History seeps through the brick streets of Ybor City. Songsters and gangsters, hand-rolled cigars, bolita games and boliche feasts, all part of a unique Cuban-Spanish-Italian immigrant experience.
Within the community, elders spin tales of ancestors and interlopers on both sides of the law and the poverty line. They think Ybor City's colorful history is a movie waiting to happen, its streets and stories perfect for the screen.
Two Polish-Italian brothers from New Jersey agree. Pete and Paul Guzzo are familia to Ybor residents already impressed by their Ghosts of Ybor film projects, which so far include a romantic short subject and a crime documentary. Next on their to-do list is a feature film on the neighborhood's pre-World War II music and mobsters, appropriately titled Ybor City.
"Every filmmaker is looking for a twist, a story told in a new light," director-producer Pete Guzzo, 29, recently said. "Ybor hasn't really been told to the world."
The Guzzo brothers are still learning Ybor's history themselves. Paul, 32, has a screenwriting edge as an English-language reporter for La Gaceta, Ybor's trilingual newspaper. After nine years, Paul has plenty of contacts within the community. But the idea to chronicle Ybor's history on film came from Pete, a University of Tampa film/video school graduate who works for Tampa Digital Studios.
Together the brothers operate 1 Day Films, their production company, and have teamed up for public access TV projects and shoestring-budget movies. An actor from their 2006 comedy 99 urged them to produce a drama, and so Paul wrote a script. Pete considered it his best material, but he had reservations.
"Pete thought we needed to do a film we could sink our teeth into," Paul said. "He's like, 'Why don't we make it a timepiece that takes place in historic Ybor?'
"I threw 3-zillion curse words at him for the next week as we tried to figure out how that would be possible with no money."
Paul gave in and rewrote the screenplay, now titled The Ghosts of Ybor: The End Is Blossoming, with local historical references dropped in. The brothers called signature locales such as the Cuban Club and Centro Asturiano to see if they could film there. Word quickly spread through social clubs that the Guzzos planned to dramatize Ybor's storied past.
"People donated wardrobes and props, and we realized this was something completely possible to do," Paul said. "It was crazy. A lot of old-timers were excited to see that this could actually happen, that there could actually be a film about Ybor.
"As indie filmmakers, you can really only go as far as the community is willing to support you. In Ybor, everybody was stepping up."
The End Is Blossoming premiered at Channelside Cinemas in 2007. More than 400 people attended, mostly Ybor residents curious about how their community would be represented. A standing ovation at the film's conclusion let the Guzzos know how they felt.
Later, The End Is Blossoming made the festival circuit, including an Oklahoma showcase where extra chairs were needed to accommodate crowds.
"Afterwards everybody was asking, 'Where did you shoot that film?' " Pete said. "Everybody was infatuated with Ybor's history and the architecture. That's when we figured we stumbled upon something and we should keep going with it."
The Guzzos set out to produce a series of 12 short films under the Ghosts of Ybor banner.
Paul interviewed author Ace Atkins about his book The White Shadow, a biography of 1940s mobster Charlie Wall, known as the Robin Hood of Ybor. Atkins liked The End Is Blossoming and suggested Wall as a documentary subject, offering his sources to the Guzzos: detectives and reporters who trailed Wall. The more questions the brothers asked, the more sources who wanted to answer.
"The list of people who wanted to be interviewed got so big that we put everything else on hold to do the documentary," Paul said.
The Ghosts of Ybor: Charlie Wall combines interviews and period re-enactments in fascinating fashion. It has become the Guzzos' calling card as they round up investors to finance Ybor City, a 1940s love triangle steeped in Spanish opera, a changing cigar industry and Italian-Cuban mob conflict.
They hope to shoot the movie on location in Ybor, although potential investors prefer New Orleans or New Mexico, where tax incentives are better than Florida's slashed state budget allows.
The movie currently is budgeted at $5-million, but Pete said Ybor City could be locally produced for $1-million, without as many artistic flourishes.
Depending on outside money also could warp the way the story is told.
"One broker told us, 'Well, the first thing you need to do is put more murder in it,' " Paul said. "That bothers me.
"It's a mob movie with gangsters but it's more about this city, adjusting to a dying cigar industry, coping with the fact that the Spanish Civil War has ended and the side they were backing lost.
"Money people are going to want to turn it into a gangster film."
Whatever happens with Ybor City, the brothers vow to continue resurrecting the community's ghosts.
"There's an infinite number of Ybor stories that we could capture on film, Pete said. "Almost every day we'll get a phone call from someone who saw the documentary or the short: 'Here's another story my father told me.'
"I thought we'd know everything about Ybor at this point but we're still getting twists and turns we never heard before. We can be as colorful as we want from now until forever."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or [email protected]. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.