TAMPA — Paul Ecenia watched Japanese planes drop bombs on Pearl Harbor, including his own barracks. He dodged bullets on an island near the Battle of Midway, and later on the beaches of Normandy and the frozen rubble of Bastogne.
He emerged from those famous World War II battles more determined than ever to stick to his childhood dream of becoming an actor, of singing and dancing and telling jokes on stage.
It almost worked out that way.
After the war, Mr. Ecenia did some acting in community theater and in a few horror movies. For a few years he also owned a nightclub, one of the last in the Tampa Bay area that used a song-and-dance, variety-show format.
He had diverse interests, collecting everything from 16mm films to weapons to movie magazines, and was equally diverse in civic involvements. For example, he might be the only member of the Latin American Fiesta Association to help found the St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church.
His career as a 40-year owner and operator for Allied Fence allowed Mr. Ecenia to live an entertainer's lifestyle. He threw famous theme parties attended by singer Nelson Eddy and members of Hillsborough County's circus fraternity.
Mr. Ecenia, an inveterate performer who wanted to share his childlike humor with the world, died Dec. 23. He was 91.
He told his family about being unable to sleep the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, while stationed with the Army in Pearl Harbor. So he roused his buddies from the Schofield barracks for a game of volleyball. No sooner had they gathered outside when the first wave of Japanese planes attacked, blowing up half the barracks.
Mr. Ecenia was hit by shrapnel. His injuries weren't severe enough to keep him from a grim duty: hauling bodies to the morgue.
"Very much later in life he said, 'There was not much else to do but morgue duty,' " said daughter Tandova Ecenia-Oberst.
Mr. Ecenia went on to serve in some of the war's most high-profile battles while also organizing variety shows for entertainment.
"He just had whatever knack it was or spark it is that makes emcees good," said Ecenia-Oberst, 58. "He could get people to participate, to have a good time, to sing along. He could tell an awful, corny joke, and people would just be on the floor."
As a performer, he wasn't too shabby himself. In 1944, the World Armed Forces named Mr. Ecenia its jitterbug champion. He left the military with the rank of captain, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and seven battle stars.
In 1945, he married former Women's Army Auxiliary Corps member Rita Vann, a professional singer he had recruited for one of his shows.
They started a family and moved to Tampa in 1954. Mr. Ecenia woke the children each day with a stack of records on the record player — from Mitch Miller to musicals to the polka.
In 1955, Mr. Ecenia opened the Bowery, a waterfront club on Madeira Beach. It closed after three years, in part because it was too much work for a moonlighter who was still running the fence company, his daughter said.
In 1972, Mr. Ecenia and his wife moved into a home they built in West Tampa. They hosted parties in a special room stuffed with 1950s knickknacks, a 14-foot bar and an electric train running around the perimeter.
Eddy, the singer, and Wizard of Oz munchkin Jeane Drake were guests, as were members of the acrobatic Zacchini family, who performed in circuses. At each of Mr. Ecenia's birthdays, he and his wife hosted a theme party. They threw a monster party, a hobo party and a "suppressed-desire party," in which guests came dressed according to their fantasies.
Mr. Ecenia acted in and produced two horror films in the early 1970s, Scream Bloody Murder and My Brother Has Bad Dreams. He collected more than 2,400 films as well as movie magazines dating to 1916.
"He had movies in big cans. He would have projection parties, showing this movie and that movie," said former "human cannonball" Hugo Zacchini, who remembers watching Inherit the Wind and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at Mr. Ecenia's house. "We would go there and watch them."
Mr. Ecenia was born in New York City, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant who sold smoked fish in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.
Declining alertness forced Rita Ecenia into assisted living five years ago. Mr. Ecenia visited her there, and inevitably led residents singing Disney's It's a Small World, one of his favorite songs.
"He would get all the ladies and these guys with dementia," said his daughter, "and he would have all of them singing and clapping to that song."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]