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Sinatra party does it his way

With a party full of stylish guys and beautiful dolls, Tampa socialite Ken Walters itches to show he has Sinatra under his skin.

By BABITA PERSAUD and SUSAN THURSTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 2, 2002


PALMA CEIA -- "Celebrate Sinatra," the invitation read.

On the cover: pictures of the Rat Pack.

But wait, one was missing, Joey Bishop. In his place: Ken Walters, South Tampa socialite.

Saturday night, Walters threw his annual tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes, his style master, choosing as a venue the stylish Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club.

Guests seemed eager. Some waited in the parking lot for the 8 p.m. start time.

Two men and 15 women emerged from a black limo.

One guy rolled up in a Prowler roadster.

A woman came in a convertible Jag.

"I love Ken's parties," said Mitch Shriber, his friend, Rebecca Johnson, on his arm.

"All the beautiful people are here," said Bobby Santos, one of 500 guests.

Women wore strappy heels and glitter on their shoulders. Men donned tuxes. And not the rented kind.

"Every gentleman should own a tuxedo," said Rob Barrow of Hyde Park.

One man sported a gold-sequined bow tie. Another wore a Burberry check cummerbund.

Some men looked like Tony Soprano: black suit, black shirt, white tie. Others, like Regis Philbin: matching shirt and tie.

A woman carried a purse shaped like a teapot.

Everyone raved that everyone else looked fabulous.

JoAnn Coley wore a striking black and white striped halter dress from Saks Fifth Avenue. Her newlywed husband, Dick, said the dress originally came with a little jacket. But when JoAnn took the jacket off, "I said, va-va-va-voom."

The guests walked through the grand hallway of the country club. Across the fringed carpet. Past the mauve and gold swirled wallpaper. Past the oil painting of horseback riders. Past red armchairs paired for conversation.

To a closed ballroom door.

An attendant in a short black dress stood outside it. Then, slowly -- as if displaying what was behind curtain No. 1 -- she pulled open the heavy doors.

Out popped rolling laughter, big band music and chatter.

The ballroom glowed, warmed by crystal chandeliers, walls heavy with gold drapes and crown molding.

Round tables bordered a parquet dance floor, at first empty but not for long.

Ward Cook's Big Band Orchestra, in white blazers, conjured strains of Chicago.

"I feel like I'm back in time," said a woman to a friend.

Off the main ballroom, conversation flowed from the Chippendale couches situated among palms.

"Did you not find the girl of your dreams?" a guy said, slapping his friend on the back.

"I love New York, love it," boasted a woman by the buffet table.

A half-eaten salmon waited on a silver platter, surrounded by capers and crackers. In chafing dishes were mini quiches, bacon-wrapped scallops, skewered teriyaki chicken.

In a back room, Palma Ceia chefs whipped up bananas Foster, topping vanilla ice cream with creamy, warm sauce. One guest carried out three.

Walters weaved in and out the crowd, sipping scotch and soda from a thick glass. He was surrounded by ladies who frequented spas and drank cosmopolitans, guys who loved golf and downed Dewer's. They were accountants, financial planners, lawyers and real estate agents. Many grew up in South Tampa and belonged to krewes.

Above them all loomed a picture of Walters with the Rat Pack -- as it appeared on the invitation -- flashed on a wall behind the orchestra.

He kissed cheeks, touched shoulders and repeated "Nice to see you" to guests.

They knew him from the yacht club, from sailing ventures off Davis Islands, from the party circuit.

Jill Sidlo, who's dating a former New England Patriots wide receiver, knew him from the Samba Room, where the outdoor sofas are known unofficially as "the Ken Walters lounge."

Walters, 37, wasn't born blue blood. He grew up on Azeele Street in Beach Park, the son of a typewriter repair businessman. He owns a South Tampa printing and graphics company, which he started himself, and achieved South Tampa stardom through persistent schmoozing.

His holiday card mailing list numbers 9,000. Most go to people he doesn't know. He snags names from organizations he joins.

His e-mail address: kenwalters@eyehaveit.com.

His playboy image bugs some people.

Last week, Walters was on the Kathy Fountain call-in television talk show. The topic: Why men won't commit. A female caller chewed him out: "You use women. You use women," she ranted.

Walters blew it off.

His motto: Have fun.

"Fly me to the moon, let me sail among the stars," cooed orchestra singer John Love.

By then, the floor was hopping.

And guest Joni Matlock was making progress.

"I just met a nice-looking guy," she said.

She was at the buffet table, holding a cracker when he walked up.

"Can I salmon your cracker?" he said.

"Sure," she said.

Rob Covino didn't share her luck. He and his three 20-something friends came stag.

One was an actor, who recently modeled his six-pack abs for the Home Shopping Network.

Another had to prove to women at the party that his name was really Dave Matthew Brand , suspiciously close to Dave Matthews Band. He pulled out his driver's license.

"See!" he said to one girl.

Brand and his friends are the next generation of South Tampa socialites. They know Walters through their parents.

After the party, they planned to hit Ybor.

Across the room, two women huddled, playing a game rooted in cosmetic surgery: fake or real?

A guest brushed by their table. She wore a soft blue taffeta gown.

"Prom," the women whispered.

Another passed by in a backless sequined gown.

"Miss America," they said.

Miss America was Karen Reinhart of Westchase. Her dress, from Cache, was a birthday gift from her parents. The party marked its debut.

True to the 1950s spirit, Linda Loetell wore a hat befitting of My Fair Lady. Her friend, Maggie Liss, donned a black and red feather boa, which she also carries to Bucs games.

"It's just fun to dress up," said Loetell.

Maryann Blitz, owner of Mise en Place, showed up. So did mayoral hopeful Frank Sanchez, Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner and County Commissioner Pat Frank. Legislative candidate Scott Farrell passed out business cards.

Close to midnight, Walters took the microphone to thank guests.

The orchestra played its last song, Mack the Knife.

The crowd did not thin.

Okay, one more tune, said the band leader.

They played three, including New York, New York, which only revved people more, some doing Rockette-like kicks.

Peter Straw bid Walters goodbye.

"Once again, a great soiree," he said.

Walters brimmed.

Sharma Fernandez hugged friends.

"I usually see a lot of people I've known for a long time," she said.

It was 12:30 a.m. The crowd was still caught in Ken's black magic. No one wanted to leave.

The band leader was forced to hit them hard -- with something non-Sinatra.

Okay now this is the last song, he said.

And he began: "Happy trails to you. . . ."

-- Writers Babita Persaud and Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3366.

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