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Pirates celebrate with a party before the big party

Ye Mystic Krewe will take to the streets of Tampa today for Gasparilla, but Thursday night was all about fancy dress for the group's Captain's Ball.

By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2003

TAMPA -- Today is the day for plastic scars and scary teeth and fake blood. Today the marauders of Ye Mystic Krewe will shout endless Arrrghs, and ride the ship and strut the parade route while Tampa parties around them.

But Thursday marked another decades-old Tampa tradition: the annual Captain's Ball, a late-night, high-society launch of today's raucous Gasparilla invasion.

Out came the frills and finery that members of the city's most exclusive men's club don each year. Out came the puffy silken shirts in wild stripes and island prints, the vests of satin and brocade, the plumed hats, the tall shiny boots.

Everyone was there, more than 1,500 in all.

The krewe poured into the Tampa Yacht and Country Club for a costume party, preening like peacocks in fancy attire. The half-century-old ritual was hosted this year by Krewe captain Fred Dobbins.

The ball is traditionally held on the Thursday night before the parade so that pirates can get their beauty rest on Friday night. Participants assemble for makeup today at dawn.

Thursday, sports dominated the conversation, especially the Super Bowl, which some had attended. More than a few costumes were adorned with Florida Gators logos. Pirate Bill Brown, UF class of 1958, sewed them on his blue vest, worn with an orange and yellow checkerboard shirt, black pants and black boots.

In the face of such fashion, women didn't even try to compete.

Pirate Kris Kral created a shimmering vest, drilling holes in fake gold coins bearing his wife Tracy's royal face. Back in 1996, Queen Tracy Romano Kral had shared the throne with King George M. Steinbrenner.

Food wasn't part of the party. The old guard knew to arrive early to feast on sea bass and beef tenderloin entrees in the yacht club dining room, before lining up to cash bars. Others had reserved tables at South Tampa restaurants -- Caffe Paradiso or Caffe Italia, anywhere near the club.

They could invite guests to the ball, but only those from outside Hillsborough County, the krewe's way of keeping the numbers manageable.

They greeted old friends -- Dick Beard, Louise Ferguson, Vic Leavengood, to name a few -- and of course, club host Herbert Carrington, 104, a fixture at every important party for the past 55 years.

("I've been working all my life," Carrington said. "That's why I'm living.")

The huge outdoor tent filled by 10 p.m., with the younger crowd of pirates and their dates dancing to the pop band, the Skycoasters. The Rochester, N.Y., band rocked until 1 a.m. In the ballroom, Joe Stagi's band crooned until nearly midnight.

In the lounge, Beach Park pirate Clay Thompson, 71, looked sharp in a black and white striped shirt under a red lame vest.

Today, as the Jose Gasparilla pirate ship gets underway, he'll climb to the yardarm, the crosspiece of the mast.

It's been his spot for 35 years.

It's hardly a cushy perch, dangling by a bar, grasping a cable.

But for Thompson, it's worth the climb. "It's the only place where you can be part of a spectacle and see it, too," he said.

That's where he'll be, watching it all, as Gasparilla 2003 unfolds.

-- Amy Scherzer can be reached at (813) 226-3332 or .

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