ZEPHYRHILLS - One look at Frances Fawkes-Shiver's new house in the country and it's easy to get who she is.
"My house is all about frogs," she explains. "And horses."
Indeed. Riding boots and a silk-covered helmet double as Ralph Lauren-style props by the fireplace.
Tasteful equine prints line the walls.
And in a moss-padded terrarium looking over the pool and gorgeous bay head cypress swamp: a pet frog.
A Cuban tree frog, to be precise.
An easygoing, pampered little fellow who doesn't mind being dressed like Uncle Sam or a motorcycle cop or dolled up with reading glasses and a teeny-tiny newspaper.
His image appears on a popular line of calendars, note cards, matted photos and T-shirts designed by Fawkes-Shiver, an art photographer who depicts her beloved pet in domestic little anthropomorphic scenes all around her house and yard.
"I have a lot of fun doing this," she says. "I fact, I love it."
Apparently, so does Marchello, who takes warm baths in the sink of Fawkes-Shivers' custom-built kitchen, dines on cricket dinners from the pet store, and even has his own Web site: www.ribbitdesign.com
Named for Diane Lane's hunky Italian love interest in Under the Tuscan Sun, this frog prince owns his own miniature fishing boat, sleigh and frog-size motorcycle, sent through Federal Express by an admiring fan who has never even met him.
"People are crazy," Fawkes-Shiver says with a laugh.
One of these days, she hopes to get Prince Marchello on Ellen, maybe even Oprah, though probably not David Letterman's show because she doesn't want anyone poking fun at him.
"This little guy really got me through the last couple of years," she explains.
At 41, Fawkes-Shiver is a former career horsewoman who holds an equestrienne management degree from a college in England. For years she served as the "whip" to the local fox hunt club, now known as South Creek Fox Hounds. Her family breeds Jack Russell terriers raced at the annual Little Everglades Steeplechase in Dade City.
They live on a 10-acre compound off a dirt road 800 yards over the Hillsborough County line in Pasco, a beautiful place of pastures and big sky that they navigate by golf cart.
Fawkes-Shiver recently traded in her riding career for a marketing job after several falls resulted in serious head injuries.
"I was suffering more and more memory loss every time I had an accident," she says. "My doctor told me it couldn't happen again."
The frog mania started on a lark, when her late father was bedridden due to congestive heart failure a little more than a year ago. She was looking for ways to amuse him, when the darnedest thing happened.
"One day I was working out in the yard and a frog fell out of the tree onto my head," explains her 82-year-old mother, Pauline Fawkes.
They let that frog go, but the incident gave Fawkes-Shiver another idea. She started dressing up another tree frog her mother found on the property and began taking his picture: She made him a pith helmet, a witch's hat and bunny ears. She designed a Lilliputian crown, a sparkly heart wand, and his own frog-size Adirondack chair.
Hence, Prince Marchello was born.
"My father would die laughing - he thought it was so funny," she recalls. "He would say, "You are such a nut!' "
By nature, Fawkes-Shiver is a creative soul: she paints her wooden furniture lavender, yellow and sage-green and hangs chandeliers over the bathtub. She expertly decorated the new 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom, three bath custom-built home she shares with her husband, Lance Shiver, a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy.
"I guess I would call my style eclectic," she says of her decor that incorporates shabby chic vintage iron patio furniture with her collection of frog Christmas ornaments (they stay up year round) and horse-print throws, pillows, ottoman, and framed photos of family members jumping horses over fences. She strung daisy lights over the master bedroom headboard and ties bows with sheer ribbons around her bath towels.
A creative homeowner.
A lucky frog. Especially in Florida, where Cuban tree frogs are considered predators to native species.
She says she had to promise, cross-her-heart, that she would never let Prince Marchello loose outside again even though that's where he came from.
A long time ago, back before he was a star.
Now, Prince Marchello has his own study, a room with an entire wall covered with his pictures. Small plastic tubs hold his props, including a thimble-size rubber duck that he can take in his bath.
Director's chair? Dressing room?
Not yet, but maybe someday. (He does own a wee-sized gold throne, riding horse and tricycle.)
She's nurturing serious dreams of an interactive children's book, postcards, chocolates, coffee mugs, possibly a whole cottage industry about Prince Marchello's adventures around the Fawkes-Shiver house.
"I'm hoping he'll become as popular as Hello Kitty!" she says. "The only difference is he's a frog."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org