Journals of Yesteryear

Purple Cow

Jewel of Sarasota - The Cohen Legacy

Author: Lou Ann Palmer
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Readers of Sarasota History Alive:

My name is Lou Ann (Rosengarten) Palmer. I am of relatively sane mind and a very wrinkled body. Am 73, but feel 37. My former SHS American History student, Larry Kelleher (your editor), has asked me to share with you my personal memories of living in Sarasota for the past 62 years. I just want to warn you that my stories are purely my recollections and may not be totally accurate.  If anyone wants to challenge them, please feel free to do so. Let's get started!

Preface:

Because of very severe sinus conditions, my parents, Nima and Roy Rosengarten, and I moved to Sarasota from Toledo, Ohio in 1948. It was a very brave venture for a 45 year old man who had no job, no home, and had never seen Florida before. Having been the Grand Exalted Ruler of the Toledo Elks, he immediately drove to the local BPOE on Fruitville Road to see if any of the members could assist him in finding work. One suggested he visit David Cohen who owned Smith Candy Co. (later renamed Smith Specialty), a wholesale supplier of hotel and restaurant supplies. Dad did so immediately (the business was initially located on Lemon and 6th Street - later renamed State Street).

The interview was interrupted by a customer phone call ordering toilet paper, paper plates, and several cartons of cigarettes. Dad and Dave shot into the warehouse and filled the order. Dad returned the next day and continued as Dave's right hand man for 30 years until the company was sold. Dave always joked that he could never fire Roy because he had never hired him.

Mom was hired by Meg and Marvin Weiss to be a saleslady at their dress shop on Main Street (eventually, they moved the shop to Harding/St. Armands Circle). A few years later, Eleene Cohen, Dave's wife, snared Mom to sell jewelry and organize fashion shows for her store...The Sport Shop...(located at 5 Points where First Watch currently is today).

Having no relatives here, Dave and Eleene became my non-blood uncle and aunt, and both had a major impact on my growing up in this community.

 

Chapter 1   The Purple "Cow" - Jewel of Sarasota - The Cohen Legacy 

Uncle Dave was a child prodigy and a brilliant musician graduating with honors from the Curtis Music Institute in Philadephia. After he and Eleene came to Sarasota from Petoskey, Michigan, Dave, Ruth Butler, and Lota Mundy (with others) decided that classical music needed a local venue. They raised money, requested and received from the city a location in the civic center, and saw that the Florida West Coast Symphony (now the Sarasota Orchestra) had a permanent home. The orchestra was comprised of volunteers. No one but the conductor was paid (but, all this is another story). Concerts were held in the Municipal Auditorium which primarily catered to community events, high school proms, and basketball games.

In the early 60's Dave ran and was elected (as the first Jew) to the Sarasota City Commission. He and four other business leaders (including Gil Waters) led the very creative body to change the face of Sarasota in many ways (that's also another story). As the concertmaster and First Violinist of the FWCS, Dave became frustrated that the orchestra had to perform in a very unsuitable facility for symphonic music. So, he conjured up the idea of the city voters approving a bond issue for the construction of a performing arts hall on the waterfront. City taxpayers said "Yes!"  Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin architectural firm was hired to design the building.

Lewis and Eugenia Van Wezel contributed over a million dollars to the project, hence the name Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. In 1970, Dave and his fellow commissioners cut the ribbon and opened our purple jewel to the public with performances of "Fiddler on the Roof" (a musical about Jewish history -accidental? Maybe not! Hmmmm…). What an amazing feat for our city with probably less than 30,000 population. This was the beginning of the reference to Sarasota as "the cultural oasis of the west coast of Florida."

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the VWPAH this year, we need to recognize the genius and "chutzpah" of former Mayor David Cohen who was named the "most important citizen of Sarasota" in the last half of the past century.

Thank you, Uncle Dave!  May you look down from above with pleasure and pride!

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