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How Ybor City parties inspired the sets of Avengers: Infinity War

The core group behind The Artists & Writers Balls (from left) Bebe Williams, Beverly Coe, Bud Lee, Charlotte Lee (child), Paul Wilborn, David Audet, Scarlett Coe (child), Parker Lee (child), Peggy Lee, Steckley Lee (child).  [Credit: David Audet]
The core group behind The Artists & Writers Balls (from left) Bebe Williams, Beverly Coe, Bud Lee, Charlotte Lee (child), Paul Wilborn, David Audet, Scarlett Coe (child), Parker Lee (child), Peggy Lee, Steckley Lee (child). [Credit: David Audet]
Published Jun. 1, 2018

Thanos has nothing on Plant City native Charlotte Lee.

For the Avengers: Infinity War baddie to alter the perception of his surroundings, he needed a Reality Stone, which, according to the Marvel movie's lore, was a remnant of one of six singularities that predated the universe.

Charlotte Lee's job was to help us see that universe.

Sound daunting? She was qualified. All she required to reimagine reality was a scrap yard, plus lessons she learned at the feet of her late father, Bud Lee, and his Ybor City artist cohorts.

Charlotte Lee, 37, worked on Infinity War as a set decoration buyer, one of two on that production and its still-untitled sequel. Over 18 months, she scoured the country in search of items to complete physical backdrops.

The destruction crowding the interior of Thor's spaceship in the opening scene, for instance, was mostly chicken processing plant machinery she found in a Georgia scrap yard. The weapons foundry on planet Nidavellir was made in part with equipment she collected from a century-old abandoned steel mill in Alabama. As with most of her purchases, these were then seamlessly blended into the scene's computer generated imagery, or CGI.

"Like my dad, my job is to make worlds out of strange stuff," she said.

From the late 1970s through early 1990s, her father, Bud Lee, hosted legendary annual themed parties called the Artists and Writers Ball in Ybor. For one party, he turned the Cuban Club into a futuristic world by creating robots with heads made of the sphere light bulbs that adorn Ybor's street lights.

"Never just see an object only as it is presented to you," said Charlotte Lee, who now lives in Atlanta. "I don't know if this ability to see possibilities in objects is something I was born with or something I learned from watching my dad."

Bud Lee, who died in 2015 at 74, turned commode chairs into thrones and shopping carts into royal caravans.

"Smoke and mirrors," said David Audet, Charlotte Lee's godfather and an Artist and Writers Ball designer. "It's the artist way. It's the ability to look at something and reimagine it. That's what Charlotte does — on a much larger scale than we did."

Sometimes, she would simply purchase chairs or lamps for Infinity War. But other times, she had to find items that could look futuristic or apocalyptic. Shuri's Infinity War lab in Wakanda, for example, was adorned with basic machine parts and aviation scraps she hunted down. And the destruction seen on Thanos' planet of Titan was enhanced with power station coolant systems.

"You have to consider the man hours of building everything or doing everything with computers," Charlotte Lee said. "I can find options for what they need."

The movies she works on are an extension of her father's legacy.

"Charlotte grew up in this hot house of creativity," said Paul Wilborn, an Artists and Writers Ball planner.

A native of New York, Bud Lee rose to renown as a photographer who snapped pictures for publications such as Rolling Stone and ran in the same circles as Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini. In 1967, he was named Life photographer of the year for his coverage of the Newark riots.

During his travels to Europe, he learned of parties in France in the 1920s where artists and models got together, came up with a theme, then dressed and acted the part for the evening. When he settled in Tampa in the 1970s to teach art, he decided to start his own version.

"He wanted to do it in the Cuban Club, which I thought was crazy because it was so big, and we had no money," said Audet. "But he said, 'This is America. Stuff is everywhere. Go out and find stuff.' And we did."

Bud Lee was not averse to Dumpster diving, begging or borrowing — sometimes without permission.

"The lights in Ybor always seemed to be missing bulbs in the days before the ball," Audet said. "But we didn't know anything about that."

Each year had a different theme, and thousands of attendees wore costumes.

For Daughters of the Bizarro, discarded newspapers became a psychedelic jungle of colorful flowers and vines. Bad Taste In Outerspace had a science fiction vibe. During the Disney-Dali Cartoon Ball that sought to imagine a child birthed by Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, planners made a giant melting Mickey Mouse watch from donated art supplies.

These parties inspired other regular art events in Ybor and turned the sleepy district still reeling from the loss of its cigar industry into the hippest place in Tampa.

"Bud energized us all," said Wilborn, who in 1985 helped found Ybor's signature Halloween event, Guavaween. "We just wanted to make his ideas happen."

Year round, piles of what others would call trash littered his Plant City home's back yard.

"My dad loved to just say, 'Let's make stuff,'" Charlotte said. "And we would."

They'd carve sculptures out of foam insulation meant for hot tubs. And she still possesses a piece of old carpet her father told her to use as a canvas when she was a little girl. On it, she spray painted a family portrait.

After learning what set buyers do, it became her dream job. Her big break came via Tyler Perry's The Haves and the Have Nots television series. She has since also worked on Allegiant and Spider-Man: Homecoming, among other productions.

"It's all inspired by my dad," Charlotte Lee said.

When she was 11, her school bus stopped in front of Plant City's Southern Hospitality furniture and craft store. A friend tapped her on the shoulder and asked, "Is that your dad?" while pointing to the Dumpster.

"It was," she said. "He was Dumpster diving for supplies. Now, I Dumpster dive for a living. I know he'd love what I am doing."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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