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Teen Key Club was the go-to place for Cape youths

60th Anniversary: A look back - A place of their own for dances, parties, entertainment and more — ‘everybody was there’

By TOM HAYDEN - | Jun 13, 2022

Connie Mack, III, far left, who would grow up to be a U.S. congressman, attends a Teen Club meeting in 1962. His father, Connie Mack Jr., worked for Leonard and Jack Rosen, the developers of Cape Coral.

A juke box, pool tables, ping pong, chess, sandwiches and refreshments, dances and good conversation. Everything a teenager could want was found at Cape Coral’s original youth center.

Called the “Teen Key Club,” the teenagers gathered in a 75-foot by 60-foot building — now the Tony Rotino Center — next to the Yacht Club facility. The club officially opened on Nov. 6, 1962, only five months after the Yacht Club opening. The teens had their run of the place, each getting keys to let themselves in and out. Adults were only admitted if accompanied by a teen. An adult manager was always inside.

“It was wonderful,” said one of the city’s first residents, Ann (Finkernagel) Duffala. “Gulf American had a unique sense of how to put all these strange people, many with accents (and most from other states) together.”

The teen club was the place to be and be seen. In fact, on opening day, TV personality Hugh Downs and singer Anita Bryant, then known as “The Coca-Cola Girl” and spokesperson for Florida citrus, made appearances. According to an article by city historian and Yacht Club manager Paul Sanborn, she discussed her “likes and dislikes” and her singing career with more than 100 teenagers. She also sang one of her hits, “Paper Roses,” and signed autographs.

“She was my Coca-Cola hero. I loved Coke at the time,” long-time Cape resident Elmer Tabor said. “Having a grocery store at the time, my job was to stock the shelves with soda. We also had return bottles, so I had to separate the bottles, get the sand off them and the concrete from all the construction jobs.”

Added Damian Minko, who has lived in Cape Coral for more than 60 years and was 13 when the club opened: “I danced (the twist) with Anita Bryant. The teen club was a major thing.”

Also at the opening was Lee County Sheriff Flanders “Snag” Thompson, who told the kids “your proper use of the facilities can do more to curb the possibility of juvenile delinquency than anything I can think of,” according to Sanborn.

Kenny Schwartz, the first permanent resident and Gulf American Corporation’s General Manager, told them: “Youngsters establish a tone of vitality and vigor that pleases the whole community.”

On occasion, that vitality and vigor reached interesting levels. Ann Duffala remembers the “Pine Island boys” making an appearance or two. “We called them the rumbles,” she said. “There was a lot of posturing in the parking lot. The girls would sit there and say, ‘oh my God, what is going to happen?’ Seldom, did it escalate into anything more than an exchange of words.'”

Ann’s husband, Dennis Duffala, remembers those parking lot interactions. “I don’t think there were actually any fist fights, but certainly posturing there,” he said. “It might lead to something else like racing cars to show off.”

“They (the Pine Island boys) didn’t like us,” remembered Damian Minko, who grew up on nearby Lorraine Court and considered the teen club his home away from home. “Maybe they thought we were the uppity up kids from that new development.”

Then, there was the rock throwing incident. According to Sanborn, who was manager of the Yacht Club for four years and responsible for the Key Club, someone threw a rock and broke a large window. Sanborn instructed maintenance to put a lock on the doors of the teen club until the “responsible party” was found. Three teenagers came to Sanborn’s office and demanded the club be reopened. “My reply was find the person responsible and I will … Those three found the responsible party,” the parents agreed to pay for a new window and “I immediately reopened the club,” Sanborn told the Cape Coral Breeze.

Then, in 1964, two pool tables were found destroyed and tables and chairs broken. The teens took matters into their own hands, presented a petition signed by 80 members, to self-govern themselves. The petition proposed a board of governors to work with the director “in the best interests of the center.” Sanborn was impressed, created the board and the equipment was repaired.

The teens especially loved the dances, Ann Duffala said. She remembers a dance when a Gainesville band she recommended came down and played. Prior to moving to Cape Coral, she grew up there and the band members were friends. The girls also loved the Miss Merry Christmas contest. “All the girls entered into that,” she remembered.

Gloria Tate, a Cape Coral City Council member and one of the first families to move to the Cape, remembers petitioning to get into her first dance. She was only 12 at the time and wasn’t turning 13 until a few days after the event. “They finally said ‘yes,'” Tate recalled. “The club was the teen hangout. Everybody was there. They would always bring somebody in to entertain us.”

After the city purchased the Yacht Club in 1973, the youth center closed that year and eventually became the senior center.