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Dance with the dead

Published Oct. 2, 2005

(ran TP edition)

Shake your mojo, bang your gong,

Roll up something to take along,

Feels so good that it must be wrong

Freakin' at the Freakers Ball.

_ Shel Silverstein, Freakin' At The Freakers Ball

Every culture has a special day of the year when the rules and mores of society are temporarily suspended. These holidays may serve as pressure valves, allowing individuals to blow off the steam of a year's worth of civility. Then again, perhaps people just love a good party. The French have Mardi Gras, the Germans have Oktoberfest, the Americans have New Year's Eve, the Eskimos have Sacred Blubber Day. (Okay, not really).

At Skipper's Smokehouse, where the constraints of society are a relaxed fit to begin with, the special day is the Freakers Ball, a thematic costume party filled with music, libation and irreverence. This year the theme is "Dancin' with the Dead" _ a mutant hybrid of the Mexican holiday and Deadhead culture _ with Tampa's Garcia-inspired Estimated Band serving as musical host.

"It's the one night of the year I drink on duty," says Skipper's co-owner Vince McGilvra. "And one of the few nights we go past midnight. The ball ends when the hounds start baying or the neighbors shut us down. All the employees and staff really get into it."

We're sitting at an outdoor table under the "SkipperDome," and McGilvra is reminiscing about some of the Freakers Balls from the last 17 years. He has brought out a cardboard box filled with half a dozen weathered photo albums, and the snapshots serve to spark his memory.

"The Roach!" he says, handing over a tattered Polaroid. "That was something. This guy crawled around all night in a giant bug suit."

"Remember the Aquarium Head?" asks M.J. Williamson, a Skipper's deckhand who passes by our table. "This woman had a tank with water and fake fish on her head. That was the best costume."

For Bonnie O'Connor, another crew member, the best costume was Table Dude, a piece of human furniture with a head for the centerpiece. "People kept setting drinks on him, so he'd get stuck where he was. I had the best time watching him try to move around."

As the pages of the photo albums turned, stories and memories began to flow. There was the band of white guys dressed as black pirates _ the Yo' Mystic Krewe. There was Bag of Dope, a walking misdemeanor that walked off with a prize. ("It wasn't the most creative costume," says McGilvra, "but the crowd really liked him.") There was Naked Guy, some weirdo who ran around in the buff _ Skipper's gave him an impromptu Special Item on the Menu award: shrimp.

And who can forget Jason, the goalie-masked murderer who annually rappels down from one of the giant oaks surrounding the 'Dome, chainsaw aroar. (By day, Jason is a licensed tree surgeon who tends to Skipper's trees. Other chainsaws would likely be unwelcome.)

People tend to go all out with their costumes for the Freakers Ball, but with good reason: Skipper's gives good prizes. This year, the big win is a trip for two to the Bahamas.

The key to a prize-winning costume, McGilvra says, is originality, not expense. Store-bought costumes, by the way, are ineligible.

"We're looking for creativity and effort," he adds. "And we use mystery judges _ that way, they can't be bribed."

In years past, judges have included radio DJ Russ Albums, TBPAC's Wendy Leigh, USF Theater's Nancy Cole, and the late artist/warlock Vandercarr. This year, the judge is . . .

"I can't say," McGilvra says. "It's a secret."

Another secret, one shared by some 500 Skipperites each year, is that the Freakers Ball captures the spirit of fun, not just the spirit of alcohol.

"This is a party party," Vince says, "not just a get-drunk-and-fall-down event."

The sun is setting beneath the crooked roofline of the Skipper's compound, and the evening's entertainment begins soundchecking the PA system. Rather loudly. This interview is coming to an end.

"Shlabada blubbo gree," McGilvra says, rising up from the table.


"He has to go pee," says Vicky Szempruch, another Skipper's mate from way back when. "Did he tell you about Table Dude and Naked Guy?"

Yes, he did. But thank you, and have a freaking good time.