Closure of Katie Belle’s signifies one more lost piece of magic in The Villages

Many Villagers were in shock last week when they learned that the legendary Katie Belle’s was closing down as a supposed victim of the COVID-19 crisis.

Many expressed sadness but anger and suspicion quickly entered the picture. Longtime residents were particularly upset because they remembered a time when Katie Belle’s was the premier place to go in The Villages.

The exterior of the Van Patten House, home to Katie Belle’s.

For those residents and others who had come to enjoy a meal or night out at the dance hall named after late Villages Founder Harold Schwartz’s mother, the loss is just another sad example of the magic disappearing in the mega-retirement community that wrongly bills itself as Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

Katie Belle’s became a reality in the 1990s thanks to the vision of Schwartz’s son, late Villages Developer H. Gary Morse. Villages lore has it that Morse drew Spanish Springs Town Square on a napkin and the Western-style dance hall was the centerpiece of that dream. In fact, it was well-known that Morse wanted a special place for residents to enjoy a tasty meal while shopping or enjoying the nightly entertainment in the Gazebo.

A huge part of the appeal of Katie Belle’s was that it encompassed two floors, with the upper section overlooking the downstairs stage and large dance floor. Unlike other restaurants in the community, entry into the facility at one times was limited to Villagers, which made it even more special and a true landmark.

The Country Western Wednesday dancers hit the floor at Katie Belle’s for the last time in 2015.

In it’s heyday, Katie Belle’s was packed on a nightly basis. It was known for many things but perhaps none as much so as the only place in the community featuring a “salad wheel.” The large contraption that resembled a Western-style wagon wheel contained all the salad fixings a customer could want and those at the table could just spin it until the desired ingredients were sitting in front of them.

Not surprisingly, in those days, Spanish Springs was a much friendlier place. An open-air fruit stand sat where TooJay’s is now located. Operated by former Florida Rep. Hugh Gibson’s wife, Evelyn, it was a place where Villagers would stop by on a daily basis to grab a fresh piece of fruit and socialize.

Another piece of magic was Church on the Square. The non-denominational church would host pastors and ministers from all faiths and was a popular wedding site. In fact, golfing legend and former Villager Nancy Lopez’s oldest daughter, Ashley Knight Hughey, tied the knot there.

Church on the Square in Spanish Springs Town Square in 2013.

Unfortunately, Church on the Square was taken away from Villagers in 2015 when it was swallowed up by The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center. Villagers were told what a great thing it was to have the church become part of the 1,000-seat venue. But they weren’t told that it would become just a small part of the lobby and be unrecognizable from the days when it was a truly special place.

Those landmarks, of course, were dwarfed by the impact Katie Belle’s had on the community. It was unique in many ways, including the fact that it shared a kitchen with McCall’s Tavern next door at Spanish Springs Lane. Villagers entertainers made it a priority to perform at Katie Belle’s, with one, the popular Billie Thatcher, getting her start in the community there.

The Sun Bowl tournament outside Katie Belle’s in 2001.

Katie Belle’s also played a key role in February 2001 when The Villages hosted a Professional Bowlers Association tournament named The Villages Sun Bowl. Two perfect outdoor bowling lanes were constructed on the street in front of the iconic restaurant and many area VIPs watched the event live from Katie Belle’s balcony while enjoying appetizers provided by the restaurant.

Sadly, Katie Belle’s started to lose its luster in 2015 when Villagers found out that unwanted changes were coming. The for-residents-only second-floor Cattle Baron’s Restaurant was closing. And the entire facility was moving to the second floor, with the bottom floor to be available for future retail customers – a move that left many residents feeling betrayed.

A crew works on the Katie Belle’s facade in July 2015.

By July 2015, the reconstruction of Katie Belle’s was well under way. The balconies were closed in with large windows, prompting some residents to lament the lost of the open feeling at the facility. That December, residents toured the remodeled facility and many reported that it had lost its charm and looked like any other upscale restaurant. One even expressed his dismay by saying, “Sorry Mr. Developer, but you blew this one.”

Another huge chunk of magic disappeared the following month when Villagers found out that things were going to be much different, from the menu to hours of operation to the fact that time limits were being placed on tables.

A “small” cover charge was going to be in place to “pay for the production of the show.” Residents were told that if they wanted to stay all night on Fridays and Saturdays, they’d have to purchase tickets for two shows. And on top of the cover charge, there would be a required bar purchase per show.

The Sounds of Time were performers at Katie Belle’s.

Unfortunately, Katie Belle’s won’t the be the last piece of Villages magic to disappear. The community is now being run by the fourth generation Morse Millennials – the group who actually expects Villagers to believe the popular venue is being closed because of the Coronavirus. If you ask us, that seems a bit too convenient and a sorry excuse for making the space available to a hefty-rent-paying tenant.

Clearly, this group doesn’t understand the magic of a venue like Katie Belle’s – especially when it appears that they’ve forgotten about the northern end of the community and their version of “magic” in the fast-growing southern section is a variety of food trucks.

Apparently, these so-called leaders either aren’t comprehending or simply don’t care what Katie Belle’s meant to their grandfather. But that’s what happens when the bottom line is about cash instead of the residents and the magical experiences they moved here to enjoy.

RIP Katie Belle’s. You won’t soon be forgotten by those of us who understand what you truly meant to this community. We’re just sorry the new powers-that-be never bothered to find that out.

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