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The year in review: Top local arts and entertainment stories of 2021

Bill DeYoung

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"Selling Tampa," a reality series from the producers of "Selling Sunset," has been among the top-rated shows on Netflix since it debuted Dec. 15. Photo: Netflix.

There’s an argument to be made that Covid was, once again, the top news story this year, as it was in 2020. The pandemic’s negative effects continue to be obvious on all aspects of life, including the arts and entertainment.

In one respect, the biggest arts story of 2021 was the re-opening, on a limited, masked, socially-distanced basis, of bay area theaters, concert halls and clubs. The business of art was peeking out from behind the Covid curtain, testing the feasibility of coming back at all. Of making spirits bright.

Of course, to repeat a depressingly overworked phrase, we’re not out of the woods yet. It was, however, comforting and encouraging to see that arts, and entertainment, found a way to make it work in 2021. To understand that when this pandemic is once and for all, well and truly over, art, music, theater, films, radio and television and all other creative and entertaining endeavors will have found a way to push forward.

That said, 2021 in St. Pete, Tampa and immediate environs had plenty going on. Here, from 1 to 10, is our Top Ten.

 

TV or not TV?

“Tampa Baes.” Photo: IMDB.

If the old adage about any publicity at all being good publicity is true, then the bay area’s national reputation soared in 2021. Two reality shows and one scripted tourist-teasing comedy later, we’re all over the national tube. Whether Tampa Baes (Amazon Prime) and Selling Tampa (Netflix) represent anything actually “real” is up for discussion – as with most reality programming, they seem to have a dramatic agenda, with truth staying out of the way when it’s inconvenient. Tampa Baes follows a group of Tampa’s “it” lesbians – so designated by the show’s producers – while Selling Tampa is about the Allure Realty brokerage, whose agents are all attractive women. Both programs are long on style, made-up feuds and fast-cut editing, and short on actual substance, and – perhaps inevitably – they’ve both become ratings favorites. Earlier in the year, Amazon premiered Life’s Rewards, co-produced with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the St. Pete/Clearwater Film Commission and Visit Florida. The eight short episodes followed a thin, fictional storyline that brought the protagonist all over St. Petersburg for a virtual product-placement festival.

A new museum

Six years elapsed between the first shovel in the ground and opening day, and the long-awaited Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement finally made its debut Sept. 7. The five-story, 137,000-square-foot facility was built, at a cost of $90 million, by Tarpon Springs pharmaceutical giant Rodolpho “Rudy” Ciccarello to display his extensive collection of works from the early 20th century. To his specifications, the museum – designed by Tampa architect Alberto Alfonso – is as much a work of art as the invaluables collected inside – furniture, pottery, tiles, metalworks, lighting and other functional crafts, plus jewelry, color woodblock prints, photography and other decorative works from the early 1900s. 

The “entrance” to the Mermaid Star Motel, inside Fairgrounds. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Where everything is art

September brought the debut of Fairgrounds, the long-discussed interactive art “experience” to The Factory St. Pete, part of the Warehouse Arts District. Consisting of a series of rooms and open areas, Fairgrounds is a walk-through trip through the Looking Glass, with Alice is disguise as a day-glo Florida mermaid. Conceived by Liz Dimmitt, who’d brainstormed and constructed similar interactive art shows all over the country, Fairgrounds was created, one room at a time, by local artists, all of whom put their distinctive stamp on it. There’s nothing else like it for miles.

The new guy

Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

With creative boss lady Stephanie Gularte sidelined for medical reasons, the American Stage board sent out a search beacon – sort of a backstage Bat-signal – for a new producing artistic director. With an impressive resume, a well-established blend of talent and success and a vision for taking the company down more challenging, socially relevant roads, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj arrived in October. Reportedly the first BIPOC producing artistic director at a major Florida regional theater, Maharaj told the Catalyst: “For me the best work entertains, yes, but it moves the conversation forward in some way. Whatever that conversation might be. A lot of folks come to the theater to escape, but because I live in this time and space, to quote Dr. Maya Angelou, I feel I have a great responsibility to acknowledge this time and space in my art, and my craft.”

Setting the stages

It was a period of great change for St. Pete theater spaces – the long-dormant State Theatre was reborn as the Floridian Social Club, Studio Grand Central (an intimate black box theater) was hewn from the closed Andi Matheny Acting Studio, and an old AAA office building became the Zubrick Magic Theatre, bringing Vegas-style (and quality) show business to an otherwise drab section of 1st Avenue N. Chris and Ryan Zubrick are seasoned, professional illusionists who decided they simply like it here and want to make it their home; Studio Grand Central’s owner is local actor, director and standup comic Ward Smith; and realtor Kevin Chadwick, whose parents met inside the State Theatre eons ago, had the place completely overhauled and turned into perhaps the nicest venue in town for local music, with top-drawer lights, stage and sound system.

A war of words

Rob Lorei. Photo provided.

2021 was not a good year to be Rob Lorei, one of the co-founders of WMNF Community Radio, and its longtime news director. In April, the 43-year station veteran was dismissed after a heated email exchange with a listener came to the attention of general manager Rick Fernandes. Outraged fans demanded Lorei be reinstated, he defended himself in a Catalyst interview, and the chairman of the station’s board of directors made a public statement doubling down on their decision to keep him off their airwaves. Lorei, who’d been fired and quickly re-hired over a similar incident in 2019, declined to make further comments. Fernandes himself abruptly resigned in August.

Strategic thinking

Terry Marks, who replaced St. Petersburg Arts Alliance founder John Collins upon his retirement in March, was one of the first to sign off on the city’s Comprehensive Arts Strategy. A joint effort by the Downtown Partnership, the City of St. Petersburg and the Arts Alliance, the 24-page strategy was heavily researched, through the accumulation of hard data and extensive interviews with artists, arts leaders, business people and regular citizens, and is intended as the “skeletal framework” of a plan to guide the city through the coming years of growth and maintenance of our fertile creative community, a recognized economic force. The “four tiers” of progress are Enhanced Collaboration, Purposeful Communication, Dedicated Advocacy and Funding and Benchmarked Progress. “This living strategy that we share with you is meant to grow with us, to respond to the needs of an arts and culture community,” Marks said at the unveiling in July. “It is our city of the arts that’s evolving. It requires us to be a city of one, collective, unified voice. It requires us to take action. So let’s embrace a common purpose, a greater good.”

The Beach Theatre. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Back to the Beach

The only surviving movie house on the Gulf beaches, the Beach Theatre shut down in 2012, after 82 years of continual (but not necessarily thriving) business. A lengthy legal squabble by the last owner’s estate and members of his family kept the 4,800-square-foot cinderblock building off the market, even as the community held on to fond memories of movie nights past. The Beach finally went up for sale in September – and was sold, on the first day, for $652,000, well over the asking price. The buyer, U.K. native Christopher Scott, immediately held a public meeting to hear ideas and desires from locals. Most commonly heard: Don’t tear it down for another sports bar or trendy boutique. Scott has formed a nonprofit and is raising funds to restore, renovate and redesign the Beach into a state-of-the-art room for movies, concerts and other performing arts events.

Don’t touch that dial

In March, the Federal Communications Commission officially transferred the broadcasting license for 96.7 FM to Radio St. Pete, an Internet station that had been streaming since 2013. Launched by Joe Bourdow, the former president of Valpak, Radio St. Pete is a commercial-free station broadcasting local music, local news and event coverage, and podcasts both local and national. Bourdow told the Catalyst: “One morning, I literally woke up and said ‘You know what we need? We need a Radio St. Pete. And I’m going to do it.’ There wasn’t any business plan. I just figured out how to turn it on, and it’s evolved ever since.” Once the 24-hour variety programming becomes all (or mostly) in-house, Radio St. Pete may be a contender for WMNF’s community crown.

Still smokin’

It was September 2020 when Tom White, who’d owned and operated Skipper’s Smokehouse for 40 years, shut the vibey Hillsborough County restaurant, beer hall and hippie-band performance stage down. Covid and trouble with PPP funding had made things difficult, and White had simply had enough. In May of this year, however, Skipper’s was re-born, with White turning the day-to-day stuff over to his business (and life) partner Cricket Larson and others. The food and the drink are back, and the outdoor “Skipperdome” is rocking with live music once again. Sadly, White’s co-founder Vince McGilvra – who’d retired in 2008 – died in October.

Forty years in business – and doing good business – classifies Skipper’s Smokehouse as an institution. Photo provided.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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