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Think Gasparilla is rowdy now? 50 years ago, guns were everywhere.

Here’s an earful: We kids used to scramble for bullet casings, not beads.
Don Thompson and Edwin Nelson Jr. are pictured at the 1928 Gasparilla Parade. Thompson was King of Ye Mystic Krewe that year.
Don Thompson and Edwin Nelson Jr. are pictured at the 1928 Gasparilla Parade. Thompson was King of Ye Mystic Krewe that year. [ Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library ]
Published Jan. 17, 2020
Updated Jan. 17, 2020

When I was a kid, going to the Gasparilla parade came with a price: three or four days of deafness afterward.

I grew up in Tampa in the 1960s. From about the age of 7 through college in the 1970s, I rarely missed a pirate parade.

I’m always bemused when I hear people complain that the parades now are too rowdy and rough, not the family-friendly celebration they used to be.

Listen, people, in the ’60s the pirates didn’t carry beads. They carried guns. Lots of them.

Today, the public is prohibited from bringing in weapons of any kind. But take a look at historical photos of the parade from the 1940s on, and you’ll see almost every pirate merrily brandishing a handgun in the streets. (Shotguns were banned at Gasparilla in 1927 after a pirate fired at a blimp.) Some guns might have been fakes or starter pistols, but most were the real deal.

Fake bullets and fake wounds were what the well-dressed pirate brought to the invasion in 1975.
Fake bullets and fake wounds were what the well-dressed pirate brought to the invasion in 1975. [ Times (1975) ]

At the Gasparilla parade when I was 8, my dad commented to a friend about one pirate’s handgun, saying, “He must have brought that one back from Germany after the war.”

It left me befuddled. Admittedly, in third grade I was no historian, but I was pretty sure there hadn’t been any pirates fighting the Nazis in World War II.

Related: See Gasparilla photos from every decade since the first invasion in 1904

Within a few years, it made more sense. I’d figured out that the scary, scarred, staggering pirates were just pretend, that behind the bad wigs and bourbon breath were Tampa’s movers and shakers. By the time I was in my teens I could pick out my family’s doctor, lawyer, dentist and veterinarian on parade day — most of them old enough to be WWII vets.

The pirates were fake, but their guns were real. The sound of several hundred of them blasting away for a couple of hours as they ambled along the parade route would leave my hearing muffled for days.

I have no recollection of bead-tossing during the parades of my childhood, and archival photos from those years show not a strand in sight. Pirates and skimpily clad “wenches” on some of the floats did toss Gasparilla coins of stamped gold-colored metal, and kids scrambled in the street for them. You had to watch it, though; many pirates rode horseback, and their mounts left their own deposits along the route.

Bloodthirsty pirates stalk Tampa's streets in 1967.
Bloodthirsty pirates stalk Tampa's streets in 1967. [ Times (1967) ]

The real prizes, though, were shell casings. Even though all those handguns were firing blanks — at least we hoped so — they popped out thousands of spent brass casings.

If you grabbed the casings as soon as they hit the street, you found out they were hot enough to burn your hand. But most kids seemed undeterred. I remember some pirates standing in one spot and firing round after round into the air, laughing as children crawled around their boots for the casings.

In 1988, the parade was on a Saturday for the first time in 75 years. Because of the extra crowds, the Tampa Police Department told pirates they could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor if they didn’t turn in their guns at the end of the parade route.

Ye Mystic Krewe said its members had always turned in guns to private security workers. The Rough Riders, a group that dresses like Teddy Roosevelt’s soldiers, had not. But that year they agreed. Ye Mystic Krewe formed the Gunner’s Guild to oversee the firing of cannons and run a gun safety course, requiring pirates to pass a test and to pick up their brass.

In 1994, the Times obtained a copy of the krewe’s confidential Pirate’s Log. Among other guidelines, it said: “A .38 Special revolver is by far the best choice for a pirate weapon. It has the loudest report and has the most common ammunition size. ... Cannons will be used by the official cannoneers only. No exceptions. (Page 21)." And, “You will board the buses (to the parade area) promptly. ... No firing of pistols in the buses is permitted. (Page 26).”

Pirates from Ye Mystic Krewe shoot their guns in defiance after Tampa Mayor Dick Greco refused to surrender the city to their captain, Fred Dobbins, in 2003.
Pirates from Ye Mystic Krewe shoot their guns in defiance after Tampa Mayor Dick Greco refused to surrender the city to their captain, Fred Dobbins, in 2003. [ Times (2003) ]

For decades, the guns were as integral a part of the parade as the domination of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, which was all white, all male and, along with a handful of other exclusionary krewes, happy to stay that way. With the 1991 Super Bowl coming to Tampa, national attention focused on the parade’s fossilized traditions. A coalition of black Tampa residents asked Ye Mystic Krewe to integrate; instead, it canceled the 1991 parade. An event called Bamboleo went off instead.

In 1992, the parade was back, with changes that eventually led to more diverse krewes, some 70 of them this year.

These days, we don’t see guns blasting off around children the way I once witnessed, and it’s certainly not as loud. But the pirates do still fire some blanks. Ye Mystic Krewe sent this statement about the current policy:

“As part of our safety program, for decades only Krewe members who have undergone comprehensive safety training are permitted to fire blanks from specifically designated floats.”

Guns and cannons are loaded repeatedly during the Ye Mystique Krewe of Gasparilla ride through downtown Tampa.
Guns and cannons are loaded repeatedly during the Ye Mystique Krewe of Gasparilla ride through downtown Tampa. [ Times (2008) ]

Want your very own blast from the past? Look around online and you can find something called a Gasparilla Pirate Cannon, a 17-inch-long replica of a Civil War-era Dahlgren gun that fires 10-gauge shells, yours for about $1,000.

But spare me the nostalgia for a kinder, gentler Gasparilla that never was. I’m glad to leave the gunfire, and the bigotry of those bad old days, in the past.

Times staff writer Christopher Spata contributed to this report.