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Reigning over Plant City's Red Rose Inn is Evelyn Madonia, star of its commercials

PLANT CITY — Before the camera rolls and Evelyn Madonia extols the wonders of her Red Rose Inn, she wants makeup. Lots of makeup.

"Are you ready for sparkles?" the makeup artist kneeling in front of her asks.

"Always."

Madonia is the face of the Red Rose Inn, a woman who proves that elbow-length gloves can be worn regularly in the 21st century.

She shows up in Tampa Bay living rooms about 100 times a week, in cable TV commercials. She owns 52 ballroom dresses and apologizes if caught without her fake eyelashes.

She's not vain. She's a perfectionist.

Madonia reigns over a world she created at Interstate 4 and State Road 39, Plant City's main drag. The hotel is a crossroads for people searching for a bygone era, or sometimes just a good steak and entertainment. Visitors come from Plant City for dinner and dancing, and they travel from Ocala, Orlando and St. Petersburg to stay the night.

It is a world built on a foundation of tomatoes.

Forty-five years before she and her husband invested $4 million into fixing up a rundown inn, they started a tomato business.

She worked in the farm's office, pounding out invoices on a portable typewriter for East Coast Brokers and Packers. She cut back her duties five years ago, but she still heads to their Mulberry farm most days to oversee operations with her husband.

"She can get her hands dirty and do the work, and then she can dress up and be a movie star," said her friend Betty Pawlowitz. "And she's still very humble."

Madonia, or Mrs. Evelyn as much of her staff calls her, has the grace and posture of a pageant queen. She was one, at age 17. That was 54 years ago, though she'd rather you didn't do the math.

"They'll think I'm a fossil," she said.

Anyway, she feels 17 again when she hears her favorite doo-wop songs.

Growing up, she loved Elvis Presley and the Platters. She would listen to them on the radio in her dorm room at Mercyhurst College in Eire, Pa. The nuns didn't mind, as long as the volume was low.

Even then, the clothes mattered. She helped women choose outfits at the clothing store where she worked, and she wore hoops under her dresses for special occasions.

"When I went to school, people said I didn't just have clothes," she said. "I had outfits."

When she eloped with Batista Madonia at age 20, she was in such a hurry that she forgot makeup. So they went to a drugstore. Then, they bought the rings.

They married on a Monday in April during the cherry blossom festival in Winchester, Va. That was 51 years ago.

After Madonia graduated from the small all-girls Catholic college in Erie, she started teaching English and having babies, while running the tomato business that she and her husband started.

But that wasn't always her dream.

During her freshman year, she and a friend concocted an idea: They would move to New York City, and Evelyn would star in commercials to be broadcast on the black-and-white TVs popping up in American living rooms.

"They had people selling, oh, my God, just about anything," she said. "I thought it would be really fun being on television and doing the commercials."

But her mother wanted her to finish school first.

The idea would come up again, decades later.

• • •

Before the Madonias arrived, the hotel was a rundown Ramada Inn, something you might expect along Interstate 4. But locals remembered its prime in the 1970s. She thought she could bring it back.

She envisioned a theme of Gone With the Wind. And so every detail at the inn is grand, from the enormous baroque-style mirrors in the lounge to the floor-to-ceiling dark green velvet drapes in the ballroom.

Of course, there's music. Madonia schedules live performances in the Red Rose's lounge most nights, and on weekends the dance floor is packed. She contacts talent agencies to bring in doo-wop groups, Motown singers and celebrity impersonators.

On weekends, after the sun sets and the fiber-optic "stars" shoot across the lounge ceiling, Madonia is in her element.

"The music makes you want to dress up," she said. "It makes you want to be fine. All the gentlemen wear tuxedos. They have class. I love music."

So do the guests. The dance floor was crowded on a recent Saturday night, as the suave Johnny Alston swayed in his red alligator leather shoes, crooning a Barry White cover into the microphone.

Most nights, in the buzzing dining room, Madonia commands attention. She wears sparkling gowns; her red hair (inspiration for the "Red" in the hotel's name) drawn into a smooth bouffant, her fingernails flashing color, gold glittering around her neck.

The tuxedo-clad waiters flit about her like worker bees. Visitors often leave the dance floor or momentarily abandon their cocktails to greet her.

"We noticed this woman in the crowd who people kept going up to all the time," Lakeland resident Pawlowitz said about her first few visits to the inn, three years ago. "People kept going up to her table and shaking her hand."

So Pawlowitz did, too. They've been good friends since.

"She's genuine, and she opens her heart up," Pawlowitz said. "It was a rough time for me, moving to Florida, because my father passed away, and she was just a very good listener."

Madonia loves the inn, loves how the glamorous dresses and music make her feel. But her family and faith are foremost. All four of her children live nearby, and three of them work at the family's tomato business.

They go to St. Clement Catholic Church in Plant City, except when Madonia visits Nativity Catholic Church for the Sunday night youth Mass. She loves the upbeat music.

The Madonias own land in Hillsborough County, Polk County and Virginia. They have about $16 million worth of property in Hillsborough County, records show. They live in Plant City.

Madonia tries to keep a rosy view. She likes Hallmark movies with happy endings and Thomas Kinkade paintings awash with light.

After she learned that Norman Rockwell's cousin lived in Clearwater, Madonia hired Jessica Rockwell to paint seven family portraits.

She wakes up at 6 a.m. to attend to details. She sits down at her computer and opens e-mails, corresponds with the staff and schedules performers.

Madonia says she's addicted to her inn. She loves being surrounded by music and entertainers and people having fun. "It's better than taking a vitamin. It puts the wind in my sails. It keeps me energized," she said. "It makes me want to keep going. It makes me want to live to be 100."

Long enough to get a few more ball gowns.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Reigning over Plant City's Red Rose Inn is Evelyn Madonia, star of its commercials 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 10:28pm]

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