The story of Toni Bishop’s is more than a tale of a long-gone boulevard business; it is a poignant love story.
Rocco’s Tacos Las Olas used to be Smith and Jones and long ago, it was a place called Mario’s East. Wasn’t it Louie Louie once too?
But I remember that in the late nineties it was Toni Bishop’s Restaurant and Jazz Club. In 1998, the place opened, planning to be a huge jazz venue. And during its short life it hosted jazz performers such as Chick Corea, Chuck Mangione, (I was at that gig!) Arturo Sandoval and Spyra Gyra.
In 1999, in the early hours – the year after its opening – rental trucks arrived at 1313 ELO and emptied the jazz club of everything that wasn’t nailed down. Toni watched – and then disappeared.
Toni been brought up in Hialeah in a close knit family of Italian origin. She married at a young age to a man fourteen years older than herself, but they divorced. She pursued her singing career. She didn’t remarry, but she had a long-standing relationship with her manager, P.J. Samulak
One of the early venues where she performed was the late lamented Musician’s Exchange on Sunrise – and the long gone Cajun House at 230 East Las Olas.
The story has it that at one venue she played, the owner objected to the song she was performing, Evergreen.
Toni had had enough – and walked out.
However, the man who had requested the song never forgot her. “I’ve been a fan for five years,” he said. “One day I felt brave, and I called up Toni and said, ‘You know, we should open our own jazz club.'”
He was Abe Lang, the Mattress Giant tycoon and he had been a restaurateur. Together they opened the Las Olas venue. He said at the time that opening the jazz club cost him over $1 million. On the opening evening, Toni walked onto the stage and saw a full house. She chatted with the audience – Abe being on the front row – began her first number.
It was Evergreen.
“I’ve seen my daughter’s name in lights before,” says Anthony Cataudella. “But this has been the best thrill I have had, in watching her go from infancy to where she is now. As far as I’m concerned, that evening was the best. She made me cry.”
However, Abe Lang had serious diabetes and other health problems. In July 1999 Toni and Lang vacationed in Hawaii, where they married – at the top of a volcano.
He died after they had been married for only ten weeks.
Two weeks later, Toni returned to Fort Lauderdale and decided to close the business. “They literally emptied the place out,” says Alan Kipnis, the attorney for Henry Olmino, the building owner.
“The only things that were left were the tables, chairs and dishes. I was sitting across the street at the Floridian,” says the restaurant’s former head waiter, Allen Zapata. “We realized, uh-oh, this is it. We all knew the bankroller was a middle-aged guy with diabetes. As soon as the bankroller goes, we’re all in trouble.”
Toni’s attorney at the time explained that her husband had just died and that she didn’t want to sing any more.
Many of the restaurant’s workers remain loyal to Bishop and Lang to this day. What did Toni Bishop have to say about the night the lights went out on the club that bore her name?
“I can only apologize and say I was in such disarray. I crumbled. I just knew I wasn’t going to be able to sing, and if Toni Bishop couldn’t sing, the place wasn’t going to stay open.”
In January 2001, Bishop received a check for the final settlement of her husband’s estate. The total was $4,192.
I don’t know where Toni Bishop is today. I heard that she sang at the opening of Pastorius Park a few years ago but that’s all I’ve heard.
I hope she’s not alone. I hope she’s singing again. I hope she’s happy again.