All Shook Up
When Phil Gernhard, age 8, leaves today for Camp St. Andrew at Avon Park, he takes with him a man-sized black eye. He came by it out on the diamond at Payne Park where he was playing right field on a Little League team. In the third inning Phil caught a line drive with his left eye instead of his glove and had to be hustled away to the hospital, where he spent most of his time crying that he wanted to go back and finish the game.
“Main Street Reporter,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, July 17, 1949
In Boyd Rains Gernhard’s mind, there were two ways to do something: his way and the wrong way. Born in 1908 to German parents in Port Clinton, Ohio, a fishing town on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie, Boyd—whose nickname since childhood was “Bud”—learned stubborn-ness and the art of shouting others down from his father, who’d divorced his mother and moved out. He liked his stepfather well enough, but he had a prickly relationship with Dad. Somehow, no matter how hard he worked at something, it was never good enough for the old man. For most of Boyd Gernhard’s adult life, he and his father were estranged.
In the early 1930s he graduated from Miami Military Institute, a strict step ’n’ salute high school in Germantown, Ohio, and then enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he was in the same graduating class as future football legend Tom Harmon.
Bud Gernhard met and married Sara Arnold, from Shaker Heights, in 1935. Sara came from a family of means, and had aspired to a career as an artist. (Later in life, she confessed that she’d never gotten over her “one true love” from her Ohio days: the actor Jim Backus, who’d later be known for playing Thurston Howell III on TV’s Gilligan’s Island.) Sara had manners; she was as cultured as her husband was crude.
Their daughter Judith Mae was born in the spring of 1939; a son, Phillip Arnold, arrived twenty months later, on February 5, 1941.
When Phil was born, the family was living in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. His father was the regional distributor for Pabst Blue Ribbon and other favorite Midwestern beers. He was responsible for the introduction, into that area, of Baltimore-brewed National Bohemian beer, soon to be a national favorite.
America’s entry into World War II turned the Gernhard family’s world upside down, as it would the lives of so many millions of others. Boyd entered the navy, and by 1944, because of his military education, he was a lieutenant running an advance base unit in Australia.
Before the war, he and Sara had enjoyed a winter vacation trip to Anna Maria Island, a sparsely inhabited barrier island near Sarasota on Florida’s west coast. Desperate to get his family out of the Midwest, with its long, cold winters and its big-city nightmares, in late 1943—Phil was not yet three years old—Boyd took out a lease on a small house near the beach and informed Sara that she and the kids were to wait for him there. When the war in the South Pacific finally ended, he would join them and they’d resume their lives together.
First, there were hurdles to get over. “You couldn’t get metal parts or rubber during the war,” remembered Judee Gernhard, Phil’s sister. “But my grandfather, Phil Arnold, was vice president of the Garlock Packing Company—they packed up machinery parts for shipment overseas.
“We had an old Chevy called Tokyo Rose, and her floorboards were all rusted out, so we had wooden floorboards. But my grandfather was able to get tires for her. So my mother, brother, and I, and our big boxer dog, Regent, drove to Florida.”
On October 19, 1944, a category four hurricane made landfall at Sarasota. Residents of Anna Maria Island, including the Gernhard family, were evacuated to higher ground. “We lived on the far side of the island, away from the Gulf of Mexico,” said Judee. “And there were houses across the street, right on the Gulf.
“When we came back, after the storm, our house was still standing. But all of the houses on the Gulf side had washed away. They were just gone. “There was a water heater on our back porch, and my mother kept dishcloths hanging on nails back there. And when we came back, the dishcloths were all still there, but every house across the street was gone.
“I remember thinking how strange that was.”
Once the war ended, Boyd arrived in Florida to pick up where he’d left off. He landed a job as a traveling salesman. And he got involved in the community, co-founding the Sarasota Young Republicans Club in 1948. Boyd was the first president of the Sarasota Republican Party League, Florida’s largest Republican action group of the era.
Sarasota County in that era was sleepy and relatively isolated, surrounded on three sides by cattle ranches and citrus groves. The Interstate Highway System didn’t come that far south, so tourists weren’t exactly arriving by the busload.
The population in 1950 was just under twenty-nine thousand, and although the number would triple within a decade, it would be years before the area became a winter playground for rich northerners and a retirement destination for the moneyed from all over the world.
Midwestern circus king John Ringling and his wife, Mable, however, had wintered in the city since the early days of the twentieth century, and in 1926 moved into “Ca’ d’Zan,” an ornate palace built to their specifications, in Venetian Gothic style, on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
In an area with virtually no wealth, and especially during the Great Depression, the Ringlings were particularly ostentatious. They constructed an enormous art museum on the grounds, replete with faux-Roman statuary standing guard over an ornamental garden, to house their vast collection of European art.
Ringling died in 1936, outliving his wife by seven years. He willed the home, and the art museum, to the city of Sarasota. It was virtually ignored by the locals, who saw it every day as they drove up and down Tamiami Trail, the city’s main artery.
What Sarasota—the county and the city—had going for it was the Gulf, beautiful and blue, and, in the ’50s, relatively undeveloped. If you were a kid in Sarasota, you went to the beach. That was the very definition of fun and recreation.
When Judee and Phil Gernhard were growing up, the city was fully segregated, with the black population living in an impoverished area known as Newtown. The “black beach” was nearly forty miles away from Sarasota, near the Venice airport.
The Gernhards lived in several different homes before settling into a roomy, ranch-style place on Bayshore Road, almost directly across the street from Sarasota Jungle Gardens, the city’s lone tourist destination, a carbon copy of Tampa’s Busch Gardens, and of Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.
The kids grew up with the incessant, nail-biting sound of screeching parrots and the sight of colorful flamingos and peacocks—gone AWOL from Jungle Gardens—stalking across their front yard and making a mess of things.
But the biggest danger was impossible to ignore. Boyd Gernhard was an alcoholic, and prone to blindsiding his wife and children with what Judee called “rage-aholic fits.” If things weren’t exactly as Boyd wanted them, he’d get abusive, first verbally and then physically. The children were terrified of him.
“He was out on the road a lot,” Judee remembered. “And Mommy and Phil and I, and our dog, would just kind of live like we normally lived Monday through Thursday. And come Friday, we had to have the house all cleaned up. We couldn’t sit in the chairs. We couldn’t make dents in the pillows. It was pretty scary. I don’t think he was bipolar—nobody knew what that was then—but he also had a wonderful sense of humor and was very charismatic. But he really ruled the roost.”
When things got especially bad, the Gernhard kids would run away to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, nearly a mile away, and hide in the spacious Roman gardens, among the fountains and statuary. There, they’d whisper to one another, their eyes darting furtively from one entranceway to the next, wondering whether their mother would come and find them and explain that everything would be better now.
She never did.
“My father was very abusive to my mother and me, and Phil would try to stand up to him,” Judee said. “Phil determined at an early age that he was going to make a lot of money, and go back and rescue my mother. Get her out of there. And he did, and he tried, and she wouldn’t leave, and he was just completely heartbroken.”
Phil’s buddy George Heiland saw up close the fear that Boyd Gernhard had instilled in his son. As Sarasota High seniors, they once attempted to take George’s twelve-foot motorboat across the bay for an overnight campout on Longboat Key.
The night was foggy and the boys putted along with their 7½ horsepower outboard and never found Longboat Key. Instead they drifted and fretted and fitfully slept until their little craft was spotted in New Pass Inlet.
Following their rescue, a news photographer from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune approached Heiland on the dock. Before the man could take the photo, Gernhard made himself scarce. “He didn’t want his dad to know he was out there with me,” said Heiland. The next day’s paper included a short piece about teenaged George Heiland’s overnight boating mishap, with no mention of his companion.
The Heilands and the Van Donincks lived around the corner from the Gernhards. “We were part of the same neighborhood,” Betty Vernon said.
“All the kids that lived in the north end of Sarasota knew each other better than the kids from Siesta Key or South Sarasota. All my friends were from the north end.”
But Phil and Betty’s romance ended at the Gernhard front door. “I had dinner at his house just once,” she recalled. “His mother used an electric mixer on the mashed potatoes, that’s what I remember.
“After we reconnected, I said, ‘You know, I only had dinner at your house that one time.’ Phil said, ‘My dad was ogling you. That’s why I didn’t want you to come back.’ There was no love lost there at all.”
Judy Gernhard, Sarasota High School’s talented drum major, is the latest entry in the Sarasota Herald Tribune’s Annual Miss Mail-Away Contest. Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Boyd R. Gernhard of 3926 Bayshore Road, the high-stepping marcher weighs 132 pounds and measures 37-24-37.
“Judy Gernhard enters ‘Cover Girl’ Contest,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, September 27, 1955
In high school, I came along a year behind Judy and my teachers wouldn’t let me forget that she was the good student.
Phil Gernhard, Sarasota Herald Tribune, September 3, 1988
“Phil was kind of quiet and introspective,” recalled Sandy Gernhard, his future wife, “and Judee did everything right.”
While eight-year-old Phil was away at Camp St. Andrew, nursing his black eye, Judy and her mother flew out for a ten-day vacation to Ohio—to visit Mrs. Gernhard’s father, Phil’s namesake—and then to New York City, where they took in a couple of Broadway shows and sat in the audience of a nationally broadcast radio quiz show. Boyd, meanwhile, was on the road. Teenage Judee took piano lessons and aspired to a career in music; Phil tried the trumpet for a while but gave up, then played the drums but was, by his own admission, not very good.
He just loved music—and records. “In junior high and high school, he was not a playing musician—he was a listening musician,” Judee explained. “He just had an interest in the sounds that were coming out. He liked to dance and was very rhythmic.”
On February 21, 1956, Gernhard plunked down fifty cents of his hard-earned money, from working in a downtown cafeteria, to see his idol, Elvis Presley, at the Florida Theatre in Sarasota.
Presley played four shows at the theater that day. Betty Van Doninck attended one of them with her parents, before she and Phil started going out. They’d never heard of the performer before and went out of curiosity. Also on the bill: Justin Tubb, the Louvin Brothers, and the Carter Sisters.
But Phil Gernhard only had eyes—and ears—for Elvis, who had just released “Heartbreak Hotel” in January.
“That night had a tremendous impact on my life and became a driving force in all these years as a record producer,” Phil told the Herald-Tribune in 1988. “There’s not a gold record or award on my wall that does not owe at least part of its existence to that night and the inspiration of his performance and personality.”
This, most likely, represented the point of no return for Phil Gernhard. Thrilled and inspired by the blood rush of tangible excitement at the Elvis show, and otherwise intrigued by how music was created and recorded sounds assembled, he began to inwardly reject his father’s hardline attitudes and stern dictums.
Boyd expected his son to follow in his footsteps and join the navy. After all, it made a man out of the father—why not the son? “Phil never aspired to be in the military,” Judee said. “We sort of skirted around those issues because my father was German—my way or the highway.”
But pleasing Dad was always in the back of Phil’s mind. Even though he felt a strong pull from a very different direction, he tried, time and again, to toe the family line. In his senior year at Sarasota High School, he joined the naval ROTC and learned to march and sweat (he already knew how to take orders). After graduation and a summer job at a lumber yard, he left Sarasota for the University of South Carolina, where he would be enrolled in undergraduate studies as a midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.
At USC, his declared major was naval science. He was one of twenty “midshipmen” given an extensive tour of Pensacola Naval Air Station, one of the perks of the naval science program at USC.
“He loved being in South Carolina,” said Judee, who was in Tallahassee, studying music at Florida State University. “He really found his niche there.”
Back in Sarasota, the old man was fuming.
Judee: “Our roads didn’t cross, except when we were both at home. I was on the one path, ‘gonna get good grades and graduate’ and do everything Mommy and Daddy wanted me to do, and he was kinda like, ‘I’m outta here. I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that, and then I’m gonna do the other thing.’ But he was very talented. And very charismatic.”
Phil’s four years in Columbia, South Carolina—with only the first actually spent in school—would change everything. “There was a whole different part of his personality that was already coloring outside the lines,” his sister added. “His heart was always someplace other than where my father wanted his feet to be.”