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Man, not beast

The mysterious tracks spotted on Clearwater Beach in the late '40s caused quite a stir. Were they left by a monster? A giant penguin? The answer eluded everyone. Well, almost everyone.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published June 24, 2006

Sixty years ago this summer, something scary happened on the beach. A monster emerged from the Gulf of Mexico and wandered around in the dark.

The Clearwater Monster didn’t hurt anyone, but left tracks, lots of them, discovered the next morning on the sand.

The tracks looked like nothing anyone had ever seen. They weren't the kind of tracks left by dinosaurs, but they were large, about 14 inches long and 11 inches wide. They featured a narrow heel and 3 long toes. The tracks were more birdlike than reptilian, though not entirely birdlike. They were a dispatch from an unknown world.

The news made the papers. The news made the radio. The monster was the talk of Clearwater. A few citizens stepped forward to announce they had seen something mysterious on the beach that night, something alien, and if you didn’t believe them, why, you could jump in a lake.

Clearwater was a modest town of 15,000. The war was over. Yankees who had discovered Florida during military training moved into little bungalows and started having kids. Only the very rich had air conditioning. But anybody could chill for a few hours at the picture show while enjoying The Big Sleep starring Bogey and Bacall.

Citrus was bigger than tourism. Pinellas County was the grapefruit capital of the world. The beaches were wilder than they are today. Mom-and-pop motels were scattered here and there along the coast, but it was hard to find parking meters. There were a few bridges, though many rowed their boats across Clearwater Harbor to the barrier island.

Light pollution had not been invented. In the summer, teenage couples could neck on the beach and almost touch the Milky Way. Loggerhead turtles crawled up in the dark to lay eggs near the sand dunes.

Clearwater was a sleepy place, something right off a postcard — the perfect stomping ground for the monster.

***

The Clearwater Monster was clever. The fiend left tracks, inflamed imaginations, then vanished. Just when people stopped thinking about him, he crept out of the surf again.

This time he knocked over a lifeguard stand and left hair or feathers or something unearthly on wooden pilings.
He went on a rampage. The Clearwater Monster walked the beach at Indian Rocks. He visited the waterfront of Sarasota. He rounded the Pinellas peninsula, headed north, bypassed the St. Petersburg waterfront and kept going until he found a place to leave tracks on the sand next to the Courtney Campbell Causeway.  

He got the rampaging out of his system. He laid low for the next year.

In 1948, the creature showed up about 100 miles north of Pinellas County. A beachcomber found tracks near the mouth of the Suwannee River.

“He's loose again!! ’’ wrote St. Petersburg Times columnist Dick Bothwell, never afraid to employ an exclamation point or a few exclamation points in a good story.

Scientists were interrogated about the monster.

One said, “It couldn’t be real.’’ Another thought the tracks might have been left by a giant salamander.

“Plaster casts were made of some of the tracks,’’ Bothwell wrote, “and it was estimated by some that the beast — if beast it was — might have weighed some 2,000 pounds.’’

It was left to Ivan Sanderson , a self-taught zoologist, author and WNBC radio commentator, to render an intelligent opinion. As the flash bulbs popped he studied the tracks, furrowed his brow, did some measuring. He was photogenic, a Douglas Fairbanks for the beach set, with slicked-back hair, a pencil-thin mustache and wardrobe that all but announced “Adventure!’’ Only an ascot could have improved his look.

Florida had a real monster on its hands!

“Definitely not a hoax,’’ Sanderson announced. The tracks were so deep and wide, he opined, that only something heavy and tall could have made them.

“A giant penguin,’’ was his theory.

***

On a recent afternoon in Clearwater, Tony Signorini  answered the door of his house on S Prescott Avenue. A rosary rattled in the pocket of his slacks.

“Come in,’’ he said. “Make yourself comfortable.’’

He led the way to the kitchen table.

“What can I tell you?’’

Something about yourself.

“I'm 85 years old. I was born in Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh. I was in the Air Force. I worked on B-17s, B-24s and B-29s during the war. Then Elsie and I came to Clearwater to visit her folks. I remember it was December. It was snowing back in Pennsylvania! I said to Elsie, 'Do you want to go back?’ She didn't, and I didn't either.’’

They stayed in Clearwater.

“I went to work at a place called Auto Electric. It was on Greenwood and Pierce. The guy who owned it was Al Williams. A lot of people thought Al Williams was kind of crabby. He actually had a good sense of humor. He was a real practical joker. I was never a practical joker. People thought I was real serious, but I had my fun side when I was around Al. One time, he put a horse in a jail cell in Clearwater!’’

A horse?

“Yes, somebody let him in to do it as a joke on the police chief. That's the way it was back then. Everybody had fun with everybody. Another time we hung a weather balloon from the fire station. We put this electronic device in the balloon to make it explode on command. It sounded like a bomb going off! Lucky the war was over!’’

The fire chief must have been a basket case.

“He knew it was Al. The fire chief called me up one night, said, 'We want you to call Al at home and tell him his shop is on fire.' I didn't want to do it, but I did. Al drove over there right away pretty scared. He said, 'You're in on this?' I said, 'I'm sorry, Al. They held a gun to my head.' ’’

Al must have had a little devil in him.

“He always had something going. One time, downtown, at the band shell, there was some kind of event happening. Cars were a lot different back then from today. You could take a hood right off a car! We went through the parking lot taking hoods off of cars! Then we put a yellow hood on a blue car and a blue hood on a red car and so on. It was lots of fun.’’

Sounds like it.

“Back in, I want to say 1946, though it could have been '47, Al gets his hands on a National Geographic. There was a picture of dinosaur tracks. Al said, 'You know, we could have fun with this.'’’

You made a dinosaur track?

“It wasn't exactly a dinosaur track.’’

Do you still have it?

“Sure, it's in the garage.’’

Tony's son, who had been sitting by his dad, disappeared into the garage. He returned carrying something heavy.

“We made them in the shop,’’ Tony said, looking at the weird boots his son lay on the table. “They were plaster at first, but you couldn't make a good track with plaster. It just didn't sink in the sand deep enough to look authentic.

We went to this blacksmith shop and poured lead in our molds. Each track weighed 30 pounds. We bolted black high-top gym shoes to each track.’’

Then what?

“Al and I rowed out to the beach. I put on the shoes. I jumped out of the boat in shallow water. I was young then, about 25 or so, and much stronger than I am now, an old man. I had to kind of swing my legs out to the side and then forward to get going. Somehow I didn't break my legs. I left deep tracks about 6 feet apart. I made this big loop from the surf, up the beach, and then back into the water to the boat.’’

***

So Tony Signorini is the famous Clearwater Monster?

“Yes. We were surprised to read in the papers that people had seen the monster because nobody was on the beach that night. We got a kick out of that.’’

Did anybody ever tell on you?

“Not that I know of. I’m sure the police chief knew it was us, but he never said anything. My wife, Elsie, knew, because I'd go out about 10 o’clock at night and come back around 2 o'clock in the morning all covered with sand.

She thought it was funny. And she knew there were worse things a man could be doing than making monster tracks.’’

What about the rest of your life?

“Well, Al died in 1969. I took over Auto Electric. Elsie and I had four kids, they grew up, they’re all good kids. My Elsie died a few years ago on account of her lungs. I've had two heart surgeries, but I'm okay now, just a little slower. I stay busy. I volunteer at Morton Plant Hospital twice a week. I have volunteered 3,000 hours at the hospital over the years.’’

Do they know at the hospital that you're the Clearwater Monster?

“I don’t think so. They probably never heard of him.’’

Do they know about the monster at your church, St. Cecelia’s?

“I doubt it. They just know me as the guy who's an usher at the 9:30 Mass on Sunday morning and the guy who hands out Holy Communion at the 5:30 Mass on Saturday afternoon.’’

Would the Eucharistic minister from St. Cecelia's like to leave some monster tracks on Clearwater Beach?

“Sure, I’ll go, though somebody will have to carry the monster shoes. They're too heavy for me now that I'm an old man. We'll go to Sand Key, but I have to tell you, it's not like it used to be. There's lots of people and buildings now.”

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

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