“Is this off the record? OK, well, that’s where they found the body of [redacted] in the show,” reveals firefighter Mike Powell, who’s sitting next to the gleaming ladder-truck inside Station 20, the middle of the three fire stations on Islamorada.
“Hey!” comes a booming voice from off to the side. “How about a spoiler alert warning?! SPOILER ALERT! Dang,” implores Capt. Geo Toth, shaking his head in mock disgust as the assembled crew at Station 20 bursts into laughter.
While perhaps not every local is up to date on the hit Netflix original series Bloodline, filmed almost exclusively on Islamorada, there’s no doubt that’s only a temporary oversight. The firefighters of Station 20 agree that the number of their friends who have yet to watch the show logs in at less than 10 percent.
The show is a noir-ish depiction of how a wealthy family’s dark secrets are exposed against the backdrop of the beautiful and sometimes-dangerous Keys. Filming has thrust the residents of the sports fishing capital of the world into the spotlight for a completely different reason, and they’re taking it with their usual Keysian aplomb.
“We get at least 50 people a day coming here to see the Rayburn House,” says Lesley Hyatt, general manager of the resort that acts as the location for the fictional resort named after equally fictional Robert and Sally Rayburn (played by Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek).
“They ask to see the Rayburn House, as if it’s a real place. I tell them it’s a TV show and that it’s not real. They don’t really care, they just want to see the location.”
“[Kyle] Chandler was shopping with his family and people were just leaving him alone,” says Islamorada Fire Chief Terry Abel. “The actors and cast blend in here. They like it here because we don’t care who you are. You can be the president, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or you can be Chandler. ‘Hey guy what’s up?’ We don’t do ‘Hey, can I get a picture? Sign this.’ You’re another person in our community; welcome and enjoy.”
The building used for the Rayburn House is a private residence, so the opportunity to stay in the actual lodge isn’t there. As far as offering people a night on one of the other 18 accommodations on the property, Hyatt says their room rates are somewhat prohibitive.
“We haven’t really realized much of an increase in clientele at the resort because we are kind of pricey, but the financial boom to the local economy has been great,” Hyatt says.
Abel concurs: “They use local as much as they can. People are coming to see them film. It’s a worldwide-known TV show now. The producers have all their staff using local. Everything that’s open they’re using. It definitely stimulates the economy.”
Toth agrees: “A friend of mine’s downstairs apartment is being rented by someone doing makeup for the show.”
Ramifications are been felt all over the island. “Every day we have people come here renting paddle boards and boats to go down the shore to see the Rayburn House,” says a bartender at Cheeca Lodge, an upscale resort just down the coast from Bloodline’s main location.
Says local celebrity fishing captain and radio host Skip Bradeen: “I am overwhelmed by the publicity we’re getting in Islamorada from this show. I’ve been here 52 years, and there isn’t anyone in town who doesn’t talk about Bloodline. Now if they’d only reach out to me to make an appearance. I am Islamorada.”
Getting on the map as a Hollywood location for “a phenomenon,” as actor Ben Mendelsohn (who plays Danny Rayburn) called the popular show, is something locals are still getting used to.
“My wife and I are very private people,” says “Bill,” who asked that his real name not be used since his family owns the “Rayburn House” boat used in the series. “People who live on Islamorada are typically very private people. They come here to enjoy the fish and the outdoors and to get away from things,” he said.
Well OK, do “very private people” typically rent their boat out for a starring role in a TV series by one of the largest content distributors in the world? Bill responds in a plainspoken, ‘Keysian’ way. “We never imagined it would get this big, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, we just thought why not?” he says. “I’m beginning to regret it.”
In addition to the privacy concerns, Hyatt had a bigger issue with what she initially saw on screen. “The first three episodes took me awhile to get through because we’re depicted as a seedy crack den,” she says. “We’re actually a very wholesome community,” explains Hyatt, unhappy at how her small town (population 6,500) was portrayed in the early episodes.
Abel said the seediness is part of the history of the Keys and of Islamorada, and says it has an appropriate place in any story about the area, though some may miss the relevance. “My whole family watches the show, but the kids don’t get it — they don’t understand the history that they’re trying to portray with the way things were in the old days and the smuggling and what have you,” Abel says. “My wife is seventh-generation Conch, so she grew up through all of this, the smuggling.”
While sport-fishing has been front and center on Islamorada since the mid-1940s, running drugs and booze through the Keys has been around even longer, Abel says. “In the days of old, the fishing off-season was slow, and these people could make big money running alcohol during the rum-running days with their big boats. That’s when the Mafia was here. Then they got rid of the mob, but the opportunity was still there. Guys with big boats running bales of marijuana and then cocaine. It’s just part of the old days,” Abel said. It was this feeling of “the old days” and the history that Islamorada harbors that helped location manager Maria Chavez and the Oscar-winning Spacek finalize their location.
“They came and walked the property. Sissy put her arm around me, took my hand in hers, and we walked the property together. She fell in love with the place,” Hyatt said. “She even came in and picked out jewelry she wears on the show. We had to make duplicates of the jewelry from our boutique. “Sissy is a sweet, sweet lady. She’s so far from Hollywood, all of them are. They all come in here. Jacinda (Barrett, who plays Diana Rayburn) especially loves the boutique.”
One thing the locals can agree on is the I-SPY aspect of watching Bloodline. “I like that they show areas of the community; that’s my favorite part,” Hyatt said. The firefighters like to look for incongruous edits. “You’ll see one scene where they’re driving northbound and then in the same scene five seconds later they’ve taken a road from North Key Largo and spliced it in with a road in Lower Mat [Lower Matecumbe Key],” firefighter Powell says.
“We laugh at that, but you would have no idea if you didn’t know those roads intimately like we do. Oh, and the mile markers are always off,” Powell added. Says construction worker Brendon Eichel, relaxing at the bar in one of actors Mendelsohn and Chandler’s favorite off-set hangouts, Marker 88: “I like the plot, the struggles, the drug part. I especially like looking for places that I’ve had a drink in.”
“Who knows how long this storyline is going to continue. It’s fun to watch to see how many places we can identify,” says Bill, noting that of the 13 episodes currently available on Netflix, his boat appears in 11 of them. And of course with that comes notoriety.
“Islamorada is not a big town, and it’s a friendly town, and not very much is private or gated, so you will have people walking around and they just sort of stumble upon us,” Bill says.
He says he thinks the boat was chosen because “it’s a nice blue color, it’s pretty sharp and it can get into shallow water that is required in the Keys.” The boat itself is a 1998 Hinckley, which is also known as a “picnic boat,” with the classic lines of a Maine fishing boat. He says the only thing the production has done to the boat is apply a stencil to the transom that reads “Rayburn House, Islamorada, FL.” And you guessed it, only Bill is allowed to drive the boat.
While road closures are the most-common visible sign that Hollywood is in town, there are lots of bangs and blasts as well. In the original application to the city, location manager Chavez noted there would be exploding boats and “simulated gunfire” the image for the show on the Netflix app is a sleek cabin cruiser engulfed in flames, prompting the question about how the fire department would address a boat burning offshore.
The answer, Powell said, gives keen insight into how Islamorada locals feel about living with a Hollywood production in their midst. “There’s nothing you can do. You just let it burn, and eventually it will be all over.”