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MONSTER BASHES // Key West builds a reputation as the place for raunchy revelry

Nothing, not the pounding, tropical beat of a band nor the sweet smell of rum, can shift the gaze of this crowd.

They're crammed around a podium outside Rick's bar in the center of Duval Street, snapping photographs and shooting videos to take home. Mostly, they're staring.

On the platform, an artist is spray-painting pink and blue flowers all over his canvas _ a woman with cropped blond hair and a ring through her belly button. She wears a G-string, white socks and boots. That's it.

Californians George and Ella Page are scrambling for a new roll of film. The Pages stopped in Key West on their way to a convention of funeral home directors in Orlando. They are great-grandparents. They didn't know what to expect from Florida's southernmost city.

"Key West puts San Francisco and Los Angeles to shame," 66-year-old George says. "This place is fun!"

A woman in a bikini climbs onto the podium. An artist paints a fetus on her pregnant stomach.

This is Fantasy Fest. For 10 days Key West, a town known for accepting the creative, the funky, the wild, becomes a caricature of itself.

Laws about drinking on public streets are forgotten. Vendors pour rum runners in "Fantasy Zones" in the center of town.

Business owners remake building facades to suit this year's Hollywood theme: "Tinseltown Dreams Lights, Camera, Fantasy!" Creatures from E.T. on bicycles seem to fly from the porch of one inn. Dozens of cardboard birds swoop around a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock on another.

Pet owners dress their dogs as Carmen Miranda and Fred Astaire. Residents decorate their mopeds and bicycles (the hippest way to get around Key West unless you have a VW Thing) in tinsel and balloons.

Most of all, people transform themselves.

Greg Jordan dons a Superman suit, blond wig and sparkling red nails to become "Super Girl." Joan Cassidy wears a U.S. Postal Worker's uniform and carries a plastic machine gun. "All in good fun," she says. Others simply parade through Old Town in their underwear.

Or less.

Al Kee stands behind his table of sponges, shells and postcards at the edge of the United States, toweling beads of sweat from his face.

Kee's table is the only licensed business at this intersection of Whitehead and South streets, a hopping tourist crossroads because of the buoy planted here: "Southernmost point in the Continental U.S."

A pink bus pulls up and its passengers rush out to get photos near another sign: "90 miles to Cuba." The group picks through Kee's table.

Fantasy Fest has come a long way from its simple start 17 years ago. Local business leaders then staged a one-night Halloween costume party as a way to perk up tourism during this resort town's slowest time of year.

Fantasy Fest has grown into a 35-event schedule and Key West's biggest draw of the year. Festival officials estimated that 50,000 partiers attended Saturday night's final parade, doubling this town's population and filling the more than 6,000 hotel rooms. Willard Scott even broadcast the weather from here this year.

To Kee, the festival parallels the growth Key West has seen since he was growing up here, when the sponge trade was successful and cockfights were popular. But Conchs, as native Key Westers are known, don't mind change, he says. Or much of anything.

"We're laid-back," Kee says. "We don't make decisions too quick. We don't go anywhere too quick. That's a tradition here, being laid-back."

But the locals are split on Fantasy Fest. Some love the live-and-let-live party. Others tire of the hoopla: the crush of traffic on two-lane U.S. 1, the parking problems and the stench of garbage and old beer left behind.

"I'm over it," Jessie Anthony Jones says of Fantasy Fest.

Just down from Kee's table, Jones, a bearded man in a flannel shirt, is making flowers. He slivers a palm tree leaf, folds it again and again, then smashes it against a wall. Voila. It's a rose.

Jones can't sell them because he has no license. So he hands them to tourists, then accepts a $2 "donation" if they'll give it.

He scoffs at the very words, Fantasy Fest, but Jones will take the added customers.

Key West's most famous local, writer Ernest Hemingway, left this town in 1940, decades before Fantasy Fest arrived.

"But I think he would have actually liked it," says Raquel Grove, who leads tours through his airy, former house on Whitehead Street. "He was very disciplined about working. He was also disciplined about his entertainment. He loved it."

Sushi, gyros and funnel cakes are selling along Duval Street Friday afternoon. Massage therapists offer neck rubs. Vendors dole out stick-on tattoos, Mardi Gras beads and feathered masks.

"I'm having a ball," says Shelina Blue, as she poses for a snapshot with another flushed tourist. Blue is wearing a black net dress. It's see-through. A passing man in a toga kisses her hand.

Still, David Wilson tries to hold court. "Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins," he calls out, pacing the street with his Bible. Three other young men, who say they represent Christian churches, carry huge wooden crosses by his side.

"Only when you get on your knees," Wilson cries, "will you see God and his spirit."

"Oh, lighten up!" a woman yells back. "Go to hell!" A man in short shorts walks by waving a coconut in each hand. A man in black leather strolls by carrying a plastic dummy wrapped in duct tape.

Fantasy Fest has faced opposition in recent years from religious groups who claim its brand of fun is nothing but sinful.

It was the 1992 parade, local religious leaders say, that went too far. One float was actually a pickup truck carrying a couple engaging in simulated oral sex.

"It's this atmosphere of: Come into Key West and do whatever you want," complains Elmira Leto, a local businesswoman who arranged a community meeting after the infamous parade. "There are some people trying to make it into a town that's not what Key West is."

So Key West leaders got tough. In 1993, drinking was limited to certain areas and more police were brought in. The result?

"It was a dud," says Virginia Panico, executive vice president of Key West's chamber of commerce. "It wasn't fun."

So the city leaders are back to the old ways. As one woman likes to say, they put the "F" _ for Fun _ back into Fantasy Fest.

Key West's 77 officers were on the streets for Saturday's parade. They got help from Monroe County sheriff's deputies, Florida Highway Patrol and the marine patrol. Still, their instructions were to keep order, but gently.

"If you take your trousers off, for instance, they try to get you in line," explained Jack Smith of the Key West Hotel-Motel Association. "You've got to really do something wrong to get arrested."