Meet the man building St. Petersburg’s LGBTQ+ entertainment empire

ST. PETERSBURG — A kaleidoscopic chandelier of rainbow slinkies and disco balls hangs over the entrance to COCKtail St. Pete.

Under flashing lights and pounding beats, guests order drinks called “cradle robbers,” “banana hammocks,” and “hey, you up.”

The bar’s motto, plastered on the glass doors, promises “Strong drinks. Strong drink. Crazy good times.”

“If you know my businesses, there’s always a fun, cheeky side to it,” said owner David Fischer. “I have a sick sense of humor.”

Fischer is just getting started in the Grand Central District. After opening a number of businesses, including the hugely popular COCKtail, he is preparing to expand his empire of entertainment options to serve the local LGBTQ+ community, including a pool bar and hotel for gay men.

Patrons enjoy drinks at COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

After 25 years with Darden Restaurants, Fischer retired as vice president of training. Then St. Petersburg attracted him.

Fischer already had a home in Sunset Beach. Retirement beckoned, but first he decided to open ZaZoo’d, a home decor store and interior design firm, on Central Avenue.

In the nine years since, he has sold lavish gifts and decorations while consulting clients on properties around St. Petersburg. After Fischer created the art deco Avalon Hotel and redesigned the Hollander Hotel, the owner of those businesses purchased a building at 2355 Central Ave. He asked Fisher about using the space to start a new business.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to have a bar,'” Fischer said. “Why? I do not know. I am retired. I should be at the beach.”

First came The Saint, a red-lit speaker discreetly located at 49 24th Street N. Instead of sharing a password to enter, guests confess a sin to him (posted weekly on the internet) an employee dressed as a nun. Then slip into a moody bar where drinks are named after the seven deadly sins, tarot readings take place on Tuesdays and each customer is invited to write a bad transgression on a card. The most shocking displays are located on a wall by the bathrooms.

“We go through about 10,000 of them every three months,” Fischer said.

“It was not designed at all to be against the church,” he continued. “I grew up very Catholic, I still have a very Catholic family. The Saint was created to explore and show the juxtaposition of what we say we do in church and what we actually do in life.”

Cocktail followed in the same building in May 2021. Fischer wanted something that felt luxurious. He chose luxurious leather couches and carved out a dance floor. Instead of a hidden entrance like the Saint had, he wanted large windows that allowed passers-by to watch the party from the street. Highlighted with rainbow turkeys.

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“Most gay bars, for some reason, are hidden behind dark glass or a wall,” he said. “I wanted to be open and for people to be proud to call this place a gay bar that they want to come to, that rivals straight bars.”

David Fischer is seen walking into the Back Room store inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
David Fischer is seen walking into the Back Room store inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

For entertainment, he hired drag queen Adriana Sparkle, who had years of experience planning cabaret shows and drag brunches at the Iberian Rooster. She books community events at COCKtail: queer line dancing at Hoedown on Mondays, open drag nights on Wednesdays, and leather parties twice a month. On New Year’s Eve, Sparkle crashed off the side of the building (next year she will land on a giant rooster that matches the bar’s logo).

“They’re just trying to kill me,” she said. “They like to hang me from the building for some reason.”

Sparkle grew up in the Panhandle, where she had to drive at least an hour to visit a gay bar. She moved to Tampa to study graphic design and continued to meet Fischer after establishing herself as a drag performer. The two worked together to design the look of the bar.

“I learned a lot from David. It’s great to work with someone who is such a professional in the industry,” said Sparkle. “While he was [working at Darden], he was in the closet and wasn’t really able to be himself all the time completely. So it’s been a way for him to use all that experience and knowledge and give it back to the community, and give us something that’s very heavy, very aesthetically pleasing, but also a safe space. and a haven for the strange. people.”

Novelty and various adult-themed clothing for sale in the Back Room inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Novelty and various adult-themed clothing for sale in the Back Room inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

It’s been a busy summer for Fischer and Sparkle. On top of Pride Month and ZaZoo’d’s move to a new location, three new businesses have been brewing. Fischer will soon open a Vegas-style pool bar called The Wet Spot and a remodeled version of the historic Mari Jean Hotel in the same building as COCKtail. A few weeks ago, he opened a gift shop there called, The Back Room.

It will be located in the hotel’s lobby area and will have “underwear, swimwear, sunscreen, oil, all kinds of cool things that gay people need when they’re on vacation,” Fischer said.

Novelty and various adult-themed clothing for sale in the Back Room inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
Novelty and various adult-themed clothing for sale in the Back Room inside COCKtail on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Right now the outdoor area is still under construction, but soon there will be VIP cabanas and a long bar. Meanwhile, the artist and Baes cover Star Melanie Posner painted a colorful mural of two men kissing in the pool on the side of the building. Sparkle is already planning fun.

“Let’s just say you can spot a real mermaid when the pool is open,” she said.

Upstairs will be the Marie Jean, which first opened as a hotel in the 1920s. Since then, it has been a home for the mentally ill, an assisted living facility and a hotel again. run by Miami investors. Fischer is ready to do things differently. Guests will receive complimentary pool passes and bike access. The 54 renovated rooms will be accented with neon green colors and pictures of naked men.

“If you’re going to stay in a historic hotel, you have to make it a little more lively,” Fischer said.

A description of Wet Spot, a pool bar opening soon in the Greater Central District.  It will be located in the same building as COCKtail St.  Pete and Hotel Marie Jean.
A description of Wet Spot, a pool bar opening soon in the Greater Central District. It will be located in the same building as COCKtail St. Pete and Hotel Marie Jean. [ Courtesy of David Fischer ]

Fischer works seven days a week, spending the daylight hours ZaZoo’d or working on new projects before hitting the bar.

“You know, every day is an adventure,” Fischer said. “I never thought that in one day’s work, I would be designing a wine bar and choosing lingerie and belts for a store, choosing beautiful home decor and talking to drag queens about bookings.”

He knows not everyone is a fan — multiple zoning complaints about plastering “COCKtail” on the side of the building taught him that. But there’s a reason he pushes forward.

“We’ve had people outside yelling words that I would rather not say at our customers and at me,” he said. “It’s a cool city. It is a very acceptable city. However, there is still a need for a safe space for LGBTQ+ people and people cannot forget that.”

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