TAMPA — Mario Núñez keeps the nostalgia moving with the easy patter of a deejay.
He dings a bellhop's bell to announce first-time callers. He hawks Joe and Son's Olive Oil, Caracolillo coffee and other local sponsors. And he jokes, jives and jabs with guests, often signing off with "We love you, brother.''
He, wife Sally and pal Steve Cannella host The Tampa Natives Show, devoted to reliving the Tampa of the past, particularly the '50s, '60s and '70s.
It's another Thursday on the local public access cable channel, the TV outlet open to the average Joe, and this evening's calls are sparked by a home movie of the old Lowry Park. The grainy film from the early 1960s depicts the little zoo before it became world-famous Lowry Park Zoo, a time when visitors could engage a piano-playing duck — just drop a coin in the slot; watch the monkey chase the kiddie train; go for a mild ride on the roller coaster; or visit Fairyland, where Humpty-Dumpty, Snow White and other storybook characters were brought to life in rain-proofed papier-mache.
Caller Dale Kimball of Lutz, a regular viewer, reports that "tears of joy'' welled when he watched the video. It reminded him of times his father took him to the park and let him play for hours.
"That's beautiful, Dale,'' Mario says. "Thanks so much for touching our hearts with that story tonight.''
Old Lowry Park, Tampa Jai Alai, Shakey's Pizza, the Tampa Tarpons at Al Lopez Field, Tampa Stadium when it was the "Big Sombrero,'' these are the relevant topics of the hourlong show that has aired at 7 p.m. Thursdays on the Tampa Bay Community Network for nearly four years.
It's impossible to know how many people watch it, says Louise Thompson, executive director of the network, because the cable companies don't track it. But she does know it gets a lot of calls.
Mario Núñez isn't surprised.
"When we talk about things that no longer exist and touch that nerve, which is really more like a heartstring, they just want to talk about it,'' he says.
Opening credits roll along with pictures that serve as flash cards of natives' collective memory: wrestler Dusty Rhodes in action, morning TV country singer Ernie Lee, TV fishing commentator "Salty Sol" Fleischman, kiddie show host Mary Ellen and other iconic images, all to the Latin rhythm of I Remember Tampa, the theme song written by native Mike Baluja.
Even their gimmicks say old Tampa. They hand out small prizes to guests with the winning "bolita'' number, harkening to a widespread illegal gambling game played for decades by Tampa's citizenry, essentially the game that's now called Florida Lotto.
At the end of each show, the hosts hoist mugs and toast viewers with "Salud and happy days!'' It's the toast that TV sports personality Andy Hardy and restaurateur Manuel Beiro made in countless commercials for Valencia Garden, which closed in 2009 after 82 years.
Mario, who grew up in the '60s and '70s, is obviously comfortable in the role of TV host and acts like he has been doing it all his life. In a way, he has — from the aisle of an airplane, having spent his career as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
"I told people that I've been working the room for the last 30 years. It's just that my room is 22 inches wide and 200 feet long. If you're a flight attendant, you've got a captive audience.''
He says he has never been shy. "My grandmother had a lot to do with making me feel special, making me feel like I hung the moon … So I never knew any different.''
Not so with his co-hosts. Both say it took a while to adjust.
"I was petrified of being in front of the camera,'' says Sally, known as "the 15-minute girl.'' At first, all she did was walk before the cameras with a sign signaling that the show had 15 minutes left. Finally, she got comfortable enough to sit in front of the camera and pitch in with commentary. Though she wasn't born in Tampa, she falls within the show's native requirements. She arrived from Atlanta at a young age and shares the memories, like walking with friends to the Britton Theater to watch Saturday morning kiddie movies.
Cannella, a.k.a. "Tampa Steve,'' remains a tad uncomfortable in front of the camera, but he's a regular Johnny Carson compared to when he started. He introduces film and pictures and waxes nostalgic about Tampa natives being like a family. He recalls his wide-eyed, tongue-tied debut, mimicking Jackie Gleason's nervous babble — "hamana-hamana-hamana.''
Tampa Steve actually started it all. He set up a Facebook page in 2009 in hopes of finding how many Tampa natives still live here. He met Mario Núñez a few months later at a party for Jefferson and Hillsborough High alumni, and they combined to build the Tampa natives' site, which now has more than 4,000 followers. On Sept. 1, 2010, they launched the show.
Each week, they throw out a topic for callers, such as "Thanksgiving in Tampa,'' or chat with a guest. Among the natives who have made appearances are Patrick Manteiga, editor of La Gaceta; state Rep. Janet Cruz; Jamie Urso, king of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant' Yago; and Jack Espinosa, comedian and author of the Tampa memoir Cuban Bread Crumbs.
To the hosts and fans, it's a delightful walk down memory lane. To the University of South Florida, it's oral history.
Andy Huse, librarian and archivist in special collections at the USF library, is archiving the shows for posterity. They aren't like formal oral histories done by academicians, he says, and "I think that's what its strength is. Academia tends to make everything too formal and unapproachable for many people.''
So, 200 years hence, researchers trying to capture the mood of Tampa in the 1900s may check out The Tampa Natives Show, where they will learn that if you sat at the top of the first base side of Al Lopez Field, you could turn around and watch what's playing on the screen of the 20th Century Drive-In.
They would also find the perfect toast to the good old times: "Salud and happy days!''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.