Sunday, 04 December 2011 02:30
By Eef Armstrong
Antigua St John's - “I am a free spirit. I always have been, and so it happened that my friend, Peter Reitz, and I left Germany and ended up buying a dive shop in Dominica. I convinced Peter to leave the rock band we played in as drummers, and go somewhere tropical."
It was 1979 when Bert Kirchner started a journey that would take many turns, and bring him to his latest project - the Antigua and Barbuda Film Festival.
The two friends enjoyed their new-found freedom in Dominica, but were forced to leave in 1981 because of the revolution.
Kirchner wanted to go to Jamaica, but Reitz had visited Antigua before and insisted they try their luck there. "Upon arrival in Antigua I approached Joy Moon, who was the manager of the Halcyon Reef Hotel, and asked if she needed any divers. I ended up running a dive shop there even after the hotel closed a few years later," Kirchner explains.
With a smile on his face, he leans back in his chair and continues: "So there I was sitting on the beach one day when a man by the name of Peter Desavory walked into the dive shop. He told me he had $35 M to spend. I laughed, thinking it was a joke, and said well, so do I.”
It took some convincing on Desavory’s part that he was serious, but eventually Kirchner introduced him to Hugh Marshall. Desavory bought the old Halcyon Reef Hotel, renamed it St James’s Club, and the rest is history. “I do think I was in the right place at the right time," says Kirchner, “because many great things started to happen after that.”
He became part of the hotel’s management team, and ran his own dive shop at St James’s Club. He rubbed elbows with big celebrities like tennis star Martina Navratilova, and they became good friends and travelled the world. She is the godmother of Kirchner's son, Shabier.
Another great friendship that blossomed was with Arnold Schwarzenegger who was celebrating his honeymoon in Antigua. “We used to work out together in the gym at the hotel," Kirchner says. "It was exciting as I used to do bodybuilding back in Germany, and Arnold was a pro.” The connection he made there and then turned out very useful later in life, when Kirchner became president of the Antigua Bodybuilding Association.
“It was 1984, and I was loving life when this great idea struck me," he says. Kirchner leans forward, resting his elbows on the table, and continues: “I came up with this tourist attraction I called Antigua Marine Par.”
Antigua Marine Par was a sea aquarium, built on land and floated over to the coral reefs outside of the Pillars of Hercules. It was lowered onto a concrete wall built around the coral garden. “It took about four months to build and it was completed on January 6, 1985," he recalls. "It was a Greenheart structure with mesh wire and it had a small bar on it. It was in newspapers and tourist magazines all over the world. By chance the Archbishop of Canterbury was in Antigua on a yacht, and he came to bless the site. Can you believe that?"
Unfortunately, the blessing ended up being worthless, because seven days after completion, a big storm washed away Kirchner's dream and the aquarium. He had taken out a bank loan to finance his project, and was faced with repaying it back without ever getting any revenue.
“I know a lot of people who would have packed their bags and left the island, but I am a man of my word and it took me 10 years, but I paid back every single cent," he says. "I must admit it is hard to pay back for something you don’t have."
His upbeat personality allowed him to cut his losses and look for new avenues to make a buck. He ended up opening two more dive shops in Antigua, and another one in Dominica. He also started a motorboat charter company from the St James’s Club. It became very successful.
After arriving in Antigua, Kirchner and Reitz had parted ways as business partners, but remained good friends. "Every Friday or Saturday, Peter and I would go and hang out at Dennis’ fish fry in Villa to eat snapper and have a drink," Kirchner recalls.
"Then one day Dennis moved his business and it was never the same again. So Peter and I decided we were going to create our own hangout. We found this little place across from Princess Margaret School that was infested with rats.”
The duo fixed it up, and would lime there with their friends, eat fish, and drink rum. They named it Papa Zouk after an old man they had met in Dominica.
“Papa Zouk slept on an old stinking mattress in the maintenance department of the Sisserou hotel," Kirchner explained. "I think he was the poorest man in Dominica, but the happiest person I ever met. He was deaf, but whenever they would play Zouk music, he must have felt the vibration of the bass, as he would get up and dance. So everyone called him Papa Zouk. I fell in love with this man and I supported him financially until the day he died.” The duo wanted his name to live on forever, and named their restaurant after him.
It has been 11 years, and Papa Zouk has grown to be a restaurant which prides itself on the biggest rum collection in the Caribbean. They have over 200 different types.
Kirchner still had a passion simmering in the background, and that was bodybuilding. One fine day in 1998, he found himself at Clare Hall School at his first bodybuilding show.
Three years later, he became a member of the Antigua Bodybuilding Association, and in 2002 he was elected president. “I remember organising my first show at the Cathedral Center," he says. "Experience had taught me that everything needs money, and to get money, the business sector needs to get involved, but they want profile. Having shows in a school was not going to cut it.” Thanks to his connections, he started inviting big names in the bodybuilding world to be guests at the Antigua shows. He could not offer them money, but instead offered a fully-paid vacation package. “I talked hotels into letting these athletes stay for free. I can be pretty convincing," he says.
Soon bodybuilding shows exploded and an even bigger venue was needed. In 2003, at least 1,000 people came to the Multi-Purpose Centre to watch the show.
With that behind him, Kirchner's latest project was the Antigua Film Festival from November 8 to 13. “Underwater filming and photography are a big hobby of mine,” he says, shaking another story out of his sleeve.
"Back in the days when I had the dive shop at the Halcyon Reef Hotel, the rock band Duran Duran checked in to film their first video clip for a song called Rio. It happened that their camera man got fish poisoning, and had to leave the island, so I stepped forward and offered to help," he says. "Since they didn’t have any alternative, they agreed to give me a try.” Kirchner ended up filming a large part of the material.
One day, he was sitting on the couch watching the MTV video awards and saw Rio flash across the screen. “Without thinking, I picked up the phone and called Simon Le Bon (lead singer of the band) and asked him if I was going to get paid for my great job," Kirchner says. "I didn’t get any money, but he did invite me to stay with him in London."
His film ambitions did not stop there, as Bert and his son Shabier have joined forces and contributed three video productions to the Antigua Film Festival. Kirchner is also president of the Antigua and Barbuda Motion Picture Association.
“I love this island, and if I like to give back," he says. "That’s why I started the neighborhood watch programme about four years ago.” The programme that was first introduced in Cobbs Cross, and has spread to many different communities on the island.
One would think it would be hard to pick the best thing that has ever happened to him, but Kirchner answered without hesitation. “Faye, my wife, is the best thing that ever happened to me. We met in November 1981 in a boutique in St John’s," he recalls. "We were both shopping and ended up in a conversation.
It turned out that she used to live in Germany, and she also loved to dive! I was in heaven. This beautiful Caribbean woman totally blew me away, and she still does."