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All gussied up for Gasparilla

As Gasparilla's popularity grows, the decorations to mark the holiday have become more elaborate.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published February 6, 2004

SEFFNER - Dixie Middlebrook hasn't seen the floor of her garage for weeks. Not since Gasparilla season rolled around.

The 65-year-old former South Tampa florist works from her Seffner home, a good half-hour from party central. She thinks of the garage as her very own staging area, where she creates gorgeous bead-swagged, feather-festooned wreaths that mark Tampa's mid-winter high holiday.

Now, a century after the first costumed pirates invaded the city on horseback, this year's centennial celebrations have sent Middlebrook and many other florists into a happy whirl.

"I had no idea it would be so big this year. I barely ordered enough coconut pirate heads," says Middlebrook, whose handmade decorations and wreaths are sold at The Missing Piece on Dale Mabry Highway.

And just what is a Gasparilla wreath?

Lest you think wreaths appear only at Christmas, made of evergreen and tied with red velvet bows, start looking at Tampa doors in mid-January.

Gasparilla wreaths are an accessory as unique as their holiday. Typically, they're junked up with coconut pirate heads, faux parrots, dyed ostrich plumes, tropical blossoms, gold coins (fake, of course) and miniature skull-and-crossbones flags.

And always, jewel-colored plastic beads drip by the fistful.

Remember:

Tacky is good.

Tawdry is wonderful.

Garish is sublime.

"The gaudier the better," says a half-kidding Ian Prosser, who owns Botanica International Florist in South Tampa. "They're just a lot of fun."

Prosser, who's been designing Gasparilla wreaths for 18 years, tells the story of a new employee from New York who started work at his shop recently. When she walked in and saw him "making things with beads and pirate flags," Prosser recalls, "you could see this look on her face like, "Hmmm, what's going on here?"'

Middlebrook recently decorated the Davis Islands home of clients Kim and Tom Reed. Reed is a pirate with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. The Reeds happen to love decorating for the Gasparilla holiday. They asked Middlebrook to gussy up a three-foot pirate Tom found at a local costume store. She also decked out their fireplace mantel, decorated tables and made a wreath.

"It used to be you had to go to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean to find pirate stuff, but not anymore," says Tom Reed. "It's everywhere."

All in the name of Gasparilla.

In 1980, French anthropologist Andre-Marcel d'Ans wrote in the journal Tampa Bay History, that after its founding in 1904 "the Gasparilla celebration became more elaborate every year."

Despite two lapses, first during an economic downturn between 1907 and 1909, and then in 1918 and 1919 when America entered World War I, the holiday continued to grow with abandon.

"Very quickly, the celebrations, which were initially an entertainment for the city's elite, evolved to become grandiose festivities for popular consumption," d'Ans wrote.

One hundred years later, Tampa still toasts the mythical Jose Gaspar, Florida's favorite pirate, who supposedly pillaged merchant ships from his den on the Gulf Coast near Fort Myers.

Lots of centennial parties mean lots of decorations.

"It's been huge this year," says Harrison Giddens, who, along with her husband, Tom, owns Floral Impressions in South Tampa.

Giddens, who has been making Gasparilla wreaths for 25 years, estimates her business is up at least one-third from last year. Her wreaths - some as big as four feet wide - will decorate the Tampa Yacht Club and Krewe of Gasparilla tent.

She's noticed a big change in the way people decorate for the holiday. Wreaths festooned with everything from coconut heads to bird of paradise flowers are a relatively new phenomenon. Years ago, she recalls, Gasparilla decorating usually extended to a funky pirate flag and some beads. That was it.

"Gasparilla has grown tremendously and with it, the popularity of the wreaths," says Giddens, whose wreaths start at $65.

Dixie Middlebrook, who lived for years on Channel Drive on Davis Islands, understands the razzle dazzle. She also loves nature. Middlebrook was raised in a state park in Memphis where her father was a ranger.

"I lived in the woods, I grew up in the woods," she explains.

Consequently, her wreaths take on a certain earthiness in their shapes and designs. Still, when it comes to Gasparilla, she can't resist the temptation to have a little fun.

"I always give the pirates pretty hats," she says pointing to one with a hot-pink scarf.

Middlebrook made her first Gasparilla wreath in 1971.

"I can't remember what the first one looked like, but I've made thousands over the years," she says.

She doesn't know how many more she'll make this year.

At $89.90 and up, they're selling as fast as she can make them.

But she's up for the challenge.

"I had a bunch more of those coconut pirate heads shipped overnight," she says.

[Last modified February 5, 2004, 11:10:21]

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