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As Hollywood glamor swirls, Winter the dolphin sticks to routine

CLEARWATER — The mayor stood on a balcony of the Sandpearl Resort. He looked like Evita at sunset, welcoming the big top to town as a jazz band jangled.

Nearly 100 journalists mingled with movie stars and sipped blue vodka with dolphin swizzle sticks. They nibbled carved roast beef and sushi, picked flesh from whole red snappers served before sweating ice carvings of waves.

Los Angeles offered the movie Dolphin Tale on a publicity platter worth millions, a spectacle Clearwater has never seen before. Producers hired gorgeous actors and apple-cheeked kids to tell the story of Winter, the tailless dolphin.

Everyone's standards, it seemed, had grown through the process. But one individual remained sweetly oblivious.

A mile away, a dolphin floated in a tank.

• • •

Winter rested sideways in her tank at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a petite gray crescent moon pressed against an aquamarine wall.

She was smaller than the highway billboards belied. She slept a lot, rolling back and forth, sinking her gaze just below the water with the proverbial one eye open, ready to rouse at a flashing notice.

Dolphins are notoriously smart, some say only second to humans. They enjoy attention and snuggles. They know what's going on around them. But they can't consult their trademark attorney or request green M&Ms sorted into a crystal bowl. They can't know they are movie stars.

On a sleepy Friday, Winter woke about 6 a.m. and chirped to her tank buddy, Panama. It was a pretty fruitless conversation, because Panama is deaf.

She practiced some animal husbandry, like getting into stretchers and working with weights.

She ate 2 pounds of capelin and silversides. She repeated this helping six more times.

She painted some pictures for fans, holding a brush in her snout and moving it on a canvas.

She played with a purple ball and a blue and white barbell. An instrumental version of Cheeseburger in Paradise played above.

She swam side-to-side like a fish without her prosthetic tail.

She slept some more.

• • •

In a banquet room at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Friday, Dolphin Tale posters lined the walls. On them, a boy swam toward Winter's bottle nose. Winter bore a slight smile, heavenly lens flare gleaming over her head. Harry Connick Jr. stared middle-distance from the poster's apex, tan and serene.

Two makeup artists caked foundation on TV presenters.

They would get four minutes each with six movie stars, and if they were good, they got a treat at the end — a digital card with video footage.

They ate french toast, bacon, almond croustade with strawberries and pain au chocolate. They drank Perrier, Red Bull and Starbucks Frappuccino.

A producer signaled press into the rooms. They sat in front of Morgan Freeman and talked, and when time was up, the producer swirled a finger in a loop, not too different from a trainer teaching dolphins to spin.

A makeup artist was stationed at the aquarium, too, with Winter. But hardly anyone came.

• • •

Several times a day, Winter and Panama do a show. They are introduced as "Our resident movie star, Winter, and her best buddy, Panama!"

Since Panama is endowed with a tail, she does flashy stuff such as riding upright across the pool and splashing guests. Winter waves her little fin at the crowd. She shows off her pink belly. She tries on her prosthetic tail and swims like a dolphin, up and down. She jumps on a green pool mat and floats, and it's the cutest thing you've ever seen.

"She was a scene-stealer," said Annie Freed, 58. "I feel a little bad for Panama."

Freed came from Sarasota with her daughter, Stephanie Martell, a 40-year-old with a disorder called Williams Syndrome. Panama's splash drenched Martell. She dried off while a trainer let her hold Winter's tail. Her eyes gaped and twinkled.

"I'll never forget this day as long as I live," she said.

People visited the gift shop to buy T-shirts, stuffed Winter dolls with removable tails, key chains, travel mugs and books that told her story with dazzling cinematic stakes.

Winter had more time alone. She portioned one tiny silverside fish, swam to the bottom of the tank and stuck it in the grate. She dragged a buoy around, then dived back down to toss the fish up toward the surface.

She did it again and again.

Times movie critic Steve Persall contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

As Hollywood glamor swirls, Winter the dolphin sticks to routine 09/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 11:14pm]

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