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Revamped Guavaween draws mixed reviews

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:35 PM

Mama Guava rolled up in a Fiat 500CC Saturday evening, not knowing what to expect of her 26th Guavaween.

"It's my party and I might cry if I want to," said Guava, aka Kathi Grau, a drama teacher who helped create the Halloween-season event in 1985.

"My guava gut tells me we should go back to the way it started," she said.

The annual celebration along Ybor's Seventh Avenue was drastically altered this year. Unlike past Guavaweens there was no wet zoning, no fence and no Mama Guava Stumble Parade. Instead the event featured its familiar costume contest and a new indoor music festival with about 30 bands at venues in Ybor, a Latin-flavored historic district northeast of downtown Tampa.

Somaily Habibi, a manager at Habibi's Cafe on Seventh Avenue, didn't like the changes. "It is slower than the usual Saturday," said Somaily, dressed as Picachu. "It is bad, bad, bad, bad."

But standing next to him, puffing on a hookah, cafe employee Stephanie Roberts, dressed as a "sexy cop," was enjoying her first Guavaween. "This is way more fun than anything back home in Georgia," she said.

In recent years the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce has fenced off Guavaween activities and collected gate charges from parade-goers and partygoers. Responding to merchants' complaints, chamber officials agreed to remove the fences and gate, but that meant giving up anticipated revenue for what is a major annual fundraiser.

The idea of the new version of Guavaween was to create a music festival similar to the annual Tropical Heatwave event in Ybor at which bands perform at private venues. In previous years Guavaween has attracted headliners such as Cheap Trick, Natasha Bedingfield and Rihanna.

Tonight's guests could access Ybor without a gate charge. But those attending the music festival paid for an armband.

The festival was headlined by The Hold Steady. Other performers included SounDuo, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Adrian Younge, Rubblebucket, Tortured Soul, Nervous Turkey and Fake Problems.

Guavaween began in 1985 as a free-spirited mix of political satire and Halloween silliness.

Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto was the parade's first grand marshal, tapped for the job after branding Tampa "The Big Guava." The event highlighted Ybor, which then was struggling to reinvent itself as an entertainment district.

Through the years, Guavaween earned a reputation as a high-octane, ghoulish and sometimes raunchy party that draws thousands of revelers..

At the Bad Monkey bar on Seventh Avenue, co-owner Charlie Allen was taking a wait-and-see attititude tonight. "The rules are the same as last (Friday) night," he said. "People can't carry their drinks in the street."

Outside, however, the streets were stranger than the usual weekend night, with Beetlejuice characters and pretend serial killers, the Mad Hatter and Green Power Ranger, and lots of people showing lots of skin.

(813) 259-7691 jpoltilove@tampatrib.com