written by Sherry Nist
historical background by Scott Corey
Any Floridian, whether you are a salty old native (Cracker, perhaps?) or a newer import, surely has heard of the Miami Dolphins. But let’s get a little more serious on the trivia trail and ask about the Dolphinettes. Dolphin cheerleaders, you say? The answer lies a little closer to Our Town, Vero Beach. The 32963, to be specific.* Vero’s famous Dolphinettes made their home in the pool, at the Windswept Hotel in Sexton Plaza from 1952 until their final show on September 1, 1962. Our Dolphinettes were beautiful and accomplished high school athletes representing Vero Beach as synchronized swimmers both here and all around the United States. The Dolphinettes appeared on television, were featured in at least one movie and made the July 1957 issue of Seventeen magazine. And, ladies and gentlemen, from 1952 to 1953 there were a dozen male Dolphinettes.’s
Mary Frances Smith Schick was a Dolphinette in 1952 for a few months in the Spring of her Senior year at Vero Beach High School. Mary lived just a stone’s throw from Sexton Plaza and the Windswept’s pool at the Spindrift Cottages (owned by her parent’s). She remembers her coach and the Dolphinettes’ founder Millie Bunnell (Mildred C. Fraiser), as a very dedicated woman with a strong vision and kind heart.
Mrs. Schick said: “Millie organized the team by recruiting swimmers from the Windswept’s pool. Millie knew who the good swimmers were. My fondest memories as a Dolphinette were the synchronized swimming and performing in all the shows.” Mary’s younger sister, Anne Rose Smith Johnson, was also a Dolphinette from 1952 until 1954.
While the Dolphinettes may have received the greatest national press in their decade reign, Sexton Plaza has so many other storylines in its long history.
Indian County records show Waldo Sexton acquiring two pieces of Central Island (Barrier Island) property late in 1925 from the Beachland Development Corporation. On December 9, 1925 Waldo sold some of that property to the Vero Beach Casino Corporation, retaining a 250 foot oceanfront parcel that extended to what is now known as Ocean Drive. An oceanfront portion was leased for a short time in the late 1930s to F. Bertram Scent as a hot dog & hamburger stand. Bert’s business never really got off the ground and his lease was allowed to lapse.
Waldo demolished the hot dog stand in 1941. In its place he built the Ocean Grill with an ocean view patio dance floor and leased the property to Gus and Emma Adler. Dancing under the ‘VERO’ stars on the patio lasted only one night, New Year’s Eve. Mosquitos and ‘no-see ums’ put a damper on the dancing so the patio was covered and converted to the Ocean Grill’s main dining room. Gus was German and since he fell under the suspicion of locals, few patrons were willing to patronize his business. Gus & Emma eventually left Vero Beach.
In World War II the Ocean Grill was converted to ‘Club Mac’ by Alex MacWilliam & Edgar MacWilliam. Club Mac was for the exclusive use of officers from the U.S. Naval Station (Vero Beach Airport). This exclusive club became very popular with the military as almost 100 WAVES** were housed across the street at the 36 room Windswept Hotel*** (today’s Mulligan’s Beach House). The WAVES were single ladies and well, you know!
During the War, Vero Beach Mayor, Alex MacWilliam, issued orders stating that only authorized cars could be on the beach (read East of Ocean Drive) at night and only if they were using nothing but parking lights. “All headlights had to have their top half painted black to maintain ‘blackout’ conditions.****
After the War, the location opened again to the public as the Tropics Bar & Restaurant. Rumors swirled around town saying the restaurant was run by Chicago “Gangsters”. While the two men who ran Tropics in 1947, John Williams & Harry Roberts, were previous tavern owners from Chicago, there is no solid proof of their associations with gangs or mobsters. 1948 ushered in yet another new owner and name change. The Ocean View Inn was operated by Edward K. Thomas.
The Ocean Grill returned in 1952 and was run by Harriet Masury, the Manager & Burt Mansmann, the Bartender. Milwaukeeans Jake & Mary Ellen Replogle purchased the Ocean Grill in 1965 and signed a 50-year lease. Today, their son Charlie, runs the show.
From the 1950s until the 1970s only tourists or newcomers referred to the restaurant as ‘Ocean Grill’. Locals called it ‘The Bucket’ due to Waldo Sexton’s habit of meeting close friends there everyday at 11:00am for Bloody Mary’s.
Ocean Grill may be the anchor for Sexton Plaza but there are still other stories to tell.
On November 6, 1958 Sexton Plaza was officially named in Waldo’s honor with a parade and celebration bringing most of Vero beachside. Vero Beach High School’s Band led the parade which included elaborate floats, barbecue and a street dance. “Waldo had a Spanish Treasure Chest full of silver dollars and when the parade passed by, he threw coins to those marching in the parade, until they were all gone.” Dignitaries of the era, including Richard Nixon, U.S. Senators Spessard Holland & George Smathers and Merrill P. Barber (the Barber Bridge’s namesake), sent Waldo congratulations. Waldo’s daughter, Jaqueline, and her husband sent the following telegram:
“Senator Merrill P. Barber, Vero Beach, Florida – Honorable Sir, Please convey to Waldo E. Sexton our love and heartiest congratulations and to the City of Vero Beach our thanks for showing its appreciation of him…It is our hope that Sexton Plaza will always remind the people of Vero Beach of that special something in him for whom it was named.”
Waldo penned his heartfelt thanks for the honor in a full-page ad in the Press Journal:
“FOLKS, I didn’t deserve it, but I’m going to pretend I did. Forty-four years ago I started to hunt neighbors and I found them, as was evidenced by the thousands of you who turned out for my celebration last Wednesday. I was particularly touched by the children who came in throngs to thank me for getting them out of school for half a day and begged me to make this an annual affair.
You folks really put me on a pedestal last Wednesday. You made me a blasted hero, but I’ll tell you right now, you can’t make me a Saint. I’m jealous of my position as chief sinner in my church. One should not look a gift horse in the mouth, but I wish you had put a railing around that pedestal. I’ll try not to fall off, but every now and then I’ll probably get pretty near the edge. ….You made me feel like a king…I still think you got the wrong man.”
Almost 60 years later, Sexton Plaza is still considered the ‘center’ of Vero Beach. The Holiday Inn Oceanside, which opened in 1968, anchors the Northwest corner of Sexton Plaza. Oceanfront, on the Northeast corner is Mulligan’s Beach House. Mulligan’s sits on the very same spot where the Dolphinettes swam and is well known for dining and socializing among locals, ‘snowbirds’ and Vero’s multitude of visitors.
Today, Sexton Plaza is home to not only Mulligan’s and the Ocean Grill but a variety of unique, small businesses. Oceanside Salon and the Billero & Billero real estate office are anchored by Mulligan’s and the Holiday Inn. To the west of Ocean Grill, G.T. Rhodes has been providing men’s wear as fine as any NYC, San Francisco or London haberdashery since 1981. Dede’s Shoe Salon and the Petite Shop round out Sexton’s offerings as exceptional ladies’ boutiques providing head to toe retail therapy for women.
Next time you find yourself at the intersection of Beachland Boulevard and Ocean Drive or tire of the Atlantic Ocean’s sunrises & sunsets, stroll Sexton Plaza where the entrepreneurial spirit of Waldo Sexton is still thriving more than half-a-century later.
I would like to express my thanks to all the born & bred Vero Beach residents who provided me with their stories and the facts for this article. There are too many names to list. I would like to mention, by name, one of Vero’s best historians, Pamela J. Cooper, Retired Librarian, Historian, Genealogist & Lecturer. Pam provided me with tips, sources and most importantly, corrected my facts.
* Truth be told, the 32963 zip code did not exist during the Dolphinettes’ reign. All of Vero Beach, the Barrier Island & ‘Over the Bridge’ was the 32960.
** WAVES stood for the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve) or the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – a WWII branch of the US Naval Reserve.
*** The Windswept Hotel was torn down in the 1960s.
**** Fear at the time was that any light might attract German subs or U-Boats and steer our enemies towards targets. (Not very different from our current light restrictions Oceanside meant to protect the Sea Turtle population.)
Sexton Plaza, Vero Beach & Indian River County History
Facebook Group: Growing Up In Vero Beach
“Tales of Waldo E. Sexton” by George W. Gross
Team USA Synchronized Swimming
Shop, Dine & Pamper in Sexton Plaza
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