Rita Blank certainly had a unique childhood growing up on the beach in the 1950s-60s. Her family moved down from New York to Miami Beach in 1956, thinking their father would be retiring. But then the opportunity presented itself for Abe Okun to purchase the Leslie Hotel at 1244 Ocean Drive for 125K. Since he was in construction, he was able to convert three rooms on the third floor for the family to live in.
At the time, Rita was only five years old and being surrounded by so many older people in South Beach was nothing new for her. Her parents had her late in life (around their 25th Anniversary) and most of their family and friends up in Brooklyn, N.Y. were older too. However, now there were many kids whose parents also owned hotels on Ocean Drive and she remembers walking to Central Beach Elementary School with them every morning.
Rita told us she has many fond memories of growing up on Ocean Drive, “I remember hanging out on the beach a lot and fishing with my friends off of the pier on 1st Street. Many times we would head over to the Clevelander Hotel where they had a fish pond out front and we would scoop up a fish with a net to take home for a pet. There were always hibiscus flowers growing everywhere and we used to use them for crayons. Being into art, I created a mural on the wall between our hotel and the Carlyle that I was so proud of, until my father covered it up with a paint job. One year there was an Easter Egg Hunt and the winners got to go home with a baby chick dyed different colors. I remember mine was colored hot pink. However, when the baby “chick” grew up we discovered it actually was a rooster. We kept him in the solarium which was on the roof and every morning at 5 a.m. he would start crowing, waking up the whole neighborhood. After getting many complaints from the Tides Hotel, we had to give him away.”
Most of their hotel guests would rent rooms for the entire winter season and the same guests would return year after year. In the district, most residents and guests were Jewish and observant so there were kosher shops and synagogues every few blocks. When they bought the hotel, there was a restaurant on the lower lobby that her father decided to turn into an area for nightly card games, bingo, religious services and parties. Every Friday night they would have Shabbat services for the guests in the lower lobby, with wine and candles and challah from the Butterflake Bakery on Washington Avenue. Other nights, her father would play Jewish music in the lobby with an accordion or violin for the guests to sing along. They also had a large movie screen, a color T.V. and occasional puppet shows in the lobby for the guests. Every New Year’s Eve, they would hold a celebration with music, long tables set with deli platters and a festive cake.
When asked about her specific memories regarding the Leslie, Rita relayed, “I remember we had a bellhop named Walter that had been with the hotel for many years prior to our purchase, so we kept him on. When expensive silverware started going missing from the hotel and my mom suspected the guests were helping themselves to it, she would always say to Walter, “Don’t forget Walter to shake the luggage, shake the luggage when they leave!”. We also had a night man that robbed the safe deposit box one evening. My parents would never make me do chores in the hotel, but they were always asking me to be quiet and don’t wake up the guests in the morning. Later when I got a little older, I would work the switchboard, answering calls, which I thought was fun. My favorite guest that would come every year was one that I would call “Uncle Harry”. Uncle Harry worked for Paramount Pictures and in 1958 when they were filming “A Hole in The Head” with Frank Sinatra at The Cordozo Hotel, he let us sit on the porch to watch them filming. Soon after that, he gave me a bunch of animation cells from Disney, which my mom ended up giving away, not realizing how valuable they were. I will never forget when one year we had a horrible hurricane where Ocean Drive was covered in sand and there was dead fish everywhere. My dad had installed hurricane shutters for the ground floor, but we still had fish that blew in on the 2nd and 3rd floors. But my best memories were when my friends and I would go to 10th Street for dancing, comedians, vaudeville shows and group sing-alongs.”
“During the 60s, my father started to close the hotel up for the summers. We would go on a holiday of our own and stay at the Royal Palm on Collins Avenue. My father would also rent us a cabana for six months at the Fontainebleau Hotel, which was one of the newer more glamorous hotels where lots of celebrities would vacation. I also remember many happy times ice skating at the Deauville Hotel and going to the Forge Restaurant/Club to have dinner and hear live music.”
Ten years later, Rita’s father sold the Leslie Hotel and the family moved into the building he had previously bought on Michigan Avenue. Rita’s two older sisters already lived there with their families. Rita did return to the Leslie Hotel for her surprise Sweet Sixteen celebration. She met her husband when they were both students at Ida Fisher High School. Today she and her husband live on the Gulf Coast, near their kids and granddaughter. Sixty years later, her sister who is 92 years old, still lives in the building her father bought in the Art Deco District.