Partiers come home to roost

A lover of good, quirky gatherings is inspired by a rooster.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published November 9, 2007

YBOR CITY - Want to hear how Ybor City came alive after the cigar industry cooled and the federal government wiped out entire blocks during urban renewal? Just ask Tommy Stephens.

He'll pop a Budweiser in his Fifth Avenue back yard and tell you three decades worth of Ybor history the 63-year-old has experienced like a nonstop party.

But first things first.

"Give me a minute," he says after pulling up in his pickup. "Let me feed my chickens."

A dozen roosters cock-a-doodle-doo by the Sixth Avenue train tracks as Stephens meets them in the grassy parking lot behind his house.

"Chick, chick, chick!" he chirps as he tosses them feed.

Above all else - founding the neighborhood association and Guavaween, building neighborhood condos - this is Stephens' claim to fame, why he expects 600 people to show up in his back yard on Sunday:

Ten years ago, he threw a funeral for his favorite rooster. Now, it's Ybor tradition.

* * *

A band will play. Dogs will wear horns. And Stephens will wear a bow tie and an antique tuxedo jacket. At least that was the plan this week, when he was preparing to tap five kegs and barbecue 100 pounds of chicken.

If you have to ask why, you haven't been in Ybor too long. Here's a primer:

The whole thing started with James E. Rooster, a boisterous bird. When he crowed in the wee hours, Stephens would interpret.

"James says it's time to go home," he'd tell revelers.

The rooster met his demise in 1997 in the jaws of a neighborhood dog. Only Stephens could've turned tragedy into a party.

"I'm going to give that little bastard a New Orleans style funeral," he decided.

Stephens mailed $150 worth of invitations. Friends showed up in gala attire, wearing veils and carrying umbrellas. Trumpets played as mourners marched down Seventh Avenue holding signs that said, "The cock crowed. The dog burped."

Funeral krewes formed in the years that followed. Women dressed in black and called themselves "The Widows." They wore yellow and called themselves "The Chicks."

At first, police officers escorted paraders down the street, but restrictions tightened. Because Stephens didn't have a permit, the parade moved to the sidewalk and police stopped allowing a golf cart to be used as a hearse.

But the crowds keep growing. Family and friends gather under a tent in his back yard to party and people from the public line up to watch them parade.

* * *

Stephens' roots in Florida and partying date back to his ancestors who homesteaded on 160 acres in Blountstown, near Tallahassee, in 1823. Twenty years later, they were arrested for "gambling and selling liquor to a person of color," Stephens said.

His family moved to Tampa in 1948. He attended Edison Elementary School, Memorial Middle and Hillsborough High. He didn't go to Florida State University, but he did spend a night in the women's dormitory. "Woo-hoo," he remembers.

He got a job at Tampa Oxygen and Welding Supply, and his boss encouraged him to join the Ybor Chamber of Commerce in 1978.

"It was all old guys. Ybor was dead," Stephens said. "There was a bunch of young people, and we wanted to bring Ybor back to life."

A group of them road-tripped to Key West in 1984 with white spray in their hair, dressed as Ybor's old folks for Halloween's Fantasy Fest. They had so much fun, they wanted to meet with the organizers.

"We'll probably never be back," they said, Stephens recalls. "We're going back to Ybor and we're starting a party, just like this."

They called it Guavaween and held the first in 1985. Stephens strapped carbon dioxide cylinders to his back and dressed as a giant black bean passing gas. Two years later, he bought his current home.

Stephens was one of the founding members of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association and was president for five years.

These days, he works for Gerardi Construction and can see condos he has built from his front yard.

* * *

His back yard is built for his bashes. In the summer, he fills an inflatable pool. In the winter, he lights a fire pit.

"If that pit could talk," he said, "it'd be rich."

He constructed a urinal outside for the convenience of his guests.

It is decorated with beads from every Gasparilla krewe. Stephens goes to lots of krewe parties but never joined one. Why pay dues and wear costumes when he gets the friends for free?

He has thrown awards shows to shame his friends and memorable full moon parties, where guests mooned the passing trains.

This year, he sent an invitation for his rooster funeral to Martha Stewart. She responded, saying she had other obligations.

When his cousin got married in his back yard, Stephens whipped out a gun and said, "There's no objections, right?"

Even on a workday afternoon, his backyard table is surrounded.

Ray Rossi stops by for a quick beer before his Rough Riders meeting. He sits next to Pam Vopper, Stephens' girlfriend. Stephens' pet hen Chick-Fil-A flaps about.

"My neighbor picked her up when she was a little bitty," Stephens said. He's trying to train her to walk on a leash.

Eccentricities like that are what his neighbors love about him.

"Tommy Stephens is a great character of Ybor," said Ybor Chamber of Commerce president Tom Keating. "He's more of a Cracker than most of the people in Ybor. I can say that, because I am also."

Rossi calls him the "hospitality suite of Ybor," a generous host who always lets his friends park in his yard.

Stephens said he's starting to feel partied out.

Maybe he'll turn the rooster parade over to a krewe and start attending parties instead of throwing them.

But all the work, time and money he has spent have been worth it, he said.

"I've made some of my best friends in this back yard," Stephens said, looking around. "Absolutely."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or 226-3354.


If you go

See the parade

The rooster party at Tommy Stephens' Ybor City home is for friends and family only, but the public can watch the rooster parade at 3 p.m. on Seventh Avenue, from 19th to 15th streets.