It started out as a circled date on the calendar: May 4. The occasion: the Saturday night performance of “War Horse” at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. It ended with hailing a late-night cab on Tampa Street.
Variations, as it turned out, on a theme.
The Tony Award-winning “War Horse” was as promised. It was enchanting and moving, a marvel of evocative, period-piece design and spectacular effects — most notably, of course, the equine puppetry. Expertly manipulated and choreographed, the horses fascinated as characters capable of animation as well as nuance. My wife and I exchanged subtle fist bumps for remembering to bring binoculars.
And once more we were reminded of this city’s good fortune in having the Straz — one of the premier performing arts centers in the country. Going there now moves on two levels. First-class performance is a given, but it’s also a night out on your own town, re-discovering that Tampa is, indeed, well into mid-morph.
A decade ago, Tampa’s downtown population was about 600. Now it’s 5,000. And more are coming because urban living with amenities is a big draw to a burgeoning demographic that combines generation, vocation and lifestyle. It’s reflected in high-rise rentals, museums, bistros, colorfully-lit bridges, joggers, bicyclists and a designated place to stroll, chill or check out an outdoor concert.
On this night nothing was as prominent as Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. That’s where “Funk Fest,” a hip-hop and R&B festival that recently re-located from Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, was entertaining an overflow crowd. It was another reminder that — in the paraphrased words of Gertrude Stein — Tampa finally did have some “there there.”
Not that “Funk Fest” was my kind of scene. But it signaled inclusion and gave the area up-tempo ambiance, without imposition. To be candid, I wouldn’t want to impose my own musical tastes — from Philly string bands and doo-wop to Little Richard and Roger Miller — on anyone. But the point is: Tampa was sounding like a happening downtown and not one where The Hub was where it was happening. Tampa was no longer a city with a riverfront that was an afterthought but one with an after-hours venue to hang out with your music.
There was verve; there was a vibe. It was loud, but it wasn’t raucous. You could hear these sounds of the city upon exiting the Straz.
You could also sense that traffic would be an issue. It’s why we had arrived by cab. But now we had to find one for the return trip. This was a first.
We crossed Ashley at Cass, then ambled around the Residence Inn to Tampa Street. Within one light change, we were able to flag a United Cab, one of a number that were heading east amid heavy traffic.
Not to sound like Jon Voight’s naive, skyscraper-gazing “Midnight Cowboy” character, but it had that big-city feel I’m not accustomed to in Tampa. This wasn’t a post-concert or post-hockey game exodus at The Forum. There was generic bustle and energy and activity and sound. I was no longer consumed with getting home in time to let the dogs out and catch the beginning of “Saturday Night Live.”
I was in the moment, in a cab, in downtown Tampa on a Saturday night. Where “War Horse” incongruously met “Funk Fest.” It was the place to be.
? ? ?You go, Lynn Marvin Dingfelder. The former TV reporter is hard at work researching, interviewing and rallying interest in the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s historic — Nov. 18, 1963 — visit to Tampa. When completed, her production work will include a Tampa Bay History Center exhibit and a one-hour (WUSF-TV) documentary planned to premier at the Tampa Theatre. A coffee-table book will complete the multimedia celebration. And, yes, there will be DVDs with all the outtakes. And, yes, we all owe Lynn a debt of gratitude. This is important.
Dingfelder is adamant in underscoring that the project is not about President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. It is about celebrating Tampa’s brush (actually an extended five-hour visit) with history and what those with memories of the event can share.
While Kennedy’s local appearance predates my relocation to Tampa from Philadelphia, I did have the good fortune two years ago to spend precious time with former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, who reflected on the Kennedy visit.
Gibbons, who as a state senator had helped the Kennedy campaign in Florida, knew the president well enough to be on the podium for speeches at the International Inn, Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and Al Lopez Field, and in his Lincoln convertible through downtown.
Gibbons recalled the Tampa crowds as notably “enthusiastic.” In fact, surprisingly so. “He wasn’t that popular before the election,” recalled Gibbons. “But whole schools got off. Whole families got together. The president waved and shouted back. Even had the limo stop a few times to get out and talk with the crowds. I remember him saying: ‘Sam, you’ve sure got a lot of pretty girls in this city.’ ”
As for security, Gibbons said he wasn’t privy to details or rumors, although he noted that Secret Service agents rode on the presidential limo’s rear bumper throughout the motorcade, something they didn’t do in Dallas.