CLEARWATER — While about 400 humans waited for the waterbird celebrity to be introduced, a high-pitched shout was heard from the front of the crowd.
The voice belonged to Macie Perry, 8, of Philadelphia, one of many excited children who gathered at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Friday to welcome to the city another of the stars from the movie Dolphin Tale: Rufus, an African great white pelican that provided comic relief in the film.
However, when the big moment came Friday, it was two white pelicans known as Lucy and Ricky who were introduced.
"What a lot of people do not know is that there were two birds (who played Rufus)," said David Yates, CEO of the aquarium.
Fans of the film released last year know that it was inspired by the true story of Winter, a dolphin living at the aquarium. Her tail was destroyed when she became tangled in a crab trap line, but she survived and has thrived at the aquarium after being fitted with a prosthetic tail.
Since the movie debuted, tourists and movie fans have flocked to the aquarium to see Winter. But children often also asked: Where's Rufus?
Yates said it made sense for the popular character to be housed where Winter lives, and Ricky and Lucy were familiar with the aquarium because much of Dolphin Tale was filmed there.
So about five months ago, the aquarium contacted Birds and Animals Unlimited, a training company in California and the owners of Ricky and Lucy. The birds were born in Florida, but had been moved to the West Coast for their Hollywood careers. A deal was hatched for Lucy and Ricky to move to Clearwater, though Yates would not say how much the aquarium had to pay to get them.
"They knew we would take care of the animals down here," Yates said. "Our staff fell in love with these animals during filming. When they left it was a sad day for us."
Tony Suffredini, who trained Ricky and Lucy, attended the welcome ceremony Friday.
"I think from the get-go they wanted the birds here and we wanted the birds here. So, it worked out great," he said. "It's a really good place."
Ricky and Lucy, both 7, are experienced actors — they also appeared in You Don't Mess with the Zohan, featuring Adam Sandler — but on Friday they were laid back about their latest debut. Ricky, who did most of the walking scenes in the movie, was kept in a glass case. Lucy, who performed the movie's flying sequences, did a runway walk, mingled a little, flapped her wings and ate fish.
The birds may appear in other films, but for now the aquarium is focused on giving Ricky and Lucy a home. While they will live at the aquarium, they also will make appearances at Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, an exhibit of movie props and re-created scenes in downtown Clearwater's Harborview Center.
The birds will be an additional draw for the aquarium. Since the release of Dolphin Tale, attendance there has skyrocketed.
"(Rufus) will surely bring in more people, without a doubt," Yates said. "A majority of them come from outside our area and travel here primarily because they saw the movie."
At Yates' request Friday, everyone yelled in unison, "Welcome home, Rufus!" to the two birds.
Pelicans in captivity can live into their 60s, so the aquarium hopes for a long and happy life for Ricky and Lucy.
By the way, unlike their show business namesakes Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, this Ricky and Lucy are not a couple. According to Yates, they're just friends.
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or [email protected]