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Voyage into Gasparilla's past

"Pirates and Pearls'' at UT's Henry B. Plant Museum offers memorabilia and artifacts from the bay area celebration.


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 26, 2001

TAMPA -- Long after the revelers have gone home and the pearls and beer cans have been cleaned up from Bayshore, you'll still have a chance to participate in Gasparilla.

That is, if you don't mind doing something a little lower key.

The event, called "Pirates and Pearls," in the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa, offers some of the best, rarest artifacts and memorabilia from Gasparilla's past.

The exhibit started Jan. 12 and runs through March 18.

The display hearkens back to a time when Tampa's high society and rich families vacationing from the North used to put on their finest for the Gasparilla Ball at the then-Tampa Bay Hotel.

At the time, the 511-room hotel was known as one of the country's finest winter resorts. To bring back that tradition, museum organizers have collected photographs, costumes and even a film showing the Gasparilla parade in the early 1920s.

The collection includes jeweled coronation robes, cannons, personal items and some fancy ball gowns created by Anne Cone Lowe, an African-American who later earned fame as the designer of Jacqueline Kennedy's wedding and bridesmaid dresses.

"This year the exhibit is going to be a little more elaborate," said Amy David, the museum's curator of education.

With the Super Bowl in town, organizers have added to the number of display items, hoping that the traffic from out-of-towners will spill into the museum.

Photos of old costumes, pirates and floats, some dating as far back as 1904, have been enlarged.

The first Gasparilla king's crown, made of cardboard and adorned with faux pearls and other jewels, will also be on display.

"(We hear) he stayed up all night making that crown," David said. "It's very elegant and pretty."

In addition to the photographs, a film will be featured that offers a taste of 1920s Tampa.

The film, "Memories of Gasparilla," which will run continuously, will show images of early parades and pirate capers. While the exhibit has been open for only two weeks, the museum has already seen an increase in attendance from last year.

That could mean an even larger exhibit next year, David said. But for now, she's focusing on what will happen this year.

"This display will bring back a lot of memories for a lot of people," David said.

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