NEW PORT RICHEY — It's 1:45 p.m. on a Wednesday at Richey Suncoast Theatre, and the line for tickets to hear Frank Parsons' Big Band at 2 p.m. snakes through the lobby.
Problem: Only one ticket remains, and at least a dozen people appear to want it.
"Isn't this great?" asks a somewhat frazzled Charlie Skelton, the theater's board president, the day's ticket seller and always all-around go-to guy.
In the past couple of years, Skelton and his wife, Marie, have auditioned several performing groups and signed up three to give monthly shows during the theater season: the singing trio Cover to Cover, the keyboard quartet Florida Keys and Parsons' Big Band. All three groups have seen their audiences grow.
On this particular Wednesday, thanks to last-minute no-shows, tickets that had been set aside for payment at the door and a row of chairs added in the sub-balcony where the light operator usually sits, everyone is eventually seated and happy. They get happier as the 17-piece orchestra takes the crowd on a tour of Kokomo (the Beach Boys version), Georgia on My Mind, St. Louis Blues, Miami Beach Rhumba, New York, New York, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, Chicago, I Left My Heart in San Francisco and a host of other cities.
Parsons plays Charleston, and two women in mink stoles get in the aisles and do the Charleston. Ed Thompson solos on his saxophone in Harlem Nocturne, and the whole crowd goes wild.
Singer Liz Antony (Lecanto), who was once named Ohio's top female jazz singer by the Cincinnati Inquirer, gets the joint jumping with her scat singing in Jumpin' East of Java.
Parsons tells little stories about the upcoming numbers, and the audience gives rapt attention.
"I explain where the songs came from before we play them," Parsons said. "I research them on the Internet."
Parsons retired from a marketing research and data processing job in 1992 and moved from Ohio to Florida. A year later, he organized the band and has been playing ever since. Members come from Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
Three of the original members are still with the band: sax players Bill Paxton of Clearwater and Dick Hertzog of New Port Richey and percussionist/singer Johnnie Russell, also of New Port Richey.
As others dropped out, Parsons recruited from other bands, including three groups he himself is in: Clearwater Jazz Band, Clearwater Concert Band and the Deutschmeister Blas Band, an oom-pah group that plays only during October.
His own band rehearses Thursday afternoons and plays a variety of gigs besides Richey Suncoast. On Saturday, for example, the band is doing Tribute to Glenn Miller at a dinner-dance at 6 p.m. at the Holiday Moose Hall (It's $15. Call 727-937-3897).
On Wednesday, the band will be back at the Richey Suncoast for St. Patrick's Is Coming, featuring the Blarney Rhythm Trio, again on April 16 with BIG Band Theme Songs and May 14 with BIG Band Classics.
Parsons designs each program, picking the songs from his collection of more than 4,000 arrangements.
"I try to pick a theme, just like Lawrence Welk does," he says with a chuckle.
Most of the band members are amateurs who just love music, but some were professionals in their working years.
Trumpet player Fred Nunes (Tampa), for example, was a music instructor for U.S. Army bands. The band's lone female instrumentalist is keyboard player Maryanne Hutchinson of Wesley Chapel.
Parsons has already agreed to eight concerts at Richey Suncoast in 2008-09, with guest artists like Dominic Spero and David Howe.
Individual concert tickets will be $9. An eight-show season ticket is $56; five shows (December-April) for $35, available at the box office until June 30.
The 2008-09 season (with Parsons' comments):
Oct. 22: Fall Oktoberfest
Nov. 19: School Days in Autumn, college marches and autumn songs
Dec. 10: Big Band Christmas
Jan. 21: Good Golly, Gershwin
Feb. 18: Were You My Valentine? ("since we missed Valentine's Day")
March 18: It's Green, St. Patrick ("I have had second thoughts about three St. Patrick's in a row; I might make that one a Latin program")
April 15: Blue, Blues and Bluer ("It's tax time, so we want 'blue' in the title and the blues")
May 13: Big Band Heyday, classics