Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

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 [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.

 
Comments
Suspect in Gilchrist deputies’ slayings has Tampa Bay ties

Suspect in Gilchrist deputies’ slayings has Tampa Bay ties

The man identified as the suspect who fatally shot two Gilchrist County deputies in a restaurant Thursday afternoon before taking his own life has ties to the Tampa Bay area.Deputies say John Hubert Highnote, 59, of Bell — who was found dead outside ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Forecast: Scattered showers could dampen weekend plans across Tampa Bay

Forecast: Scattered showers could dampen weekend plans across Tampa Bay

Scattered showers and thunderstorms could pester Tampa Bay throughout the weekend, culminating in a peak chance of rain early next week.A small cold front will meander over the bay area by Friday afternoon but should have little affect on the area, t...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Portion of I-75 closed in Sarasota due to smoke in road

Portion of I-75 closed in Sarasota due to smoke in road

SARASOTA — A portion of southbound Interstate 75 is closed in Sarasota County due to smoke in the road.According to broadcast reports, smoke from a prescribed burn in the area has settled over the roadway. The roadway is closed at mile marker 205, ne...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The Daystarter: Tampa Bay students to stage walkout; ‘Crabby Bill’ Loder dies; details emerging in deputies’ killer; breaking down the Bucs’ 2018 schedule

The Daystarter: Tampa Bay students to stage walkout; ‘Crabby Bill’ Loder dies; details emerging in deputies’ killer; breaking down the Bucs’ 2018 schedule

Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what to know today.• A dry cold front moved through the bay area overnight but it won’t affect temperatures much. It might be a little cooler in the North Suncoast, but that’s it. Bay area highs will stil...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Fugitive suspected in Bradenton woman’s death arrested in Texas

Fugitive suspected in Bradenton woman’s death arrested in Texas

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — A woman suspected of killing her husband in Minnesota, then fleeing to Florida and killing a woman who resembled her in order to assume a new identity, was captured Thursday night at a South Texas resort.Two federal deputy...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Flight attendants say ‘appalling’ Southwest flight photo confirms it — you’re not paying attention to the safety demo

Flight attendants say ‘appalling’ Southwest flight photo confirms it — you’re not paying attention to the safety demo

Mario Nunez called it a "huge shaking my head moment" when the photo inside the cabin of Southwest Airlines flight 1380 appeared on his TV. The story was about a terrifying emergency landing after an engine exploded 20 minutes into a trip from New Y...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Carlton: Kids, want to make them listen? Vote

Carlton: Kids, want to make them listen? Vote

Today across America, high school students are expected to walk out of class in their latest show of solidarity against gun violence and elected officials unwilling to do much about it. It marks a grim anniversary — 19 years since Columbine bra...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Today: Area high school students to join national walkout in memory of Columbine

Today: Area high school students to join national walkout in memory of Columbine

High school students from both sides of Tampa Bay will commemorate the anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings on Friday, although in very different ways.In St. Petersburg, students from several schools will gather at noon at City Hall for...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Published: 04/20/18