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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Steve Otto

Otto: TV program showcases the weird world of Ybor

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So Ybor is different. You already knew that. I know people who think it might be a little too different, but they are missing out.

It’s not just that Ybor City is a place as it is a setting for some of the more unusual characters that ever were and maybe still are.

Maybe you think that’s an exaggeration; that every town has its characters and oddballs and that’s true. I could put together a list of people in this newsroom alone that would make a cable mini-series.

Ybor always has had its oddballs, such as Frederick Weightnovel and his Free Love Society. He was a giant of a man who founded his own city of Moscow near today’s convention center before being run out of town. There also were the likes of Red Eye Leto and Tommy Stephens with his famous fowl, the late James E. Rooster. The list is a long one.

Ybor is a place of secret tunnels and underworld characters sipping Cuban coffee in darkened corners. It operates at a different pace, with its early morning smells from the Naviera coffee mills to the bread baking at La Seguna to the frenetic sounds of late-night clubs. It was and remains one of the country’s great melting pots with Italians, Spaniards, Cubans, Germans and a host of immigrants of all flavors giving the small quarter a great mix of cultures.

From Mama Guava to the late Roland Manteiga in his white suit sitting at his private table with his personal telephone at the Tropicana restaurant, Ybor has had its own unique flavor.

So let me lay out a little evidence, beginning with a terrific show on the tube Monday night on TBAE, which is the Tampa Bay Arts and Educational Network at Channel 614 on Bright House and Channel 32 on Verizon.

The show is the first in a series of productions telling the stories of a half-dozen of Ybor’s characters, each show presented by locals who probably rate pretty high on the character scale themselves.

Tonight, for example is the story of Jose Luis Avellanal.

You could call him General, which is what he called himself, even if nobody is sure how he became one. You might call him doctor, seeing how he claimed to be a gynecologist, as well as a Baptist preacher and founder of a university that just happened to be in his hotel room at the El Pasaje.

You’ll love seeing him staring into his crystal ball.

He was into cryogenics before the rest of us, using dead cats to freeze and, well ... you really need to catch the show. The show’s host is historian Gary Mormino who knows as much about Ybor and Florida history as anyone and who can tell a good tale.

In coming weeks there will be the story of Abispo Verdi, our own “Green Hornet.’’ You’ll meet the suave Manteiga with his pencil-thin mustache sitting at his private table in Ybor in his white suits schmoozing with the politicians for his column in La Gaceta, and later the great story of Caesar Gonzmart and his Adela, as told by their son, Richard.

There’s more but I’m not going to spoil this for you. I’ll only encourage you to take in the first in a nifty series on TBAE at 9 p.m. Monday.

sotto@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7809

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