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Weather, food, service in the park are groovy

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


The opening night party for Shakespeare in the Park has never, in all its years, been rained out, but Saturday night was probably the closest call ever.

At 4 p.m., a downpour sent volunteers scurrying for cover as they set up tables for the party in Demens Landing scheduled to start in two hours. The shower blew through, the sun came out, along with many towels, and only calm reigned as the first guests arrived.

This is always one of my favorite parties, relaxed and friendly, set in a waterfront park on a (usually) balmy evening. My only quibble has been with the food, which in past years has been, well, dreadful. Not this year.

Party chairman Lester Wolff and American Stage managing director Lee Lowry listened to our collective whining and put restaurateur Emmanuel Roux in charge of dinner, rented real cutlery and plates -- not plastic and paper -- and commandeered volunteers to serve at table, banishing the long buffet lines. What a difference it made.

From Haiku Sushi came -- you guessed it -- sushi platters for predinner snacking; from the Garden came the entree, a Moroccan chicken stew, and Redwoods served an outstanding dessert, coconut cake with banana sauce. It wasn't fancy but it didn't need to be because it was good. The glass dinner plates had the added benefit of anchoring the tablecloths. In the past, the wind has played havoc, scattering everything and upending paper plates full of food onto laps.

Everyone chattered and mingled so much it was easy to forget we were there to see a play. This year, artistic director Ken Mitchell chose Twelfth Night and set it in a 1970s disco. A few patrons, such as American Stage board chairwoman Susan Hough (in a flower-power shift) and Barbara Geldbart (in polyester print tunic and hair wrap) came in period dress, though I said to Dick and Helen Minck, who swore they dressed for the '70s, that his sweater and white duck trousers and her pantsuit really looked more like Gatsby '20s.

Elizabeth Skidmore and Sue Brody wore regular clothes but accessoried themselves for the era, Ms. Brody in neon peace-symbol earrings and Mrs. Skidmore in huge silver hoops "my father brought back for me from Spain. They were flamenco dancers' earrings."

Greg Fisher, perennial master of ceremonies for the party, wore the most interesting accessory, a silver angel pin made as a thank-you gift for longtime American Stage trustees by artist Tom McCarthy.

Pete and Lisa Wells filled their table with family: Ann and Harold Wells, the aforementioned Mrs. Geldbart, Hal and Becky Wells and David and Kim Geldbart. Lloyd and Carolyn Horton brought their friends Dr. Barry Pendry and Cathi Awers, formerly of St. Petersburg, who now live in Floral City.

Also in the crowd were Bill and Hazel Hough, Robb Hough, Mike and Mari-Beth Cheezem, Gus and Frances Stavros, Bill and Marion Ballard, Brian Reale, Dr. Perry and Lisa Everett, Jim and Emily Gillespie, Al May, Jeff and Diane Bailey McClanathan, Marilyn Benjamin, Mel and Betty Sembler, Tom Taggert, Al and Nancy Karnavicius, Ross and Judy Malone, Ashley O'Donnell, Sean and Beth Manning, Dick and Jane Funsch and Paul and Debbie Rowe.

Two very deserving people were given awards that are bestowed by the theater each year at this party to recognize an outstanding employee and volunteer: Tom Block, who has been at American Stage for years and is the theater's institutional memory as well as an all-around, can-do guy, collected the Al May Award. Laura Guetzloe was given the Susan Rose Hough volunteer award. She is another person who labors quietly -- and, in this case, in the dark, helping with the stage lights every night in the park. But on Saturday, there was nothing quiet about her acceptance of the award: her friends at Bay Print, where she works, stomped and hooted when her name was announced.

* * *

Friday night at the Coliseum, a crowd of about 1,000 gathered for the annual Coronation Ball, the big blast the Suncoasters throw for themselves and their friends to celebrate the near-end of the Festival of States.

The festival is a huge undertaking for the volunteer group, with two parades, several sporting events, and arts and blues fests. The group deserves a party, even if it is an atypical one in some ways, starting late, at 8:30 p.m., and serving no food. (Many dine before the ball or bring party trays.)

There early, I walked to the balcony to observe the swirl of people arriving in tuxedos and sequined gowns, and the young women of the Sungoddess Court, floating around the room like young swans in their white ball gowns.

Nice to see were Suncoaster president Dr. Reggie and Mendee Ligon; executive director Malcolm and Phyllis King; Dr. Joe and Shirley Insoft, who, with Betsy Owens, organize this party every year; Herb and Linda Melleney; Mark and Marianne Mahaffey; Carlen and Martha Maddux; Bill and Kim Doniel; Ronnie and Barbara Robison; Goliath and Teresa Davis; Ken and Emily Safko; Dr. Michael and Dee Coates; Ron and Pat Mason; Daryl and Kim Brandimore; Judge Walter and Cathy Fullerton; David and Carol Pilkington; Dr. Gil and Anne Shamas; Paul and Lori Houlihan; Hadley Heindel; Lorin and Patty Bridge; Steve and Nancy H. Thomas; Ben and Phyllis Godwin; Jeff and Mary Ellen Howells; Ralph and Mary Lou Crawford; and YMCA executive director Doug Linder, with wife Diane, who tells me that the architectural plans for the new YMCA have a decided Mediterranean-Revival look and that "we are three weeks away from construction documents."

In the loge they always occupy were Mary Wyatt Allen and George Friess and Bill and Sally Wallace. Wallace, as the retiring Mr. Sun, had the crown resting on a table.

"Try it on," said Allen, the only woman ever to wear it (Ms. Sun 1996-97). It slipped down over my head onto my neck, looking like one of those torture collars favored by Vlad the Impaler.

"It's a little tired," I said, examining missing "jewels" and bent gold spikes.

"We need a new one," she said.

Still, it has a lot of glamor when you think about all the civic leaders who have worn it over the years.

It will serve for at least one more: Wearing it now is Toby Krayer, (officially A.C. Krayer Jr.), who, through the years, has worked on behalf of almost every organization and good cause you can think of, but who still counts as one of his proudest achievements being inducted into the Hall of Fame at his alma mater, St. Petersburg High School, for leading his basketball team to the school's only Big Ten Conference basketball title in 1947.

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