John Vagnoni, co-owner and custodian to one of Key West’s most iconic bars for more than 40 years, will speak at The Custom House Museum on Thursday, November 19, from 6:00PM-7:00PM as part of Key West Art & Historical Society’s Distinguished Speaker Series. With images and anecdotes, Vagnoni will shine light on the “Spirited History of the Green Parrot Bar,” which will be featured in the Society’s upcoming Bars, Blues and Brews exhibit at the Custom House Museum on 281 Front Street.
The bar’s “nothing to prove” attitude, the bounty of world-class bands that play there, and their “no sniveling” approach to their patrons and each other have helped make the island’s oldest watering hole the unique treasure that it is today. But it’s also Vagnoni’s dedication to operations and his thumb on the pulse of things that help keep it that way. We caught up with him recently to get a sneak peak into some of what he might share at the KWAHS presentation in the Helmerich Research & Learning Center.
KWAHS: How does it feel to run the most iconic bar in Key West and quite possibly the nation?
“I don’t really know that it’s sunk in. I believe I come to work every day in much the same way I did before we were on anyone’s radar. I think it is this sense of “un-self-consciousness” that myself, as well as our bartenders possess that is the real key to our success.”
KWAHS: Did you ever think you’d see the day where a bar- YOUR bar- would be featured and recreated in a museum exhibit?
“Again, go figure?”
KWAHS: How did the Parrot get all that art?
“When I walked in the first morning I was here, the only things on the walls—save a few beer signs— were an oil painting of Hemingway with a thin trickle of blood coming from the corner of his mouth and a snow-shovel with several bullet holes in it. The rest came purely by accretion, layer upon layer added by a collective unconscious of staff, customers, and management. I think over the years, I would spy something that looked interesting— a photo, a painting, some found objects –that seemed like they deserved to be appreciated.
And there was Jimbo the Plumber—later immortalized in the John Martini sculpture, “Where’s Jimbo and The Other Giants of the Building Trade”— who was our janitor for many years. He was the one guy who in the 80s really took the curating to another level. He was sort of a savant when it came to curating, dragging new things in and shuffling old things around in a seemingly random pattern that eventually would gel into something appealing and even compelling.
People like Buco (Pantelis) and David Wegman were also great at scavenging and recycling. They were true preservationists, and I think it shows.
Authenticity is the word that comes to mind. This place could never be copied or knocked-off because it sprang from these diverse, and “un-self conscious” –there’s that word again—minds.”
KWAHS: You’ve been quoted in a previous interview as calling the Parrot a “cultural hub.” Can you riff on this?
“I’ll try to be succinct here but that’s a big question. I do see it as a cultural hub, if you consider that what I think all culture springs from is the mash-up of those folks who constitute that society. The Parrot is certainly a great confluence of that mash-up of the intellects, imagination, and skill-sets one would expect in a small island city at the end of the road. I think all bars have this potential to be a repository or distillation of past clientele and I think we’ve done that.
KWAHS: You’ve been called “the heart & soul” of the Parrot by your partner Pat Croce, which is apparent in how smoothly everything goes despite the potential for total mayhem. Can you talk to us a little about being “the eyes” of the Parrot, too, and one or two instances of carousing you’ve surely seen over the years?
Some mornings I am amazed to come in and not see a crater where the bar had been. I must credit this, again, to our “seasoned” staff who seem to know instinctively where that line is between being festive and being felonious. I have always called it “the serious business of having fun.”
As for potential mayhem, what instantly comes to mind are three group costumes from our annual Halloween parties: one was a public hanging, another was people being shot out of a cannon out front, and another was revelers dressed as angels being deposited on Southard Street by a crane parked behind the bar. All these were Buco’s Halloween group-costumes by the way and all were terrifying.”
KWAHS: Most of your staff has been there forever. What do you attribute this to?
“Who would not want to work at what I consider to be the best bar in the world? It is the most unpretentious “ticket-to-cool” that I could imagine.”
KWAHS: What do you think makes the Green Parrot so special?
“All of the above. The bar has, as I said, a total lack of pretense. It has bartenders who can look at the most absurd of situations and then, in a completely non-judgmental and professional way, just move on. This, by the way, is something that cannot be taught, but can however, he handed down, as it was from my previous partners Jim and Linda Bean and continues with my new partner Pat Croce.”
KWAHS: One last question: If “Smirk” could talk, what would she say?
“Change is good. You go first.”
The Distinguished Speaker Series are a twice-monthly program that highlights the abundant history and cultural assets of Key West and the Florida Keys through informal lectures, performances, and presentations. This annual lecture series is made possible in part by the generosity of the Helmerich Trust.
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