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On display: Gasparilla the way it used to be

An exhibit at the Henry B. Plant Museum offers a glimpse of what the event was like before all the beer and beads.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2002

Then take a tour of the Henry B. Plant Museum's Gasparilla exhibit, which continues through Feb. 28.

The show offers a tame taste of the Tampa tradition, minus the beer and debauchery. It's perfect for anyone who wants to experience Gasparilla without actually experiencing it.

And don't worry about elbow-to-elbow crowds. Unlike Gasparilla, the museum attracts about 55,000 people all year.

The museum at the University of Tampa started the annual exhibit 25 years ago. It features hundreds of photos and mementos dating back to the early days, before boats and motorized floats dominated the decades-old event.

"When you look at pictures of men on horses in 1904, it's a scream," said Sally Shikfe, a museum spokeswoman. "It was a different time. It was a different atmosphere."

In keeping with past years, the museum added some items borrowed from private collections.

New to this exhibit: a 1950s pirate costume and a 1930s cannon donated by Nootchie Smith, a museum board member and Tampa native.

Smith's father, C.C. "Milo" Vega Jr., fired the 10-gauge cannon as an original cannoneer with Ye Mystic Krewe. Her brother, Milo A. Vega, took over in the 1960s. Her son, Corral Vance Smith, followed a few years ago.

"We've kind of kept the tradition going," said Smith, who wears earplugs during the pirate ship invasion to drown out the booms.

The exhibit, titled "What's a Gasparilla?" includes a diverse collection of photos showing horse-driven floats, early boat invasions and royal courts. Film footage from the 1920s gives rare glimpses of pirate capers and parades.

Visitors also can see costumes and gowns worn by Gasparilla pirates and royalty. Among the favorites: a 1920s princess gown designed by Anne Cone Lowe of Tampa, who gained fame for designing Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding gown and bridesmaid dresses.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. For more information, call (813) 254-1891.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

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