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For their own good
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Grog meets good deeds
Gasparilla is still one big party, but more and more krewes are adding charity work to the mix.
By Emily Nipps, Times Staff Writer
Published February 26, 2008
Ye Mystic Krewe, the oldest and most prestigious krewe of Gasparilla, caught some heat in the early 1990s for its elitist, all-male, all-white membership. Since then, Ye Mystic Krewe and a diverse host of other krewes have put a focus on philanthropy.
[Chris Zuppa | Times (2007)]
TAMPA - When two brothers resigned from their longtime krewe last week over what they saw as moral lapses at Gasparilla, some wondered if attitudes toward Tampa's signature party were changing.
But in some ways, they already have.
For decades, Gasparilla was simply a way for Tampa's elite to party on a grand stage. But as the event has expanded and diversified to include more residents in varied krewes, it has also picked up a charitable bent.
There are still lots of drunken pirates, rowdy crowds and parade units out to have a good time over the now-ended Gasparilla season. But as newer groups have formed, their checklist now often includes a cause as well as costumes, beads and a float.
"I would say, especially since the '90s, the emphasis has been on charity," said Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley member Joni Cusimano. "Maybe it comes with age, I don't know. I think some of the krewes got tired of being known as a bunch of drunks."
For almost a century, Tampa Bay area krewes enjoyed a guilt-free livelihood of being merely social clubs, exclusive groups of men who put on pirate-themed parades and parties.
Then a barrage of bad press in the early 1990s changed everything. Super Bowl XXV came to town in 1991, putting the parade and its all-white, all-male hosts, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, under scrutiny. For the first and only time, the Gasparilla parade was canceled when the krewe refused to immediately integrate.
Local feminist Louise Thompson revealed the names and businesses of all men who belonged to Ye Mystic Krewe, the oldest and most prestigious krewe, in her 1992 book No Girls Allowed.
Suddenly, the word "krewe" became publicly associated with sexism, racism and elitism.
Thompson contends that her research showed that these krewe members, considered to be Tampa's most wealthy and successful, were stingy.
It took five years, the induction of a famous king named George Steinbrenner and an already growing trend among some of the newest krewes for Ye Mystic Krewe to establish a scholarship fund for local high school kids.
While most established krewes file for a tax-exempt nonprofit status, all but a few are categorized as recreational clubs, not charitable organizations. They are not required to spend outside of their internal expenses of beads, floats, parties and other club purchases.
Yet almost all of the hundred-plus krewes that have formed over the last decade have felt obligated to give to a cause.
"We have this group of krewes that came along in the middle of krewe history, I call us the middle kids," said Yvonne Painton, who started the Krewe of Pair O' Dice in 1995 and heads Krewes Kare, which brings krewes together to raise money for hurricane victims. "It seems like we really blossomed in a lot of charities. I'm finding it hard to say there are any krewes that do nothing for charities."
Some older krewes, however, seem to be the slower to climb on the philanthropy bandwagon. Gaucho Association of Tampa was formed in the 1950s and is all about parades and parties.
"We have guys that do some volunteer or charity work on their own," Gaucho president Doug Vance said. "But no, we're strictly a party group."
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla pours most of its efforts into running the Gasparilla parade, though it is also known for giving scholarships. But executive director Jim Tarbet declined to talk about the krewe's charitable efforts, including the scholarship fund or how much it was worth.
It's hard to track the total charitable giving related to Gasparilla. Tax forms groups must file because of their nonprofit status don't list all their contributions. No one agency keeps track.
But some local charities say the krewes' growing trend of giving back to the community does make an impact.
Tampa's Shriners Hospital began feeling the effects around 2004, said international headquarters representative Wayne Witczak, who works with krewes and is on the Inter-Krewe Council. (The Tampa Bay chapter of Egypt Shiners is actually its own krewe.) Over the past few years, krewes such as Thieves of San Lorenzo and Krewe of Shamrock have donated about $40,000 to the local organization.
"These krewes obviously formed for social purposes, but they have a charitable side that often gets overlooked," Witczak said.
The Krewe of Sant'Yago Education Foundation recently awarded $125,000 to fund scholarships for needy Latin students, and claims to have given more than $800,000 to schools over the last seven years.
Richard Gonzmart was one of the brothers who resigned from the Sant'Yago krewe, which his father helped form, after a DJ on the krewe's Gasparilla boat made vulgar remarks and he didn't feel the krewe's leadership dealt with it properly.
Gonzmart said he still supports what the foundation does, and hopes to continue to donate as he has in the past. But he will not support the krewe.
The krewe, he said, has nothing to do with the foundation. Some of the members donate to the foundation, but the krewe does not give that kind of money to charity.
That's true, said foundation president Rex Damron. However, the foundation's board is made up of 35 Sant'Yago krewe members. And being associated with a krewe that has more than 250 well-connected men doesn't hurt the cause.
"I think we've set the guideline," Damron said. "If 80 krewes in the Tampa Bay area did something like what we're doing, just think of what it could do for humanity."