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RENAISSANCE FESTIVAL // PIER 60

Perhaps it's fitting that Pier 60 would put on a Renaissance Festival as its largest event yet; the pier itself has undergone a rebirth since it began its Sunsets at Pier 60 festivals in March.

"I like to say, if you haven't been to Pier 60 lately, you haven't been to Pier 60," said Pam Pettinato, Pier 60 Society event coordinator.

The pier will be transformed into a Renaissance marketplace Saturday, complete with madrigal singers, a Celtic harpist, staged combat in armor, street performers and artisans.

The event is produced by the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Society of Creative Anachronism, a Renaissance reenactment and cultural preservation group with chapters worldwide.

If it's hard to picture knights battling it out with armor and swords along the Gulf of Mexico, that's the point of doing it, Pettinato said.

"It's never been done on the beach before," she said. "But it's something that has mass appeal. It crosses all generations."

Pier 60's own renaissance was influenced by the world-famous sunset-watching festival at Key West's Mallory Square.

"I started on this a year ago. We spoke with people in Key West and they came here and saw what we had and said it's a great opportunity," said Gerri Raymond, beach liaison with the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce. "And they've been right."

But while Key West sometimes draws a raucous crowd, Pier 60's managers are gearing their vendors and performances to attract families. "Nothing outrageous," Pettinato said.

On a recent evening, against an auburn sunset, a crowd of about 100 watched acrobat Dextre Tripp juggle fire batons while balancing on a rope tied high between two palm trees.

"It's a good thing you're not afraid of heights!"a woman shouted.

"I got over that a long time ago," Tripp answered without missing a beat.

It's that spontaneity and audience interaction that seems to draw buskers (what street performers call themselves) to places like Pier 60.

"You take a piece of pavement like this," said Wade Henry, a Toronto marketing analyst-turned-street-performer. "And it becomes a performing amphitheater."

A rainy summer put a damper on Pier 60's summer visitor projections, but the winter tourist season is expected to make up for it, Pettinato said. She estimates about 200,000 people have visited the pier since it began more than eight months ago.

Despite uneven crowds, local agencies appear supportive. In September, after a trial period, the city of Clearwater officially made the Sunset Festival a permanent event. On Nov. 16, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council honored Pier 60 for adding to the area's quality of life with a Future of the Region Award The city also is building a park on the north side of the pier approach and concession area. Both are set to open next year and will include a covered playground, an entertainment pavilion, picnic tables and a permanent concession stand.

Raymond envisions continuous entertainment by mimes and clowns in the expanded area, and she expects the pavilion to draw big-name musical acts.

"As it gets bigger," she said, "it will get better."

IF YOU GO

The Pier 60 Renaissance Festival will be 2 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Pier 60, off Mandalay Avenue just south of Causeway Boulevard (State Road 60), Clearwater Beach. Sunsets at Pier 60 are two hours before to two hours after sunset, Thursday through Monday. Admission is free, but there is a parking fee. Call 449-1036.

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