"Where the boys are, someone waits for me . . ." sang Connie Francis in the 1961 sun 'n' fun film of the same name. The beach-blanket movie was based on Glendon Swarthout's lurid novel about college kids in Fort Lauderdale, portraying the warm and witty side of spring vacation - throwing hammerhead sharks into hotel swimming pools, blanket-tossing, building 40-foot high pyramids of empty beer cans on the beach and checking in and out of no-tell motels with handsome Ivy Leaguers.
"Those were the good old days," sighed Ed De La Vergne, a resident of Fort Lauderdale for 20 years and now public information officer for the police department.
The movie starred an ingenue named Paula Prentiss in her film debut, as well as George Hamilton, Jim Hutton, Yvette Mimieux and Dolores Hart, who later abandoned her Hollywood career for a Connecticut nunnery.
"See what life down here can do to you?" said De La Vergne.
Sixteen years later Fort Lauderdale is still the scene of vacationing students and still where the boys art. In fact, this beach town (pop. 139,000) on the Florida east coast has become the most popular resort in the country for men - gay men.
Attracted by the casual vacation atmosphere, as well as the heavily advertised gay establishments, men of all ages and professions can be found strolling down the beach hand in hand, [WORD ILLEGIBLE] one another's bronzed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] with sun tan oil and dancing cheek to cheek in the discos.
The emphasis in Fort Lauderdale is on youth and beauty, and everyone agrees that the gay men are better dressed, better looking, and better behaved than the college crowds.
"The dark and dirty aspect of the gay life is over," said Bill Hovan, owner of a successful gay establishment in Fort Lauderdale. The Marlin Beach Hotel, Hovan bought the hotel in 1966, and watched it gradually go down hill. In 1972, he decided to change direction.
"I had a few gay employees," the 50-year-old owner said. "We had started to attract some gays to the bar. I decided there was a tremendous market and we gradually began to promote the hotel as a gay establishment."
Two years later the hotel was remodeled. Today, the Marlin Beach ranks as one of the most attractive hotels on the strip, and grosses over $2 million a year.
The resort includes a heart-shaped pool with three outside bars, one of the better restaurants in the area, a hair salon, elegant disco and a boutique.
The staff is trained to inform those who look out of place that the Marlin beach is a gay hotel. Some stay anyway, and some decide to leave. Before this policy, one man and his son checked in and while the father napped, the young boy went for a swim. SHortly afterward the son returned to the room. "Two men are kissing at the pool," he said. The pair checked out.
The limp-wristed stereotype of the effeminate homosexual seems inaccurate at the Marlin. In fact, the well-built macho-movie star type is more common.
And when two men greet each on the dance floor with an embrace and a long passionate kiss, no one blinks.
But Fort Lauderdale still has scenes reminiscent of the heyday of the late '50s and early '60.
When the bars close at 2 a.m., hordes of young bodies - male and female - spill out onto the strip of hotels that line the beachfront to roam up and down Atlantic Boulevard.
But since staggered vacation periods went into effect, Fort Lauderdale has been spared in recent years the onslaught portrayed in "Where the Boys Are" when even crossing the street could be lethal.
"I had a part in that movie," De La Vergne said, "They filmed it right on the strip. Those crowds were real."
"Everybody's on the make here," De La Vergne said, "but there's a whole new breed of kids. Arrests are minor, averaging five to seven a day, mostly for drunk and disorderly. Drugs are no problem. I think the kids are more mature."
It wasn't always this calm.
In the 1930s Fort Lauderdale began sponsoring intercollegiate swimming meets and by the end of World War II the resort had gained its reputation as the "in" place to go for Spring Break.
By the '50s, thousands of college kids had caught on, and in 1961, the same year "Where The Boys Are" was released, Fort Lauderdale was the scene of the worst riot in the city's history. Angry bottle and rock throwing students, 3,500-strong, filled Atlantic Boulevard, crippling the city because police had issued early-night closings for the beaches. Over 100 were arrested and the publicity brought even more to the scene.
In 1967, the students were still restless but the riots were minor. Arrests were mostly for hurling fruits and vegetables at policemen, picking up empty Volkswagens and running with them up and down Atlantic Boulevard. Attempts at removing the 1,800-pound marlin in front of one hotel failed, so groups turned to blanket-tossing bikini-clad coeds.
Then the hippies came, held hootenannies (remember them?) on the beach, and smoke a funny smelling weed. Things began to quiet down.
This year, the week before Easter was still the peak time. The kids were still coming, 50,000 strong, the main attraction still being "beer and broads."
The boys are constantly on the make," said Candy Armenti from Long Island.
"It's part of the Fort Lauderdale tradition," Armenti said, "but I don't have to go to bed with a guy to have fun. That's what they all want though."
It is 8 p.m. and on the corner of Atlantic Boulevard a jukebox blares a Beach Boys tune. Inside the Elbo Room, once the sight of famous beer brawls, patrons lean on wet countertops, drinking and talking. On the beach a girl in cut-offs sleeps curled in a fetal position, and down the street beach towels hang from windows of the Ramada Inn like flags.
Later on the singles bars will be packed, Mr. Pips, Pete 'n Lennie's, the Ocean Mist and The Playpen, whose main attraction is the wet T-shirt contest.
Traffic is picking up on the boulevard. An open van with Michigan plates inches forward. "It's summer," a voice calls from inside, "It's Florida! Yeeaah!"
On the sidewalk a boy in jeans and a T-shirt proclaiming "Anita Bryant Sucks Oranges" ambles by the amusement center, while police on motor scooters man the intersection at AIA and Atlantic Boulevard, looking bored.
Things are so dull, says De La Vergne, even one-piece bathing suits are coming back.
Where the gays are seem to be the most fashionable spots in Fort Lauderdale. Cruisewear has taken on a new meaning. The athletic look (cutoffs, tank tops, high soccer socks, track shoes or construction boots) is very big this year! So are white jeans, tattoos and pierced ears.
From the back pocket dangle assorted accessories - keys, scarves of different colors, even handcuffs. Everything means something: How and where accessories are worn indicate sexual preferences, as well as active or passive roles.
The accountant for The Copa Cabaret, a late-night gay disco, said he once had cards printed up to explain the different symbols. Within a week the cards were out of date.
Along with the Copa and the Marlin Beach, popular gay establishments include The Lauderdale Beach Hotel, Tacky's Bar, The Gym Baths ("Tea Dance in a Towel"; and several male escort services which are legal here. Massage parlors and topless bars are not.
But professional acceptance for most of the gay establishments has not come easy.
Esme Lorenzo, general manager of The Marlin Beach Hotel, said the hotel's application for membership in the Fort Lauderdale chamber of commerce was denied this year. She will try again next year.
"My only regret," Lorenzo said, "is that I'm a woman and no one ever looks at me.
"I've been through the college kids the hippies, the families," she said, "but this is wonderful.
"We have a very chassy place here. We don't allow any behavior a straight establishment would not permit. We even have our own security force. After the college vacations up to a few years ago, we weren't able to put 10 rooms of furniture together."
But for all the talk about relaxed attitudes of the '70s, the casual sex, the freedom and openness, it is obvious that the life of a homosexual is not always gay.
Many speak of the loneliness, the lack of meaningful and lasting relationships and the heartbreak of losing one's youthful appearance. Older gay men are forced to seek the services of young male prostitutes, and are generous with cars and expensive gifts, as well as money.
De La Vergne acknowledged that the gay community in Fort Lauderdale is growing. But incidents that were common a few years ago have vanished - incidents like straight kids taunting the gays with cries of "faggots" or hustling them for money Attitudes about homosexuality have changed, De La Vergne believes. And more are coming "out of the closet." It's not easy for some.
"Seven years ago it was illegal to serve a homosexual a mixed drink in Dade County," said the Copa accountant, who was arrested last year on his way home from The Copa. Driving down Davie Boulevard, he was kissed on the cheek by his lover sitting beside him. The car was pulled over and the pair arrested for indecent behavior.
"Does your family know you play with boys?" the policeman reportedly asked him. After two hours in jail and a court hearing, the charges were dropped.
Another reisdent of Fort Lauderdale for the past few years, thinks the gay life here is more superficial than in the big cities.
"It's like swimming," he said. "Sometimes you get so caught up that you don't realize how far the current has taken you. Looking back to shore, I have a stop and ask myself, 'Is this all there is?'"