Jim Kelsey speaks quietly, often tucking his hands into the front pockets of his black jeans. He has a pure white mustache and a head of white hair. He looks … normal. But then he starts to tell stories and the most outrageous tales come tumbling out.
A solid 78% of them are not suitable for a family newspaper. Except, maybe, this one:
“The first time I saw Faro Blanco, we drove in, and the Key Lime Pie band was playing “Lets Get Drunk and Screw” — I had never heard that before — and there were women running around in bikinis, and all the guys drove Mercedes or a Rolls Royce and had on gold Rolexes and gold coins on chains around their necks. And then Nick Aldacosta pulled up in his mullet wagon — a 62 Pontiac nose with a plywood bed — leaking stuff all over the ground. I looked at the Realtor and said, ‘Sold!’”
It was the beginning of an 11-year run — from 1979 to 1990 — captaining the rollicking ship that was Faro Blanco Resort in those days. He had his beloved late wife, Krista, by his side and they lived in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters that was once attached to the iconic light on the dock. His daughter, Katie, had the run of the joint — signing chits for lunch at the bar.
“All the employees would keep an eye out and tell me to knock it off occasionally,” Katie said.
Jim and Katie, along with her husband and sons, visited Marathon two weeks ago to celebrate a bunch of family birthdays. Jim took the opportunity to list all the people that helped him make the resort successful: everyone from Lloyd, who would sling a bosun chair over the lighthouse and paint it every year; to columnist Dick Bradley, who wrote about Faro in the Motor Boating and Sailing magazine (and would later become the resort’s publicist and marketing director); to Mitch Bell, who turned the restaurant around “so people would stop yelling at me in public”; to Eric and Susan Ball, who owned Faro Blanco and continued to operate The Golden Nugget jewelry store on the premises after Jim bought it.
The deal was put together on a shoestring and a prayer — he was to collect about $400,000 as a deposit. Kelsey was the first to admit, he missed the mark by a mile. Jim called Eric the day he was supposed to fly back to the Keys … without the money.
“I told him. And he was quiet, and then said to wait a minute. So, I’m holding the phone and I hear a bunch of yelling. He finally gets back on the phone, and said, ‘The deal is still on. I’m just mad because I just went and bought a big boat.’”
It was a wild time in Marathon. It was hardly a spot on the tourist map yet, and filled with a combination of weekend weed smugglers and conservative commercial fishermen.
“I had no idea what I was doing and I had no money,” Jim said, smiling in the shadow of the new Lighthouse Grill at the Hyatt Place and Faro Blanco Resort.
Jim recalls collecting all of the available funds into a bank bag and walking into the lobby. “The lady would shake her head and say, ‘it’s not enough.’” So he would make another pass through the resort, collecting slip rent and raiding cash drawers. “And then, all of a sudden, we were a success.” And by “sudden,” he means about six or seven years.
It was the mid-’80s when Jim conceived of the condos that still stand today. It became THE place to be for celebrities like Don Johnson and Joe Namath. Through it all, he developed a personal relationship with Eric and Susan Ball.
“I was very glad to help him in any way I could — for selfish and unselfish reasons,” Eric said. “Selfish, because I didn’t want to own Faro Blanco again. And Jim was trying so hard to make it go, you just had to help him every way, shape or form.”
In fact, Jim took the Ball family, and many others, with him when he moved to New Smyrna Beach, where he purchased another resort, The Riverside Hotel and Spa, he has since sold. They still get together regularly for dinner and shenanigans, sometimes as many as three dozen transplants, all seemingly drawn to Jim’s definition of good people and good times.
“It was such an important part of our life. We have a lot of good memories of Marathon,” said Susan, choking up during the phone interview from New Smyrna Beach.
“They call it Faro Blanco North,” said Katie, laughing. She went on to open her own business, a spa — first in the family-owned resort, and now a standalone business. Her dad spends his retirement buying and refurbishing classic cars, a nod to his career before he became a resort wrangler.
One last question, then, for Jim.
“Have you ever had as much fun?”
“No,” he said, smiling a tad wistfully.
If you ever have the good fortune to meet Jim … please, please ask him the story about the rat. Only he can tell it.