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Guardians of Strawberry Festival pageant strive for perfect timing

PLANT CITY

Kerrie Gafford and Gail Lyons sat at the end of the runway marking time on a pink cellphone that served as their stopwatch. One by one, 25 contestants sashayed down the red carpet to perform their routines — in-person advertising spots for local businesses: Parkesdale Farms, Haught Funeral Home, Sisters & Co., to name a few. Gafford and Lyons, co-chairwomen for the 2013 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen's Scholarship Pageant, insisted the girls stay within their allotted 30 seconds each.

"Twenty-four seconds," Gafford says. "Twenty-six seconds," she tells another contestant.

The job of keeping the girls on track — ensuring their routines flow seamlessly one to the next — falls to Gafford and Lyons, president and past president, respectively, of the Plant City Lions Club. The two serve as guardians of an event that has held the community's fascination for more than 80 years.

"The whole purpose of this is not to find a beauty contestant but to find a young lady homegrown in this community, someone who can represent this community," Gafford says.

• • •

As they worked through the last of four three-hour rehearsals last week, their cellphones always close at hand, they referenced two black binders, or scripts, that detailed the pageant's format word-for-word. A Lions Club tradition since 1930, the pageant all comes down to timing, they said.

As if to emphasize that point, Gafford grabbed a microphone and summoned the girls to the runway.

"What we don't want to see is a lot of turns," she explained. "You've got three minutes out there. Don't be twisting and turning. We want you to have fun. Make it sassy. But please don't do it in the evening gowns."

Each year, 30-plus volunteers, from light and sound engineers to ushers to ticket sellers, set aside most of their day on a Saturday in late January to make the pageant happen. At some point prior to the spectacle, many more volunteers, including the club's ladies auxiliary, also pitch in. The planning starts six months in advance.

But it falls largely to Gafford and Lyons to give the pageant sparkle — its production value — and keep the crowd engaged.

The two worked together last year, too. They say they complement each other. Lyons, 59, a manager at Region's Bank, seems steady, experienced.

Gafford, 44, blond hair past her shoulders, bounds with energy. She's a district supervisor for Walmart's health and wellness department in Central Florida.

Neither fills a particular role, each trading on her talents. Lyons is on her fifth pageant as chairwoman. Gafford on her second. Each morning they meet for breakfast at Fred's Southern Kitchen.

"My favorite thing is I want the staging to be fabulous," Lyons said.

Later, she eyed the stage and made a note to herself:

Buy more ferns.

•••

Lyons says she watches pageants and award shows on TV, looking for tips and whether anything on screen can translate to the runway. Sometimes she takes note of the lighting. Sometimes the music catches her attention. The aim is to create energy in the room, she says.

The job isn't easy.

Each of the 25 girls wants her special moment in the lights. But they're forced to adhere to a rigid, scripted routine: A 30-second ad spot, then the casual and evening wear competitions — no more than three minutes each — then judges pare the field to 10 semifinalists.

After that, the introduction of past winners and an impromptu question-and-answer session with the five judges. Then, finally, the list narrows to five and the winner is crowned.

Throughout, Gafford and Lyons hover in the background to gently prod the show along, ensuring the girls — in heels and floor-length gowns — glide through their routines without a hitch.

The two alternated between backstage and out front with the audience.

Lyons feared a girl might tumble, a heel catching a hem, but thankfully that didn't happened.

The show can drag, they said. The trick is to quicken the pace and keep it moving. Last year's pageant ran better than four hours. Gafford and Lyons aimed to beat that this year, sounding a bit like long-distance runners.

•••

Of the two, only Lyons has actual pageant experience. It was in 1972. She was a contestant for Miss Lake City, named for her South Carolina hometown.

She didn't win, but smiles at the memory. She also recalls her talent, singing These Boots Were Made for Walkin'. The memory brings a laugh.

However, that isn't why she's involved in pageants today.

"I have a passion for the Strawberry Festival, so anytime I can be involved with anything to do with the festival I get involved," she says. "As for the pageant, I enjoy being part of young dreams."

Gafford offers a more practical answer: The job fell to her last year as the club's vice president. Passion for the event grew from there.

"There's no doubt it can be contagious, being together with the girls and seeing their transformation over the two to three months we work with them," she said. "We get to see them flourish onstage and come out of their shell. It's amazing. It really is a dream for them."

The dream hasn't changed for eight decades, though getting there evolved with each generation.

The swimsuit and talent portions, once pageant mainstays, gave way in recent years to casual wear and public-speaking competitions.

Last year, the event moved to the Madonia Agricultural Center. Before that, it was held at Tomlin Middle School and then at the festival's Expo Center. Decades ago, the girls strolled and twirled, even posed in swimsuits, in the often chilly night air.

•••

The day of the pageant, Lyons arrived at the center at 10 a.m., ferns in hand.

Gafford walks in two hours later. They check the lights and sound and decorations. A line starts to form by 5 p.m. and eventually the audience swells to more than 1,000.

Last year, a spotlight illuminating the stage caught fire. The small blaze was quickly extinguished and the show resumed a half-hour later, but the episode sent blood pressures soaring.

"We worried we'd burn the building down on our first year here," Lyons said.

No such near-calamities occurred Jan. 26, however.

Gafford's main worry — that a girl will stumble over her words — never materializes. The contestants breeze through their 30-second ad spots. Gafford lets out a breath as the last contestant, Kelsey Morgan Fry, wraps up her segment and exits at the back of the stage. The rest of the night goes smoothly as well.

Fry, a 17-year-old senior from Plant City High School, ends up winning it all. She looks genuinely surprised, hand over her mouth. Shouts and whistles erupt as outgoing queen Chelsea Bowden places the rhinestone tiara on her head.

•••

Gafford high-fives emcees Hanna Hodge Benton and Skip Mahaffey, who duck past the on-stage pandemonium.

Then Gafford looks for Lyons, finally catching her out front as the crowd mingles near the stage. The two hug and laugh.

"Three hours and 18 minutes," Lyons says.

That beat last year's pageant by more than 45 minutes.

"Every year we say we're going to have the best pageant ever and every year it happens," she says. "It gets better and better."

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

Guardians of Strawberry Festival pageant strive for perfect timing 01/31/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 1:24pm]

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