because they'd wake up in the morning and there's beautiful, hot chicks and beautiful, hot guys laying by the pool. ... My favorite thing about that place, on my 40th birthday I got a limo, and the favorite place to go was there, because you felt like you were transported into a different time. That bar was just so old, it was just like going to the Langford. You would go to the Langford and close your eyes and you'd think you were in New York. I just loved the whole vibe; it was so old and so creaky and so weird. Everything about that place was '80s; the lobby, the way you got in, the pool.
Shayni Howen, former Sapphire promoter, band manager, New York émigré:
I wasn't gonna name names, but I guess I will. There's a band called Electrafixion, and if one did a little investigating they could find out who their lead singer was. OK, it was Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen. So we did a show at the Sapphire. He was on his way to getting quite loaded, so after the show he was like, "Let's go back to the Harley and all hang out." So my friend and I go over there, and all of the sudden I got kind of the feeling that I didn't want to go up there, like something was just not right. So we didn't go. So the next day I have to go check in the next band that's playing at the Sapphire, and the hotel manager comes over and is like, "Um, I'm sorry, you can't get a room tonight." And I'm like, "No, I'm with the Sapphire and I need to get the band in." And they were like, "No, I'm sorry, you have a balance due." There was $1,200 in damages done to the room. The full rock-star damage. ... I think I had one of my best dates ever on one of the balconies of one of the rooms. Oh, and their bar was called the Monkey Bar, and they had an old-timer who had been there for a very long time. A woman, and an older man, who were just great. You felt like you were going into that old-time bar in the midst of downtown. I have stayed there a couple of times after leaving town, and you really realize what a great hotel that was, y'know, walking downtown, close to everything.
Kevn Kinney, former leader of alt-rockers Drivin' ' Cryin', singer/songwriter:
I was on the road in the early Drivin' ' Cryin' years, and I had a couple thousand dollars that a T-shirt guy gave me and I was holding onto, and I put it in the icebox. Then I went, and I had just met this girl in Orlando, and I was having dinner with her. After a second or two, I was like, "Oh my God! I gotta go back to the Harley!" So I ran back in and I called them to make sure that nobody had cleaned the room. Anyway, it's not that interesting of a story. But what I always wanted to say about the Harley was that the Harley was the Orlando rock hotel. L.A. has the Hyatt Regency, Atlanta has the Highland Inn, and Orlando had the Harley. I don't know where we're gonna go. When you're out on the road so much, it's nice to see something familiar. I'm really bummed.
Michael McRaney, co-owner of The Social, Orlando singer/songwriter:
It was obviously wonderful that it was a Leona Helmsley hotel. I mean, nothing could be lost on that! When we found that out, that was the one thing we would always tell people: "You could always stay at the Harley, we have a rate with them. And, you know, it's a Leona Helmsley hotel!" You know, we are the little people. "Little people pay the taxes," I think her quote was, wasn't it? ... I was in the pool at 5 in the morning one time, but I don't remember much about that. I was clothed, and I think that's the point. ... All the newer bands, like Cursive, are staying over there. And they all specifically call for the lower level by the pool.
Jeff Nolan, Double First Cousins, rock god:
I remember when Lords of the New Church played Electric Avenue, I drove Stiv Bators to the Harley, and he was unhappy with the service there and had me drive him around looking for first a big bottle of cheap vodka and then a way to try to fucking score cocaine on the streets of Orlando, in 1986. Which was not an easy thing to do. And then I took him back, and also stopped at a 7-Eleven and got baking powder and shit. The first time I ever saw somebody freebase fucking cocaine was in the Harley Hotel and it was Stiv Bators. ... I also took Fear there. I know that Lee Ving wrote with an indelible marker on every single piece of furniture in the hotel room -- "Fear" -- but with a backwards "e." So, if they still have the furniture, there's probably pieces with the word "Fear" written on them by Lee Ving. And he wrote them in some real conspicuous places, like across the TV screen, but then he also wrote it in inconspicuous places that would never be found, until something like they tore it down. ... I remember going to the pool there when it became the Four Points, and I remember that they had the worst bartenders in the world. You could never get a drink. They would have, like, five bartenders on, and there would be three customers. And you still couldn't get a drink."
Taylor Bulloch, musician, bartender:
This guy I knew from Tallahassee came down when a mutual friend of ours killed himself, and we stayed at the Harley Hotel ... and he was underage and we were drinking. We played music really loud and drank beer and nobody said anything to us. We smoked pot, and, um, I think the place is haunted. Crazy noises were coming out of every wall! Every orifice! When I left there, I felt like I had been touched by spirits.
Ashley Hoven, local promoter, former girlfriend of Chris Kirkpatrick of 'N Sync:
Back in probably 1995, when Cosmic Baby was at Firestone, I had one of those weird experiences where you run into somebody that you haven't seen in, like, 10 years, that you knew from another lifetime in another state. I was at Cosmic Baby, and I see these two guys that I used to party with when I was underage, like 19, living in D.C. They were the guys that used to take me around to all the clubs, the first people that I ever clubbed with. So I ended up hanging out with them, and it turned out that one of them was the managing editor of Mixer magazine, and they were hanging out with Keoki's manager. We all ended up going back to their room at the Harley. I had never been there, and I was like, "You're staying at the Harley?" And they were like, "Yeah!" Just their reaction was like, "Of course! Where else would we stay in Orlando?" ... Also, this one friend of mine who's a hairdresser who flies around the world with Ivana Trump says that whenever he's in Orlando, for Bike Week or whatever, he always stayed at the Harley, because of the history, and blah, blah, blah. It took these people to let me know about this massive kind of cool factor.
Steven Foxbury, former singer with My Friend Steve, singer/songwriter:
It kind of went away when they put up the Four Points, anyway, and made it fish-colored and put the soft-serve ice cream pillars up. I think it lost most of its charm at that point. And any nostalgia that I felt for it went away when they did the remodel. ... I miss the Monkey Bar, though. I don't know what they put in there, but it certainly wasn't the Monkey Bar. It was a moment in time, a great alternative to your typical downtown bar fare. We did our band photos in the elevator at the Harley. Five guys in the elevator, wearing polyester, as was in fashion at the time, sweating through make-up, which is not something I'm used to or comfortable with.
Mendi Cowles, art promoter:
I just remember having great times, with parties and with people. It was a great common ground for downtown. People who didn't want to drive and drink could just get a room there at a fair price, and you never knew who you were gonna see there. It was great parties, a great place and it will be greatly missed.
Rumors abound as to what happens next. There is talk of converting the old Harley into luxury condominiums, and a rumor is floating around that the restaurant and the pool could remain open for locals.
But on Oct. 26, duly pegged as the last Sunday party, the Four Points pool was alive again. The observations of just a week prior briefly gave way to a bacchanalia mildly resembling the excesses of yore.
A couple of trucker hats and some tattooed love boys holed up at the bar, while a DJ and a rock band did their thing. It was a strained attempt at reigniting a legend, one that smelled more of Rollins-girl cocoa butter than of morning-after fantastic.
Even at the last party it took 15 minutes to get a drink. The overheard conversations were a nice throwback, though:
"I need to get some Lortabs and fucking pass out in the pool."
"Oh my God! I don't even know what I said last night!"
"Then again, they're lesbians, so you don't even have to worry about it!"
An in-house rave, a third-floor church service and a number of curious onlookers assured diversity as pasty-faced amphetamine-eaters wandered amongst the beau hunks and the bodacious, looking pink with a combination of anticipation and narcotic anxiety.
"I hear some people have even had sex in this pool," goaded the master of ceremonies. "Right, Mr. Manes?"
Adios, Harley Hotel. You will be missed.