By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2001
TAMPA -- The city has hosted two Super Bowls before, but its punch bowl was never as full as it was Saturday.
About 750,000, people (but who really knows?) thronged Bayshore Boulevard for the biggest Gasparilla parade ever. And that was only the opening act to a night-time party scene more glittery than a Liberace costume.
When the last string of beads had been thrown, the crowds dragged their empty coolers back to their cars where they proceeded to create the biggest traffic jam Tampa has ever seen.
As the sun set, red brake lights stretched out for miles along the interstates. Car horns honked a chorus of complaint as revelers found themselves trapped between the party that was and the promise of bigger parties to come.
More than an hour after celebrity guests were supposed to arrive at the Evening with the Stars benefit for the United Negro College Fund at the Wyndham Harbour Island hotel, the room remained nearly empty.
Organizers said celebrities were calling from their limousines, stuck in traffic.
At 8 p.m., Ybor City's Seventh Avenue was nearly impassable. The sounds of the rock band Skrape, playing live, competed with recorded salsa music and the tunes of 'N Sync.
For some people gridlock was good. Stephen Burton, a contractor from Annapolis, Md., described the scene as "Mardi Gras in Tampa. I love it. We came for the crowds. We came for the party. We came for the atmosphere. . . . This goes on forever."
J. Anthony Moorer, 32, a chemistry teacher from Orlando was one of about 200 people waiting to get into the NFL Players Party at the Cuban Club.
"This reminds me of the Oscars," Moorer said. "You see it on TV, but now it's like I'm at the Oscars."
Outside the FUN nightclub in Ybor, gawkers were lining up to try to crash the Sports Illustrated party inside or at least get a glimpse of somebody famous. Bouncers blocked entry, and the only visible sign of the party was a big slab of prime rib glistening under a heat lamp in the window. But it was a big slab of prime rib.
Downtown Tampa was packed with people -- after dark. Sure, many of them were in the cars stuck in traffic, but plenty of them were there to see K.D. Lang, the Baha Men and fireworks.
About 1,000 people attended the Super Bowl XXXV Task Force reception in the Times Arena at Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. In the crowd: Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, new Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer and CNN's Bernard Shaw.
Across Tampa Bay, a less buttoned-down crowd was gathering in the SoHo district for a different kind of "skins" party, this one called SKIN, "Where What You Dare." The decor inside the Bacchus restaurant featured murals of cavorting women wearing nothing but artfully draped scarves.
Lauren Lack, 21, was working the liquor tub, in a skin-tight outfit.
"I tried my boots and I said, "No, I'll suffer,' " she said, revealing her red lacquered toenails poking through her skimpy sandals.
She and co-workers were tossing around names of celebrities they hoped would show. "Put me down for Lenny Kravitz," Lack said. The theme seemed to catch on with partiers.
A group of five drunken young men pulled up, stumbled out of a white limo, careful to balance their longneck beers, looked blearily at the tent and yelled, "Skin, yeah."
Singer Ricky Martin was supposed to parachute into his concert at MacDill Air Force Base, which seemed like the only way to beat the South Tampa traffic. But observers said it looked staged. (Imagine!) He was shown with Air Force personnel before "jumping" out of a helicopter.
Seconds later he was shown "landing" near the hangar. Martin ran into the hangar shedding a jump suit, waved farewell to the Air Force and launched himself into his trademark rhythm, complete with steam billowing, stobes flashing, jugglers, dancers, brass, amps and percussion.
Milling among the fighters and bombers, the chilled crowd, which included magician David Copperfield, didn't blink at the stagecraft.
Dan Rather, drinking a glass of Merlot, said he's been to parties at hangars before. The veteran newsman has also covered many military stories, the last one in Bosnia. "It (covering Bosnia) was tough and it was cold, but believe me Ricky Martin was not singing."
Others seemed slightly more impressed.
MacDill hospital worker Carmen Schultz, 51, snapped photos of people she didn't even recognize. "I don't know who that is, but I'm taking his picture anyway," said Schultz.
The clear weather made celebrity watching easy, starting with a silent auction at the Gridiron Glamour 2001 event Saturday.
"I got Patti LaBelle's autographed red satin Manolo Blahnik's plus a CD for $150," said an excited Mary James. James, wife of Tom James, the financial executive whose company's name is on the stadium, bid on the LaBelle shoes during the silent auction.
LaBelle, the legendary singer, was presented with the Woman of Courage Award by her close friend and singing star Natalie Cole. Looking at the jewel-framed award, she joked, "I could melt this down and get me a necklace."
Looking back at the biggest party of Tampa's life, there were clues about what was to come.
At 5:30 a.m., (yes, before dawn), the parking lots of Tampa's lap-dance clubs were so thick with limousines that traffic was backing up on Dale Mabry Highway.
-- Times staff writers Wilma Norton, Sarah Schweitzer, Sue Carlton, Babita Persaud, Mary Evertz, Linda Gibson, Kathryn Wexler, Kyle Parks, Jean Heller and Christopher Goffard contributed to this story.