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Festival maintains a tradition of change

The diverse celebration of St. Petersburg is expected to draw up to 250,000 people this year.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Asked to describe the Festival of States in a single sentence, Lane Hosmer had to stop and think for a minute. He said it's something he has asked himself many times since he became executive director of the festival nine months ago.

In fact, he said, it's a question he asked the Suncoasters, the group of civic volunteers who sponsor the festival, when they interviewed him for the job.

"It's a civic celebration that showcases the best qualities of the city of St. Petersburg," he said. "Beyond that, it's very difficult to describe."

Aside from the parade, the festival's only constant is that it has changed as the city of St. Petersburg has changed. In its 80-year history, it has has been extended and shortened. It has undergone several name changes. Activities have been added and deleted. Festival organizers alternately have basked in praise or weathered criticism.

Its roots go back to 1896, when St. Petersburg schoolchildren celebrated George Washington's birthday with a day of "exercises." It evolved into the five-day St. Petersburg Fair and Tourist Week in 1913 and in 1914 became the four-day DeSoto Celebration. Three years later, St. Petersburg residents decided they wanted their weeklong Mardi Gras-like festival, complete with band concerts, confetti battles, a royal parade and costume ball, to become a yearly event.

The festival suffered cutbacks during the Depression and took a three-year hiatus during World War II. In 1954, it became the Sunshine Festival. In 1963, organizers renamed it the St. Petersburg Festival of States.

Historical re-enactments, bridge parties, circus performances, a shell show and a rodeo made their debuts by the mid '60s. Sporting events, introduced to attract larger crowds, included a sailboat regatta, a fencing competition, a water ski tournament, an aquacade and a professional tennis match.

Folk and opera singers, Broadway tunesters and barbershop quartets have serenaded festivalgoers over the years. Square dancers and ballet dancers have entertained them, and the Festival of Mails, the Mile of Art and the National Flag Pageant have enlightened them.

The best way to explain this year's festival, Hosmer said, is to run down a list of the events.

The 10-day celebration officially opened this weekend with the Sam Robinson Tampa Bay Blues Festival in Vinoy Park, but prefestival activities began Tuesday with the Junior Sungoddess preliminaries. On Wednesday, Pinellas County Schools' All-County MusicFest showcased the talents of more than 1,600 elementary, middle and high school students in jazz band, performing choral groups and concert bands. The Second Time Arounders, a group of 500 former Tampa Bay high school and college band members, also performed.

The KidsArt festival provided 25-30 hands-on activities for elementary school children Saturday in Straub Park. Middle school students got their turn at the ChalkArt competition at the Fine Arts Museum.

The festival's third annual high school concert band evaluation will be Monday at the Palladium Theater, with eight to 10 local bands performing and receiving adjudication by university music judges. Out-of-state evaluations are scheduled for Thursday.

A mainstay of the festival since 1969, the illuminated night parade, begins at 8 p.m. Monday along Bayshore Drive, with fireworks at 9:15 p.m. The Skyview High School band from Vancouver, Wash., one of the two out-of-state bands coming to the festival this year, will march in the parade.

The Junior Sungoddess finals are Tuesday at the Palladium. The Ms. Sungoddess and Mr. Sun Coronation Ball and Pageant is Friday at the Coliseum.

The highlight of the festival, the TradeWinds Resorts Festival Parade, begins at 11 a.m. Saturday. It will travel east on Central Avenue to Bayshore Drive and north to Vinoy Park. This year's parade features more than 100 units, including floats, high school bands, the Second Time Arounders and the U.S. Naval Academy Drum and Bugle Corps.

A marching band field show with performances by the Second Time Arounders and the St. Petersburg High School Devilettes will get under way in North Straub Park after the parade.

Beginning Saturday and continuing Sunday afternoon is what Hosmer calls the festival's core event: the Florida Power PierFest. Included in the lineup are the Final Three basketball competition; the Extreme SportsFest including BMX bikes, inline skating and skateboarding competitions sanctioned by the Southeastern Skateboarding Series competition; the Tire Kingdom and Michelin Cruzin' Customz and Fantasy Lows car show and competition; and interactive games, a rock climbing wall and strolling entertainment.

A Coast Guard flyover and demonstration are scheduled for 2:45 p.m. Sunday.

One of the biggest changes in this year's festival is that it is shorter. Hosmer said events were scheduled closer together to give the public greater awareness of the festival and to give it a more cohesive feel.

Suncoasters president Jim Newman said the idea is for people to come down for the parade on Saturday morning and then stay downtown all day to take in the other events.

"There will be lots of things going on in a relatively small geographic area," he said. "People can eat lunch, walk around and see lots of things."

Another change, Hosmer said, is a shift in attitude about the importance of out-of-state bands.

"You can't measure the success or failure of the festival on how many bands come," he said, explaining that a changing educational landscape has made it increasingly difficult to attract bands.

The festival will continue to invite them and give them the opportunity to perform in field shows, Hosmer said, but organizers will work harder to include local high school bands.

The cost of this year's festival -- about $300,000, plus $200,000 met by in-kind contributions -- is the same as last year, according to Sandy Lee, the Festival's marketing director. Most of it comes from annual dues of more than 250 Suncoasters, the volunteer organization created to sponsor the festival after the Chamber of Commerce dropped it in 1954. Corporate sponsorships generated $192,000, a $30,000 increase from last year. A $50,000 contribution came from the city of St. Petersburg.

Lee estimated that 600 to 700 people are working on this year's festival. Volunteers included the Suncoasters and their spouses, the St. Petersburg High School Devilettes, Rojans and Interact Club, St. Petersburg Leisure and Recreation Services and Pinellas County Schools.

She said festival attendance will depend on the weather, but she expects 200,000 to 250,000.

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