EL JOBEAN — Utter the words “Suicide Simon” and Don Berini is quick to jump from behind the counter at The Bean Depot Café to take a visitor around his unique property.
To see what he sees requires a little imagination and a lot of bug spray, but his excited jumble of words quickly coalesce into an incantation. A spell is cast and one suddenly sees what he sees — a future in reviving the past.
Berini is the third generation of his family to take a go at this land, which once belonged to daredevil Leopold Simon, nicknamed “Suicide” for an act in which he would climb a 120-foot ladder, stand on a 10-inch platform, set himself ablaze, and dive into a flame-encircled water tank.
After breaking bones in his back and neck for the third time, Simon opted for what he believed to be a safer stunt — climbing into a crate with three sticks of dynamite and blowing himself up, thus becoming known as “The Human Firecracker” to overjoyed, and possibly relieved, carnival spectators around the country.
Berini’s family, along with a couple of partners, bought the land from Simon’s widow, Donna, in the 1990s. On the heavily forested grounds resided a rundown train depot and post office as well as the former El Jobean Hotel, along with several trailers Simon used for travel and building various contraptions.
The Berinis rejuvenated the depot into the café, complete with live music, while converting the post office portion into a museum dedicated to the history of the community, as well as Simon.
“The history here is incredible,” Berini said. “It actually caused a rift between my grandfather and father because my grandfather bought it as an investment and my dad fell in love with the history and wanted to preserve everything.
“That’s what I am hoping — trying — to do, now,” he added.
Berini’s first stop is a framed 1894 diploma that belonged to Simon’s father, Leo Simon Sr.
“This is his father’s pharmacy degree from Northwestern,” Berini said. “A lot of people think he’s just a maniac, but he came from an educated family.”
It’s this particular piece that pulls together the Simon puzzle, for there was much more to the daredevil than derring-do.
Berini, an engineer by trade before returning to Charlotte County upon his father’s death in 2019, theorized Simon survived his water dives due his flips and the wind friction the flames generated as he dove. Next, a thin film of kerosene on the tank water reduced the surface tension just enough to dampen the hit. Lastly, the tank itself was sloped at the bottom, allowing Simon to slide.
As for his dynamite act, Simon wore an aviator helmet with a vise that held ear pads in place. Inside the box with the three or four sticks of dynamite, it was all about placement.
Simon in 1949 told the Dallas Morning News, “I keep my head six inches from the source of the blast where there is a vacuum. A few feet from the source and I’d be blown to bits.”
There was more to Simon than his stunts, according to Elizabeth “Bitsy” Gibson Wagner, a second cousin who has served as the greater family historian.
“He worked on the first skyscraper built in San Antonio,” she said. “He was known for walking the high construction beams of some well-known, multi-storied buildings in his hometown of San Antonio.”
During his daredevil days, Simon traveled around the country, living in a trailer he converted from of a railroad boxcar. Wagner said through a process of trial and error, Simon invented a wind generator that provided electricity to the trailer and air brakes to aid in its transportation. One of his early wind turbines is displayed at the museum. In fact, Simon’s various inventions twice landed him in Popular Mechanics magazine.
Like many circus and carnival performers in the early-to-mid 20th Century, the Simons wintered in the Sarasota area. It was during one of those offseasons that Simon met Joel Bean, founder of El Jobean and owner of the El Jobean Hotel and Fishing Lodge. A friendship began and the Simons’ visits became more frequent. In 1942, Simon bought the hotel from a penniless Bean, who died soon after, and began catering specifically to his circle of circus and carnival performers.
Two of Simon’s nieces, Millicent and Nuala, told Wagner of what they saw whenever they came to Florida to visit their uncle.
“You could see aerialists on high trapeze bars practicing their acts behind the hotel, like the Flying Wallendas,” Wagner said. “And, occasionally, Leo blowing himself up out in an open field.”
For a brief time, the hotel prospered and the Simons expanded. Alas, the late Bean’s dream of a booming community never came to pass and as circuses and carnivals dwindled, so too did the hotel’s bottom line.
Eventually, the hotel closed and in 1972, Simon passed away at 66 of natural causes. Donna continued to live in the hotel, appointing herself the unofficial historian of El Jobean, gathering and preserving artifacts until she passed away in 1995. The Simons are buried together at Gulf Pines Memorial Park in Englewood.
Before he passed, Simon summed up his death-defying life while talking to a reporter from an earlier iteration of the newspaper that would become The Daily Sun:
“I’m not proud of this,” he said. “I think it’s pretty damn stupid.”
Later in the story, the reporter hit a little closer to the truth:
“In reality, he loved scaring and thrilling the crowds that flocked to see him perform. His feats to this day have not been equaled or surpassed by any other performer.”
SIMON’S SECOND ACT
As a child, Berini remembered Donna Simon as a bit of a firecracker, herself.
“I grew up walking the neighborhood with Donna Simon,” he said. “As an old woman, she would always tell me ‘most people say you need to stay flexible’ and she would take her forearms and stick her forearms flat against the ground.”
When Donna Simon sold the property to the Berini family, they also acquired all the artifacts, intellectual property and likenesses pertaining to Simon, including a screenplay based on his life written by Judi Ann Mason, one of the writers of the movie, “Sister Act 2.”
Berini’s father, Tim, and some other investors formed El Jobean Historical Properties. He left the hotel, trailers and property to the elements while rehabilitating the depot and post office into The Bean Depot Café and Museum. Tim Berini proved to be a colorful character, known to the locals as “The Mayor of El Jobean” and ran the café as a cash-only operation with hand-written payroll and no phones.
When his father passed away in 2019, the café had just finally paid for itself and the Berinis had set their sights on the rest of the land. Lost deep in the pepper trees and dense undergrowth, the hotel had largely collapsed while the trailers and truck rusted and compacted under the weight of the foliage.
Berini’s first move was to clear out the pepper trees, opening up the original field where the circus performers practiced. He is hopeful to make it into an event field.
He also plans to dismantle one of the trailers and repurpose it for the café’s tiki bar.
“Kind of like what Leo would have done,” Berini said. “Use what you have around and make something useful. He used everything.”
The hotel is a tougher nut to crack. In a twist, the oldest part of the hotel, consisting of its enclosed front porch and reception area, remains intact while storms have reduced the rest of the L-shaped building to rubble. The entire building is almost entirely obscured by the growth around it.
“Everyone thinks it’s just an old cracker house, but that little house over there? That’s a 24-room hotel,” Berini said.
On the hotel’s front door are the remnants of three different “No Trespass” signs. When the Berinis braced the door to keep it shut, intrepid explorers simply kicked in the porch enclosure to its side. At the opening, furniture and other items have been strewn across the ground.
“People have been dragging stuff out of it,” he said. “It’s really discouraging.”
Throughout the interior, holes in the floor reveal where the explorers took a wrong step and fell through.
Berini’s current three-year plan is to recreate the hotel’s original façade and front rooms. Not much can be done for the remainder of the building, so Berini is eager to turn the back end of the oldest section into a brewery or distillery.
Much has been taken from the property over the years, but at the same time, a number of videographers and bloggers have passed through, documenting the history. That conflict is something Berini constantly wrestles with.
“Pop kept everything covered up to keep people from destroying it all, but at the same time, they’re not going to last much longer,” he said. “Everyone’s going through and documenting, so it’s bittersweet.”
“At the same time, that’s the point of history,” he continued. “If you’re here now, I want people to enjoy it.”
If his plan comes to fruition, Berini envisions a lively attraction combining the past with the present. The café building and the hotel are on the National Registry of Historic Places and there are many more artifacts from Simon’s life stored away that Berini hopes to put on display in an expanded museum.
While recreations of Simon’s stunts won’t be happening, perhaps one day the dormant field where death was once defied will finally see new life.