CLEARWATER — Last week, front-end loaders finished moving more than 1,000 tons of Clearwater Beach sand to the inside of a 15,000-square-foot tent on the shore just south of Pier 60.
The granules were sprayed with water, packed down, misted with eco-friendly diluted glue and artistically carved into iconic Hollywood images: boxes of popcorn, reels of film, tickets and movie-themed characters and scenes.
Dubbed the "Beach Walk of Fame," the footwear-optional, walk-through display is the centerpiece of Clearwater Beach's second annual Sugar Sand Festival, an event designed to showcase the barrier island's fine white sand.
The 10-day festival begins Friday and is sponsored by the Sunsets at Pier 60 Daily Festival in partnership with the city of Clearwater.
In creating their themed sand-sculpting exhibit, Mark Mason and his team are using for inspiration a book with photographs from 200 movies. Their tools include shovels, trowels, spatulas, paint brushes, buckets and plywood boxes of various sizes to form wedding cakelike layering.
Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Mason loved to watch as artists built masterpieces from sand during that city's Fourth of July sculpting competitions.
Soon he was wowing judges and beachgoers with his own 3-D artwork.
"I learned you got a lot of attention and you got the girl," said Mason, 50, of Sarasota, now a married father of two.
Over the past 25 years, he has managed to turn his passion for carving sand into what has got to be one of the most amazing careers on the planet. As a professional sand sculptor, he and his Team Sandtastic average about 60 display events a year all over the world, creating everything from fanciful portraitures to big walk-through exhibits like the one on Clearwater Beach.
In 1998, he and his team set a Guinness World Record for the tallest sand sculpture built by hand in less than 100 hours when they erected a sand carousel more than 28 feet tall at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park.
"My profession has allowed me to keep a core group of sculptors busy traveling around the world," Mason said. They've been to the Caribbean, Hawaii, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, the Middle East and all over the United States.
Cost of admission to Clearwater's completed Sugar Sand Walk Exhibit is $8 for adults; $4 for students 6 to 17 years old; and $5 for seniors 55 and up, military, police and firefighters. Those 5 and younger are free when accompanied by a paying adult. The price includes a complimentary 8- by 10-inch "red carpet" souvenir photo for adults.
There are also many free activities during the Sugar Sand Festival, including a professional sand sculpting competition outside the tent, sand-sculpting clinics and speed-building demonstrations, a giant sandbox play area, and fireworks at 9 p.m. April 12.
A Beach Egg Hunt is scheduled for 2 p.m. April 13. Register for $3 at sugarsandfestival.com or pay $5 the day of the hunt. Space is limited, organizers say. Every child will receive a free goody bag.
The Sunsets at Pier 60 Daily Festival will extend its hours from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. during the event. So will the Sunset Cinema, showing a free family-friendly movie on an outdoor inflatable screen every night during the festival beginning at dusk. Jaws, The Little Mermaid, Dolphin Tale and Finding Nemo are a few of the titles. Bring folding chairs and beach towels, as seating is not provided.
Signs on the way to Clearwater Beach say no drinking is allowed on the beach, but there will be an exception. New this year, Frenchy's Sand Bar will serve beer, wine and sangria during the festival from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Live entertainment is scheduled nightly.
The Sugar Sand Festival is considered an early part of Clearwater's Fun 'N Sun Celebration, which runs this year from April 25 through May 4.
In 2013, USA Today's online voters crowned Clearwater Beach the Best Beach Town in Florida. Mason, who has spent days on the beach already, concurs.
"There's no better beach," he said. "It has all the amenities, the Pier, the sea, the sunset. How can you not love that?"
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]