Up in the air
Esther Williams and Peter Lawford work on a
scene from the movie "On an Island With You."
HOLMES BEACH – An urban legend says the Holmes Beach airport was built for drug smugglers in the 1960s, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
"In 1946, dad cleared and leveled land (where the Island Branch Library, Holmes Beach City Hall and Birdie Tebbetts Field are now) and made a landing strip for the airport," Hugh Holmes Sr. recalled. "There was an air school and several of us took lessons under the GI Bill and got our pilot's licenses."
But it was Hollywood that put the small airport on the map, when producers of a movie that would feature some of Hollywood's most famous stars of the day chose Anna Maria Island as the location for their tropical paradise.
The move was "On an Island With You," and starred the gorgeous queen of swimming, Esther Williams, the dashing Peter Lawford and the exotic Ricardo Montalban, as well as Latin bandleader Xavier Cougat, comedian Jimmy Durante and dancer Cyd Charisse.
Longtime Island resident John Adams recalled one of the movie's funnier moments. "If you saw the movie, you will remember the seaplane taxiing up to shore and Peter Lawford, dressed in a starched white uniform, stepping out and wading ashore to rescue Esther Williams, who had been kidnapped by the natives. He looked a little bit like General MacArthur returning to Bataan, only MacArthur's uniform wasn't white.
"The first take didn't happen that way. Peter stepped out of the plane and sank out of sight with his hat floating and him blustering. The director didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Sand had to be filled back in while Peter was flown back to Sarasota to get him and his uniform washed and pressed."
The movie provided the perfect PR for Holmes' housing development and the brochure featuring Williams photo on the front and back covers, which read, "Charmed by its semi-tropical beauty, Miss. Williams refused to leave the Island until she bought a part of it for herself."
After the movie stars left, life on the Island returned to normal, and that included its young men taking flying lessons from Bob and Rhetta Grey, who had opened Grey's Flying Service at the tiny airport in 1946.
Bob had served in the U.S. Air Corps and Rhetta had sales experience from her job at Bloomingdale's department store in New York City. Adams said Bob had a Piper Super Cub, an Aerocoupe and several Piper Cubs.
Bob's students included John Holmes, Hugh Holmes Sr., "Humbug" Cobb, John Jackson and Percy Simpson, and they called themselves the Anna Maria Air Force.
Adams got a job washing and refueling the planes and received free lessons when the GIs didn't have time to take theirs. He said he quickly learned, "I was not pilot material."
He tells the story of French beautician, who asked to rent a plane, but said he forgot his logbook and license. Bob agreed to take a test run with him and if he could fly, Bob would rent him a plane.
"Bob unfastened his safety belt, slouched back in his seat and proceeded to read a comic book that we kept behind the seat while the Frenchman landed the plane," Adams remembered.
"Without Bob watching and with the short runway with water at each end being a little inhibiting, the Frenchman touched down at the very tip of the runway where the sand was still soft from the morning tide.
"The wheels sank deeply, flipping the Aerocoupe on its nose and Bob found himself sliding down the sand runway still reading the comic book."
The Greys also offered a flying newspaper delivery service to help with expenses. They would fly to St. Petersburg and pick up bundles of the St. Petersburg Independent and deliver them to Island residents.
In the early 1950s, came the first and only house with an airplane hanger, and Hugh Holmes Sr. recalled, "A.G. Wimpy came from Georgia to work on erosion control. He had an airplane, so he built a house with a hanger in it on Flotilla Drive.
"He and dad and dad's partner, Frank Giles thought it would be a good place to build homes with hangers, but that never worked out," Holmes Sr. remembered.
Bill Laney began an air taxi service in 1953 and the local newspaper noted, "By appointment, he will meet the regular airline plane at Tampa and drop Island passengers on the air strip at Homes Beach, thus avoiding the 120-mile round trip by car."
The following years brought other services and attention. The Anna Maria Flying Club took off with both men and women pilots and friends meeting regularly at the nearby Yacht Club for breakfast. Several companies began regular air services between the Island, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Venice.
"From the Island to Tampa costs only $5.25 plus tax and instead of an hour, and a half by car, the trip will take about 20 minutes," said a local newspaper article. "By air taxi, the cost is $15 or $20."
The airport and boat basin became the location for Labor Day celebrations in the mid-1950s with barbecue, water sports and air tours of the Island. Local GIs thrilled the crowds with intricate maneuvers and stunts in small planes. All the proceeds benefited the fire department.
In 1956, the U.S. Border patrol began checking the airport's log for small planes that may be arriving from or departing to Cuba carrying unauthorized passengers or contraband, merchandise or arms.
The first visit of a helicopter was in 1960, when Jim Karr picked up his mother at the airport and took her to Tampa for a visit. The newspaper reported, "Spectators were impressed with its obvious power, speed and maneuverability."
City acquires airport
The city of Holmes Beach acquired the deed to the airport land in 1967 after lengthy negotiations with the four families that formerly owned the property. Some residents began lobbying for improvements to the airport and formed the Island Airport Association.
The association proposed that the city obtain enough land to provide a 2,300-foot runway and offered to build the runway, but the proposal never got off the ground.
The beginning of the end for the tiny airport came in 1970 when a small plane crashed into the bayou at the north end. The plane was demolished, but the two men aboard were unhurt.
Nearby neighbors began to complain about the danger and the newspaper noted, "like many other airports around the country, when it was built in the late 1940s, there was nothing but jungle and open space around it.
"In the more than two decades that planes have used the field, conditions have changed considerably. What was once an area of palms palmettos and underbrush has turned into home sites."
In June 1973, another plane crashed into the bayou and two people were injured. The state stepped in and limited the use of the airport to helicopters and gave the city six months to develop a plan to bring the field up to standards. The city never developed a plan, and the airport closed in 1974.