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Fabled Ybor rooster puts the fun in funeral

TAMPA — Umbrellas, feather boas, tinsel and a tiny coffin draped in red cloth.

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As the New Orleans-style funeral procession filed past, some standing outside Ybor City's Orpheum nightclub scratched their heads. Others reached for beads.

Michelle Vrooman, 43, of Tampa was happy to oblige, handing out the multi-colored strands draped across her right arm.

The Rooster Parade, with all its goofiness intact, was back Sunday afternoon, even if many of those watching couldn't fathom what was happening or why the annual poultry parade had dropped off the scene five years ago.

None of that seemed to matter.

What mattered to the roughly 75 costumed mourners was the memory of James E. Rooster, the wild chicken that roamed Ybor's side streets until his death in 1997 at the paws of a stray mutt.

"It's just so foul the way he died," deadpanned Vrooman, who participated in the parade.

An annual rite since the rooster's demise, the mock funeral procession took a hiatus after crowds had become too large. Then-organizer Tommy Stephens, who erected a tiny backyard memorial to the bird, would cap off each procession with a raucous kegger at his house on 19th Street and Sixth Avenue that lasted well into the night.

"There were hundreds of people and it was getting to the point where the city wanted him to pay for security and get a permit. It just became a big project," said girlfriend Pam Vopper. "It was too much money."

Enter David Audet, a director for the Artists and Writers Group, a nonprofit organization that stages art, literature and performance events around the Tampa Bay area. He asked Stephens if he wouldn't mind if the group resurrected the procession. Stephens, who did not attend because of a business trip, agreed.

"I just think it's important to preserve Ybor's traditions," Audet said.

The crowd, decked out in boas, sparkly dresses, umbrellas and hats festooned with plastic and fabric beaks and wattles, assembled in a parking lot outside Al's Finger Licking Good Barbecue.

They marched two abreast up 18th Street to Gaspar's Grotto, then turned east to the Dirty Shame pub, concluding at the bird's backyard grave marker. It lasted about 45 minutes.

"I thought it went pretty well," Audet said. "We would have been happy if 20 people had showed up." He couldn't say whether the event will return next year — "We'll see," he said.

Some of the "mourners" tossed cracked corn onto the fowl's marker. Others thumbed through scrapbooks and newspaper clippings that Vopper had assembled on tables.

"Every time we would take a drink, we would pour out a little bit for the rooster," said Nipum Kumar, 24, a pharmacy school student. "He liked Stella Artois."

Rachel Zablocki, 26, of Tampa thought it ironic that the event was tagged dog-friendly. She processed with her black Labrador retriever, Felony, by her side.

"She likes chickens," Zablocki said. "In fact, she had some of my chicken dinner a little while ago."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2454.

Fabled Ybor rooster puts the fun in funeral 08/19/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 20, 2012 12:30am]
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