One could hear the Pan Am reunion party on June 9 at Tavernier’s Atlantic Bay Resort before seeing it: the thrum of a disco beat and the loud cocktail conversation. A party was in full steam, with glasses clicking and hoots of laughter, and a backdrop of the sea and palm trees. This group of friends looked ecstatic to be together.
Since 2013, Tavernier resident Hedy Menendez has been organizing an annual National/Pan Am reunion in the Florida Keys for about 40 to 90 friends. “It’s my great joy being able to bring everyone together,” she told Keys Weekly.
The location is fitting, since the birthplace of Pan Am was in the Keys — Key West, to be exact.
In 1927, Pan American World Airways started offering flights from Key West to Cuba at 301 Whitehead St. From that time until it folded in 1991, Pan Am was the largest international air carrier in the United States.
Menendez’s friends were eager to talk to Keys Weekly and share what working at Pan Am was really like. Most of the attendees were Pan Am employees of many decades, starting in the 1970s.
Over the years, the image of Pan Am flight attendants has acquired a glamorous luster. And yes, back in the day, they were called “stewards” and “stewardesses.”
The 1950s through 1980s is generally considered the “golden age of traveling,” the era before 9/11, exploding shoes, 3-ounce liquid container limits, cranky TSA lines and ever-diminishing seat sizes and food options.
A short-lived TV show on ABC in 2011-12 called “Pan Am” focused on the elegance of air travel in the early 1960s. The stewardesses had similar youthful ages, heights, figures, hair, makeup and uniforms with precisely the same hats, white gloves, panty hose and shellacked hair. In the first episode of “Pan Am,” a character was suspended for — horrors — not wearing a girdle.
“The girdles were from another era,” said a party goer during a group conversation at one of the reunion’s tables. The former employees said the rumors of strict uniform and physical standards were mostly true, though by the 1970s, standards had relaxed a little.
“But we needed back-up panty hose, in case one pair got a hole in it,” said another attendee, who pointed out that supervisors checked what they packed.
And every day during a mandatory eight-week job training, which was intense with lessons about how to evacuate a plane, they had weigh-ins. The employees called these “fat checks.”
Billy Rosenbalm, who flew for Pan Am from 1977 to 1991, said his appointed maximum weight was 155 pounds. “And I was always 165,” he said, laughing. “They told me to jog around before I weighed myself.”
But despite the obsessive focus on appearance, these stewards and stewardesses loved their jobs.
Party guest Sally Morris, who flew Pan Am from 1978 to 1991, remembers having a layover in St. Thomas and thinking, “I’m getting paid for this.”
A table full of former Pan Am employees ticked through a list of all the celebs they served on flights, which is perhaps a phenomenon that doesn’t happen on commercial flights anymore due to the prevalence of private flying. But the list is a who’s who of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 1980s: Jimy Buffett, Michael Jackson, Goldie Hawn, the whole cast of “Dynasty,” Don Johnson … and yes, there was partying.
One former flight attendant said a famous 1970s rock star sneaked in certain substances to make his all-night flight a little more fun. And another employee said they had a female passenger do some “streaking,” the 1970s fad of running naked in a public place. The streaker was climbing over passengers in the middle seats, and the captain had to be summoned from the cockpit. He ran back with a blanket to cover her. The story made news headlines.
And another ex Pan Am employee said that on layovers in Rome, the staff would clean the bar cart of the booze, take it back to their hotel rooms, strip the beds of sheets, then wear them like togas…because they were in Rome.
Longtime Pan Am employee Debbie Shannon said, “We traveled the world together, experienced moments of pure terror, and we bonded so closely.”
Speaking of terror, reunion guest Kathi Rutter said, “We blew an engine going out of New York, and James Coburn was in first class, as white as a sheet.” Rutter said the flight ended up okay.
Shannon pointed out, “Safety was our number one job — we weren’t just a waitress in the skies.”
At different times during the party, the longtime friends spontaneously kicked off their flip-flops to dance, sang “Barbara Ann” en masse while gathering for a group photo and often threw their heads back in laughter.
Orli Stryren is still flying after 42 years. She started with Pan Am in the 1970s and has worked for American Airlines for 30 years. “I meet other flight attendants from other airlines, and they can’t believe we have these reunions. We were all in our 20s and grew up together in a foreign country. All we had was each other. I love these people. The memories are precious.”
Former Pan Am stewardess Joey Miller has one memory in particular that she’ll never forget.
“The flight was from LA to JFK and it was Christmas, and not many people were on the flight. So we moved them all into first class. Then we lit candles and sang Christmas carols,” she said, smiling, looking into the distance and swaying, as if moved by the memory.