Friday, October 17, 2008

The Conch Train

A recent post in the Bahama Village Blog (see link at right, List of Interesting Blogs) sent me on a trip down memory lane. In 1971 a big issue in the local Key West paper was the battle between local pol Jerry Hernandez and the originator of Key West's "Conch Train," Henry (or was it Bill?) Kroll.

Bill Kroll, according to my former neighbor Joan Shavinsky, who lived most of her life on Southard Street in Key West, was a handy guy who welded a locomotive-like apparatus to the front of a jeep and attached a few cars behind it, inventing the popular Key West sight-seeing tour. In true Key West form he was granted an exclusive franchise for this type of public transportation.

Before too many years passed, Jerry Hernandez decided to start a rival train, using faux trolley cars. With agressive lobbying (and maybe even the passing around of a little "green stuff," another local tradition), he suceeded in persuading his friends on the city commission that his company, called "Buggy Bus Tours," was a different kind of tour, being a "get-on, get-off" operation, as opposed to the Conch Train, which was an "all-around-the-island-in-one-shot" tour. In the end Hernandez got his rival franchise.

Now both operations are owned by Historic Tours of America, and they have successfully duplicated the Key West Conch Train paradigm in many cities around the country.

Nowadays the drivers follow a set tour and deliver a scripted narrative, (see the entry in the Bahama Village Blog), so much so that if you happen to live along their route, after a while you have that part of the narrative memorized. It must have been around 1993, we noticed a fellow with a clipboard writing something near our house on Frances Street. Since a fellow with a clipboard usually means trouble in a place like Key West, we asked him what he was up to.
"So, are you going to dig up the street again?" we asked.
"Oh, no," he replied. "I'm working on a new script for the Conch Train."

The script for that part of the tour involved talking about a couple of epitaths on tombstones in the nearby cemetery. On the hypochondriac's: "I told you I was sick." And on the philander's, presumably placed there by his widow: "At least I know where you're sleeping tonight." (Forced chuckles.) After that they would point out the Haitian Art Gallery on the corner, then the historic "gingerbread scrollwork" on the houses on Southard Street, including Joan Shavinksy's house, where she and her husband had whimsically replaced what original scrollwork may have been there with little plywood gingerbread men along the top of their porch. She and her husband actually sold them to tourists for a while, as a gag, until she got tired of it.

The last I noticed, they were still using that same script. Back in the day, however, the operation was a lot looser. Our friend Larry spent a few months driving the Conch Train one year, and took considerable poetic license with the script. One of his favorite variations was used whenever he would see a shorter, bearded middle-aged guy on the street ahead. "Ladies and gentlemen, here's a special treat for us today--right up here on the left--now I MUST ask you, for he's asked us NOT to point him out, is one of Key West's more prominent residents, that's right, playwrite Tennessee Williams! But please don't let him know you recognize him."

With the clicks of a dozen cameras, some poor befuddled guy from Oshkosh would be immortalized in celluloid forever.

Larry finally got fired, after getting the Conch Train stuck between two buildings while on an unauthorized side tour through the Navy base. He had to call his boss for a back-up train to rescue the stranded passengers.

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