A panel of judges chose three finalists from among 31 songs. Then more than 13,000 online votes were cast to choose the best in a contest for an official city song for St. Petersburg. The winner, Charlie Souza of North Redington Beach, received 43 percent of the votes for Carry Me Back to St. Petersburg. On Nov. 14 he shared the stage with national acts at the annual Ribfest festivities at Vinoy Park. One problem. Turns out the city already has an official song.
On May 21, 1953, Mayor Samuel G. Johnson made a motion and the City Council voted to adopt I Always Walk in Sunshine as the city song.
So naturally all the recent fuss about a song caught the attention of Seminole resident Sandy Lazar-Bergstrom, whose father, pianist Emeric Lazar, wrote the official song.
In a Nov. 10 letter to the editor, she wrote:
"City Council voted to approve the adoption of I Always Walk in Sunshine as the city's official theme song. The music was written by my father, Emeric Lazar, with words by his dear friend, Ed Lay. My father loved this city and showed it by putting it to music."
A St. Petersburg Times story on May 22, 1953, verifies her claim. And upon further review, so does the city clerk.
Now that we've cleared that up, how did we get here?
"The idea came from the mayor four years ago," said Jenelle Steeg, an information specialist in the city's marketing and communications department. "It was shelved and recently revived."
The city's marketing department checked the archives but didn't find an official city song, said marketing manager Elizabeth Herendeen.
Mayor Rick Baker's book, Mangroves to Major Leagues: A Timeline of St. Petersburg, Florida, has countless details about the city's history but nary a mention of the song.
City Clerk Eva Andujar, whose office keeps track of the city's records, said nobody at City Hall asked her to check on the matter until Tuesday, three days after Souza and his band, the Tropics, performed at Ribfest.
The newly discovered song was sobering news for Souza.
"I'm so disappointed, and it's just not fair to all the people who voted and the folks that took the time to write songs," he said. "I just wish they would have found out earlier (about Lazar's song)."
But Souza isn't giving up on his song.
"I appealed to the city in an e-mail," he said. "The state of Florida has a new song, so why not consider my song that way," he said. "I'm not trying to be a sore loser. I even offered to record the 1953 song."
Herendeen said: "I think there's room for more than one song. There are positive ways of moving forward. We can't wait to hear it."
Souza is eager to hear the older song, too, but noted, "That was a generation ago. Perhaps the new generation would want a runoff."
Baker and City Hall were not alone in failing to realize the city already had a song. Over the years, a radio station and at least three St. Petersburg journalists made the same mistake.
In 1962, just nine years after the City Council adopted Lazar's song, WSUN, the city's municipal radio station, came up with a catchy jingle, Wonderful Town! Wonderful People!, that it dubbed the city's new theme song. The song was played all day to celebrate the radio station's 35th anniversary.
A decade later, the Sunshine City Band, a local professional group, decided to revive the city's official song and play it for three days in Williams Park as a reminder. "Band Revives City's Theme," said an Evening Independent headline on Jan. 7, 1972.
The reminder didn't take, however.
On Oct. 21, 1979, Times columnist Dick Bothwell wrote, "St. Petersburg needs an official song … If you think petty civic pride is motivating me, you are quite right." The column goes on to reveal that Miami, a chart topping Latin rhythm, was the inspiration for his muse.
On July 15, 1981, Jon Wilson of the Evening Independent wrote: "You know what St. Petersburg needs? Somebody perceptive enough to write a song about it. Somebody to write a book or cut a record. Somebody with a dream."
On Nov. 1, 1982, Evening Independent editor Robert Stiff blasted a Bradenton Herald columnist for making fun of our fair city and suggesting that the city "needs ... a good hit song." Stiff also quoted a letter writer who said he had written a song that was approved by a mayor's committee and accepted as the city's theme song. Not!
So, just who was the composer of this often overlooked part of the city's history?
Lazar, an accomplished pianist, was born in Budapest and educated there and in Paris. He was part of a command performance for King George V in 1931.
During World War II he was imprisoned by the Nazis and released in 1944. While playing in a Red Cross nightclub, he met his wife, Hedwiga, a U.S. Army nurse. The couple moved to St. Petersburg in 1948 after spending two years in New York.
Lazar played classical music at the Penguin Beach Club and later became a fixture at the Princess Martha, Suwannee and Soreno hotels before embarking on a career of teaching young people to play the piano. He died in 1984.
A scholarship program in his honor was begun in September 1983 by the Music Teachers Association of Greater St. Petersburg.
His daughter is just glad that her father is getting credit for his song again.
"In honor of my father, I just want him to have credit for having done that," said Lazar-Bergstrom. "I feel it necessary to give credit where credit is due."
Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this column. Sandra J. Gadsden is editor of Neighborhood Times. She can be reached at (727) 893-8874 or email@example.com.