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Gasparilla: a sober talk

Tampa residents with different perspectives candidly dissect a tradition.

Published January 27, 2006

City Times last week invited six people to participate in a roundtable discussion about the Gasparilla Pirate Invasion and parade and its importance in Tampa. The 102nd anniversary of the invasion is Saturday.

Panelists discussed the celebration's role in community spirit, its economic impact, the history of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla and other related issues.

Participating were Wendy Boucher, Randy Conte, Tommy Duncan, Dick Greco, Bob Morrison and Louise Thompson. Times staff writer Rick Gershman moderated.

The roundtable was held in the Gasparilla exhibit room of Plant Museum at the University of Tampa. Staff writer Elisabeth Dyer recorded and transcribed the discussion.

The following narrative is composed of excerpts from the discussion, which lasted about 75 minutes.

WENDY BOUCHER: I don't have a problem with the parade's existence, and I'm glad that it's changed over time. My big problem really is that the couple of times I've gone, it's a bunch of drunk crowd revelers without assigned seating. Is that what we want to stake our civic pride on? I'm not into canceling the parade. I know hundreds of thousands of people enjoy that parade. But I have a concern about that being the face of Tampa, and I have some concerns about what it costs. Am I paying for this?

LOUISE THOMPSON: The question is, whose pocket does it go in?

BOUCHER: And does Ye Mystic Krewe profit from it?

DICK GRECO: Ye Mystic Krewe gives some scholarships, but every krewe gives stuff. When you talk about these people, there's half a million people involved. If you want to look at the bad side of something, go to a football game. Half a million people, if you get them out anywhere, whether it's downtown Tampa or a football game, some people drink and some people act in ways they shouldn't.

BOUCHER: You can't tell me drinking isn't part of the picture of Gasparilla.

GRECO: It's part of some people's picture every day.

* * *

THOMPSON: When I first got here, I thought this has got to be the greatest thing in the world, so of course I took my kids there. We enjoyed it except that they almost got trampled. I have given it three chances and then thought, "What are you doing? What kind of an example is this to your children, taking them where people are drunk, people are exposing themselves, trampling people to death over this rattle of beads?"

BOB MORRISON: In the early '90s, the full community didn't feel a part of the parade and the invasion. Your day to attend the Florida State Fair, when it was downtown, was the same day as the invasion. The parade was connected to "colored day" at the state fair. So when you start with that snapshot and move forward to today, the parade now is much more reflective of what Tampa ought to be about.

GRECO: I think it's tremendously different, tremendously better. You've got to understand, this was started over a hundred years ago. We've gone from the Gasparilla krewe to many krewes today. They've got tons of them, some of them are all women, some are whoever want to be in. Someone asked me 35 or 40 years ago, would you like to be a member of (Ye Mystic Krewe of) Gasparilla? I said yeah, that'd be fine. I didn't give it a thought.

* * *

RANDY CONTE: I think the key is the economic impact Gasparilla is making now. We're making great strides promoting the city now with Southwest Airlines. The Inter-Krewe Council formed with three krewes, and now we have 62. The good thing is it gave (people) incentive to form a krewe, form their own charities. That's a very positive impact. For the early '80s night parade, we used to have a lot of families down there, and that's part of the reason we've put up the family section now.

BOUCHER: When you go on the Web sites for Gasparilla, it's really unclear who's putting on this parade.

GRECO: The city picks up the trash. But they also do it at a lot of events that some people like, some people don't. There is nothing on earth you can do that people are 100 percent for. If you paved the streets in gold, somebody would complain about the glare.

TOMMY DUNCAN: There's a lot to Gasparilla. If you don't like certain parts of it, you can avoid those and go to the parts you like. I like Gasparilla. They have the children's parade, the night parade, and you can pick and choose.

RICK GERSHMAN: Do you think it's good for Tampa?

DUNCAN: I think it's a great, it's a unique celebration and it gets people's attention. Visit Tampa and check out this crazy pirate parade. My grandfather actually ended up moving here because of Gasparilla. He heard about the parade, so he came down to check it out. That one visit, he liked it and now he's retired here.

MORRISON: I know I've enjoyed the Gasparilla Arts Festival. My wife is going to run in the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

THOMPSON: You could have a biotech parade. Beads and pirates, as a (public relations) person for the past 30, 40 years, I can tell you: This is not the best image. "Gasparilla pirates! Ooh, ahh, I'm going to move there."

DUNCAN: Tell me, what young boy didn't dream of being a pirate? It's a great theme, being a pirate.

THOMPSON: I raised three sons. Not a once did they tell me they want to be a pirate.

DUNCAN: Of course they didn't tell you.

* * *

THOMPSON: I just think you could create all those elements (around biotech) you just mentioned. You could create a biotech distance run and an art show. That's one of a million different ideas you could have. Gasparilla happens to be a (pirate) theme, and it's not particularly conducive to women or children. That's why you're seeing four people around this room, all men, saying, "Yeah, it's good, it's terrific." It just may be a male-female thing.

GRECO: You think more males go than females?

THOMPSON: I think the males take their women there.

GRECO: There's 500,000 people there.

THOMPSON: Oh, I think women go to meet men.

GRECO: It must be working.

* * *

CONTE: Before, it was mostly male krewes. For a short time there were men and women. Then you found that the men and women really didn't get along in parades. Some of my friends who are married, their wives joined these groups because they said, "Why are you going to have all the fun?" If you're going to stop Gasparilla, you're going to (also stop) the women krewes.

THOMPSON: We weren't talking about stopping it; we were talking about the image of it.

BOUCHER: I have a question. Who can be in the parade? Tommy was saying that every little boy wants to be a pirate. Can every little boy be in that parade?

CONTE: I think there's limitations. We're to the point where there's 62 krewes, Gasparilla has their sponsors, the night parade has their sponsors.

BOUCHER: If the city's going to make it part of the civic pride and their image, it's got to be open to anyone. Otherwise, it's a private parade and that's great.

* * *

MORRISON: In 1990, there were a lot of folks who weren't very happy in my community about this parade. This parade made no effort to be inclusive in any way, shape or fashion. To compare where it is now in 2006 versus where it was in 1990, it's night and day.

THOMPSON: It was pressure from the outside.

MORRISON: It wasn't the outside.

THOMPSON: The pressure didn't come from inside the krewe.

MORRISON: As part of the Tampa Coalition, we had several meetings with krewe leadership to lay out for them in no uncertain terms why the connection of Gasparilla to the Super Bowl was an unacceptable message because of the makeup of the krewe.

THOMPSON: It was pressure from the Super Bowl.

MORRISON: There were members of the African-American community who went to Mayor (Sandy) Freedman's office, I was one of them, and said: "Mayor, we can't have a parade that doesn't look like this city. If 25 percent of our community is African-American, this parade needs to look like the landscape and the fabric that makes it whole."

THOMPSON: I absolutely disagree with you.

GRECO: About what? What do you disagree about?

THOMPSON: I do not believe that this was instigated entirely by the black community. I think it was instigated by the Super Bowl when they got wind.

GERSHMAN: Ye Mystic Krewe did bring on a few African-Americans, but still no women. Is that a problem in 2006?

GRECO: It's only a problem if you want to make it one. It's like the handful of people who drink in the parade.

BOUCHER: The handful of people who drink at the parade? Have you been to the parade?

* * *

MORRISON: Is the event much more representative of the fabric and variety of what makes up Tampa? No question. But if you ask me if (Ye Mystic Krewe) is reflective of what leadership in Tampa should look like, I would argue that it still has a long way to go. Granted, it's a question of who can afford it and who wants to be a part of the environment. And I know African-Americans who can afford it but who have no intention of being on a boat.

GERSHMAN: How about women who want to be in the krewe?

BOUCHER: I'll say something Mr. Greco will agree with: Just like I wouldn't want someone telling me who could be a member of my book club, I'm not going to tell him who can be a member of that private club. But I also don't want my money to pay for it. I don't want to go out in the parade and clap and yell for beads from a club that won't admit me.

THOMPSON: The reason I went after the krewe isn't because I don't appreciate all-men or all-women clubs; I belong to a couple and I would rather there were no guys. I think it's fine to have all-boys clubs. The problem is, the power structure comes from those relationships in that group, and we're excluded. Whether it's blacks being excluded or women being excluded, we are excluded from the conversation.

GERSHMAN: Bob, have you ever been invited to join a krewe?

MORRISON: I've never been interested, never been invited.

GERSHMAN: Are you surprised?

MORRISON: Well, during my years with the city it wouldn't have been appropriate. After that time, it's about where you want to spend your free time. The wonderful thing about this country is that you have a chance to decide how to spend your money and your time. And being a member of a krewe never held any interest to me.

* * *

CONTE: I belong in Sant' Yago because that's my heritage. Now, if Bob was to call me, I would give him an application.

DUNCAN: Gasparilla is part of what makes Tampa Tampa. I would encourage everybody to see it at least once.

MORRISON: Gasparilla as an event shouldn't be given more due than it deserves. But those who are involved should understand that for 25 percent of this city, its origins and how it was positioned was for many years a negative. And that's a lesson that we need to continue to share.

GERSHMAN: Louise, would you cancel Gasparilla?

THOMPSON: I think they could come up with a better idea. If you want it to be known as an art town, for example, have it about art. Or engineering.

GERSHMAN: People are going to go out and party about engineering?

* * *

BOUCHER: I do think that things are how you look at them, but shame on us if we don't at least examine the negative side of things. I imagine the city does pay for drug and alcohol programs through parks and recreation, and it's also giving a stamp of approval to an event that has alcohol as a big part of its culture. Would I do away with Gasparilla? Oh, heck no. I'm glad my daughter's in the children's parade. I just want it to be what it started out as, a private parade. But not the city's thing. I don't want to be paying for Gasparilla.

GRECO: Again, this has evolved over 100 years. There's been a million changes. I watched some of the minorities come into Gasparilla, and I wondered if anyone would dig their heels in. But it was not like that at all. I saw people embracing each other. Tampa is not, and I'll say this with all my heart and soul and I believe it, has never been a prejudiced city of any kind. Gasparilla is a good thing. It's a wonderful thing for Tampa.


Age: 42

Lives in: Beach Park

Originally from Oregon, Boucher has lived in Tampa for 10 years. A former lawyer, she works as a freelance writer and novelist. Last year, she published Parvenue Throws a Party, a satire of social climbing in South Tampa. She also writes about life and local matters in her blog, Gasparilla Invasion plans: Boucher's daughter participated in last weekend's children's parade, but Boucher has no plans to attend Saturday's invasion.


Age: 48

Lives in: Carrollwood

Conte was born in Ybor City. He is a longtime member and past president of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant' Yago, which puts on the Illuminated Knight Parade. He was president of the Inter-Krewe Council in 1996. Conte, who owns a landscaping business, said he personally has purchased $2,000 worth of beads for this year's Gasparilla events.

Gasparilla Invasion plans: Checking into the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel at noon today, Jackson's Bistro tonight, the University Club on Saturday morning and on the Sant' Yago boat for the invasion.


Age: 37

Lives in: West Brandon

Duncan says he likes to "think of myself as a native" and technically he is, having been born at MacDill Air Force Base. His family moved to Massachusetts when Duncan was a child, but he returned to Tampa when he was 13. Duncan performs in the Johnny G. Lyon Band and has a blog about Tampa, Sticks of Fire ( which was recently named Best Local Website by Weekly Planet.

Gasparilla Invasion plans: Duncan and his wife plan to attend the parade with their daughters, who are 16 and 5.


Age: 72

Lives on: Harbour Island

A Tampa native, Greco was the city's 50th and 56th mayor, serving from 1967-74 and 1995-2003. Greco is a longtime member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. In his second mayoral term, he resumed the practice of handing over the keys to the city to the pirates. He is a vice president of Lindell Properties, a real estate developer.

Gasparilla Invasion plans: Greco said he will enjoy the invasion from Carl Lindell's yacht and later watch some of the parade at the Bayshore Boulevard home of local philanthropists Don and Erika Wallace.


Age: 52

Lives in: Temple Crest

A Tampa native, Morrison is president of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association and was an assistant to former Tampa Mayors Bob Martinez and Sandy Freedman. During the Gasparilla-Bamboleo controversy in 1991, Morrison led a biracial coalition of community leaders to deal with race-related issues in Tampa.

Gasparilla Invasion plans: Morrison will not attend the invasion - he'll be taking care of his three children, ages 4, 3 and 2 - but he'll "watch a little bit of it on TV."


Age: 60

Lives in: Old Seminole Heights

A New York native, Thompson has lived in Tampa for 27 years. In 1992, she published No Girls Allowed, which listed the names and occupations of members of three largely or entirely male local groups: Ye Mystic Krewe, Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, and Tampa Sports Club. Thompson is executive director of Tampa Bay Community Network.

Gasparilla Invasion plans: Thompson, who in previous years has attended an "anti-Gasparilla' bash, plans to avoid the invasion altogether.

[Last modified January 27, 2006, 09:56:54]

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