You can’t talk about the history of SoHo without mentioning its most notable bar: the Chatterbox Lounge. Founded in the Prohibition Era, it was South Tampa’s favorite watering hole for 70 years until it closed unceremoniously in 2001.
“The Box” was unassuming upon first glance. Located at 709 S. Howard Avenue, the bar itself was just two wood-framed barracks from MacDill that were joined to create one long building that former owner Rudy Zabak’s son Rick equated to a shoebox. “And the inside was so dark that if someone greeted you at the door, you’d have no clue who they were because your eyes had to adjust,” Rick said.
But it wasn’t the appearance of the Chatterbox that made it so memorable. It was the people. During the day, former owner Danny Lea said he’d have retired professionals like judges and attorneys. “But at night time, we used to kick it back,” he said. “We were allowed to stay open to 3am, and we made use of every minute. It was jamming in there.”
From University of Tampa students and alumni from Plant, Jefferson and Robinson High Schools, to politicians, downtown professionals and even the local hospitality crew, stiff drinks and a great jukebox made the Chatterbox the place to “start and end your night,” Danny said.
“We had it all. From the kings and queens to the pork and beans,” he said.
The first incarnation of the Chatterbox Lounge is said to have opened in 1931. According to the Tampa Bay Times, it was originally called El Dorado Club, and “groceries” were sold out the front. Located on the corner of Howard and Swann Avenues, it changed hands a few times before officially becoming the Chatterbox in 1940.
Longtime South Tampa residents and retired military may remember that version of the Chatterbox as a round waterhole set back from the street. That building burned down in 1947 and was promptly replaced with the building most locals remember.
Rudy Zabak owned the Chatterbox from 1957 to 1981. His son, Rick, said it was a modest investment for the Cleveland native. Zabak brought in live music acts and helped put Chatterbox on the map as the bar to visit when you’re in Tampa. He sold the business and retired in the 80s, handing the business over to surgeon Dr. John Ackermann. He hired Lea, a former University of Tampa football star, to manage the business.
Danny said Dr. Ackermann’s health started to diminish in early 2000, so he made arrangements to sell off the SoHo property. The original arrangement was to build the Panera and keep the Chatterbox. As Danny tells it, they “reneged on their agreement.”
“It seemed like a parking lot was more important to them,” he said. “They took away South Tampa’s finest bar ever.”
The place stayed busy the entire month before it’s last night on Jan. 1, 2001. Danny said it was a sad day. “Tampa turned out to say goodbye to its favorite establishment,” he said. “We didn’t have much inventory when the night was over.”
Today, Mr. Zabak is enjoying retirement. Danny is an economics teacher at Jefferson High School (“a surprise to anyone who’s gotten change from me at the bar,” he jokes) and the defensive line coach on the football team. He’s held the position for 14 years, but he still misses the old days at “The Box.”
“It truly was a wonderful meeting place to have,” he said. “Those were nothing but good times.”