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A Daring Young Man in a Flying Machine Revives Historic Sites and Turns Nostalgia into Profit

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A broken neck 10 years ago showed that Bob Snow is not easily deterred. He was managing to fly Navy Phantoms without incident when he almost killed himself rolling over his Porsche. Forced to choose between a neck fusion and a year in traction, he chose the latter and became one of the few pilots returned to flight status after such a severe injury.

Mustered out of the Navy in 1967, Snow turned down a flying job with an airline. He had his mind on grander things. Today he is back in the air in his own Stearman biplane, towing a banner advertising Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium. That is the name of two Victorian saloons, in Pensacola and Orlando, around which the 34-year-old millionaire has built elaborate entertainment complexes.

“Don’t call me a promoter,” Snow begs, twirling a well-waxed handlebar mustache. “I can’t stand promoters.” Flamboyance, however, he can live with. He wears heart-shaped topaz cufflinks and a wide silk tie with a cameo stickpin—”my dog-and-pony-show outfit”—and resides with his wife, an airline stewardess, in a 90-foot Pullman car. It was built for $279,000 in 1913 for a railroad president and restored by the Snows. Their other Pensacola home is a remodeled sharecropper’s shack.

In the early 1960s, the Minneapolis-born Snow was enrolled at the University of Minnesota and spending summers in Alaska where he worked on fishing boats and played trumpet in sawdust-on-the-floor hangouts. When he got his draft notice, he enlisted in the Navy flight program at Pensacola. With other jazz-crazy pals he organized “The South Hangar Six” and jammed Dixieland most nights until dawn.

He liked Pensacola and so, with his last $400 in flight pay (plus $1,100 for his new Porsche), he began restoring the city’s Seville Quarter. Once the center of town, it had become a slum. Snow leased a rundown 1870 warehouse and five months later opened the first Rosie O’Grady’s, featuring singing waiters, waitresses who danced the Charleston and cancan, and bartenders who hopped onto the bar to perform musical numbers on kazoos and spoons. Today Snow’s Seville Quarter operation includes six restaurants, bars and lounges with such names as Lili Marlene’s World War I Aviator’s Pub, Coppersmith’s Galley and Palace Oyster Bar.

During the Seville restoration, Snow developed a passion for old buildings. “They’re a part of America,” he explains. “No one’s going to build anything like them again.” He also began buying up what he calls “architectural antiques” and now has six warehouses stuffed with bric-a-brac, ranging from English pub mirrors and New Orleans wrought-iron balustrades to a French confessional (it will become a telephone booth).

Five years ago Snow began prospecting for a site for a new saloon. He finally found one in Orlando where West Church Street beyond the 1890 railroad station had deteriorated into an area of cheap bars and hobo havens. Snow bought up all the property he could on both sides of the street and installed a Rosie O’Grady’s in the lobby of an old hotel with a 23-foot ceiling. He decorated it with a 250-foot horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar, 800-pound chandeliers (from Boston’s First National Bank) and beveled leaded-glass doors from New Orleans.

Such bold urban renewal efforts have won Snow many civic honors and an award from the American Institute of Architects. They also landed him in a cash bind when the recession hit. “It was a real bleak time,” recalls Snow, who owed local bankers more than $1 million. “Nobody could borrow money in Orlando, and we almost floated down the river.”

Snow persuaded friends in Pensacola to lend him $300,000, $200,000 of which he took in cash. He stuffed the money into saddlebags, put on a cowboy outfit and drove up to the biggest Orlando bank in an antique fire truck loaded with garter-snapping cancan dancers. Snow dropped the cash on the bank president’s desk while the girls served chilled champagne and Rosie’s Dixieland band played Happy Days. For a non-promoter, it wasn’t bad.