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Music under the stars

The sun goes down, the moon comes up and monthly concerts at Sunset Beach enhance nature's magical moments.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 31, 2002

TARPON SPRINGS -- Portable picnic tables are laid out with buckets of fried chicken, trays of fruit and cartons of potato salad. Kids in wet bathing suits run across the sand. People lounge in canvas lawn chairs, admiring the scene. A giant, orange sun is setting in the west as a large, silver moon rises in the east.

And, over there by a clump of very Florida-looking palm trees, a spotlight shines on musician-singer Spiro Skordilis as he sings songs of his native Greece.

It's the monthly Sunset Beach Concert Series, a free event at Sunset Beach in Tarpon Springs that draws people from all over the Tampa Bay area.

The series started three years ago, when the city sponsored a concert on the beach, said Daniela Smyth of the Tarpon Springs Department of Public Services/Recreation Division.

"We said, "This is so great; we should continue it,' " said Ann Larsen, one of the founders of Friends of Music on the Beach, a volunteer group that suggests musicians and musical styles for the series and collects donations to buy equipment to use during the concerts. Others in the startup group were Len and Marleen Gravitz and Lynn and Jeff Pierson, Ms. Larsen said.

A recent concert by the Tarpon Springs High School band drew 569 people, said Frank Sekits, a volunteer who is the official counter. The May concert had about 100 to 150 folks scattered around the white sand. Attendance varies by season and by performer.

The original idea was to schedule the concerts to coincide with a full moon, but that doesn't always happen.

Patrons don't seem to mind.

"The (concerts) seem to be more popular this year than ever before," Ms. Larsen said.

Some come just for the music. But others -- like Ms. Larsen, her parents, friends June Colburn, Joan Saunders, the Piersons and the Gravitzes -- set up elaborate picnics, with tablecloths and candles but no alcohol or pets, neither of which is allowed.

"We encourage potluck; it's that kind of happening," Ms. Larsen said as she invited those nearby to nibble at her party's table.

A tradition of the concerts is having Beach Barbie make the rounds for donations.

"We found this naked, hairless Barbie doll on the beach a long time ago and made her our mascot," Ms. Larsen said. Each month, the Barbie is dressed in appropriate wig and attire -- gold lame and blond wig for the May graduation prom season, a bride dress for June, a Miss Firecracker outfit for July, for example -- and perched on a big, blue Sand Dollars bucket that a volunteer takes around to solicit donations.

"This all goes into a fund for the concerts," Ms. Larsen said. "We bought the portable lights (to illuminate the musicians) and we pay for printing the schedule cards." Volunteers give those out at the concerts.

The group hopes to collect enough money to have a concrete slab poured for the performers and, eventually, to rebuild a pavilion that once stood on the beach, but was burned down several years ago by vandals.

A special event every October or November is a bonfire in the fire pit near the performance area.

"One year we had a glorious sunset and a big, full moon and the music and the bonfire going," Ms. Larsen said. "All at once, (her husband) Jim started hollering and pointing to the sky. We all turned around, and it was the space shuttle. It was a magic moment."

Her friend, Ms. Saunders, agrees.

"It left a vapor trail, all pink, going across the full moon," she said. "It was mind-boggling. I think about it often and think what a treat it was to see that."

All concerts start at 7 p.m. Upcoming concerts are:

June 13: Dog and Pony Show, acoustical

July 25: Big Picture, contemporary

Aug. 22: Tarpon Strings Trio, easy listening

Sept. 19: Clam Bayou Jazz Band, Dixieland and swing

Oct. 17: Noel Cooney, Irish music

Nov. 21: Buddy Verdi Orchestra, big band and pop

To reach Sunset Beach, take Alt. U.S. 19 to Tarpon Springs, turn west on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive just south of downtown, veer left at the end of the street onto Whitcomb, curve to the right around the bay to Gulf Road, then go west all the way to the end of Gulf Road (you'll pass Tarpon Springs High School on the left) to Sunset Beach. Entry and parking are free. Restrooms are open during the event, and covered pavilions by the road are available.

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