Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the grandaddy organization that started Tampa’s signature parade in 1904, will have the rare occurrence of four generations of one family, ages 10 to 95, participating in the cavalcade this year.
Richard S. Clarke Sr., 95, known as Dick to his friends, joined in 1950. His life has been a history of legacies, from the Peninsular Paper Co. founded in 1911 that he took over after his father died, to the multigenerational involvement in the exclusive organization that founded and still coordinates the annual parade. They are the marauders that invade Tampa on a fully rigged pirate ship they built as a legion devoted to mythical pirate Jose Gaspar.
There have been many multigenerational and well-known families in the krewe’s membership, such as the McKays, the Lykes and the Lowrys, whose names appear on street signs and local landmarks. Although Gasparilla is a citywide party, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla traces its roots to when Tampa was a small town, and this elite group still organizes the event.
The Clarkes may have hit that sweet spot of having a boy old enough to be a royal page and a patriarch still alive and participating at age 95, said historian Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center. He hasn’t found such an occurrence in his search of Gasparilla records.
“This certainly embodies the multigenerational aspect of the krewes,” Kite-Powell said, “and how entrenched Gasparilla is in our history.”
Their story intertwines with Tampa’s and Gasparilla’s history, and they have stories to tell.
The lineup on Saturday will be Dick Clarke, who will sail with the flotilla on the krewe’s “Royal Barge” instead of the rowdy Jose Gasparilla pirate ship, which will have hundreds of pirates hanging from every yardarm plus guns and cannons going off as it leads a dramatic flotilla of private boats to “invade” the city.
The next generation of krewe members includes Dick’s son, Richard S. Clarke Jr., 69, who joined the krewe in 1973 when he was 21, though he had also been a royal page for the krewe when he was 10 years old. He is famous for once accidently dropping a .67 caliber black powder flintlock pistol into the bay just as the pirate ship arrived. He was dramatically poised over the edge of the boat to shoot off the loud and messy gun when it slipped from his hand. It took him two weeks of fishing with magnets to retrieve it.
His son Bryan Clarke, 38, a Tampa veterinarian, has been a krewe member since 2015.
Bryan’s son Hudson Clarke, 10, a fifth grader at Carrollwood Day School, has joined the family this year as a royal page, which means he will be in full pirate regalia throwing beads and foam dice to a crowd estimated to number about 300,000 — one of the largest parades in the country.
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Hudson has been practicing a sidearm throw to be able to whip the beads far into the crowd.
“You got to throw Frisbee style and I try to aim for their gut so you don’t hit them in the eye,” he said.
His father Bryan identifies with the unusual childhood.
“You grow up and you watch your dad and your grandfather and your whole family get made up and putting costumes on,” Bryan Clarke said. “As a boy growing up in Tampa you wait for the day.”
He once brought a friend from college who grew up in New York City to Gasparilla, “and he could not believe what we pull off here.”
After 73 years on the krewe, Dick Clarke, who in 1977 was crowned King Gasparilla LXIV, has a piratelike twinkle and many tales. He first watched the parade as a little kid, when some of the floats were pulled by horses and donkeys and the pirates threw spent bullets into the crowd. The floats, like the ones for the old Maas Bros. department store, were even bigger than today’s modern floats, and glamorous women were a big part of the float decorations.
He recalled the time one of his fellow pirate friends pulled out a Get Out of Jail Free card from the Monopoly game from his wallet when a policeman told him he better move on after the parade. It worked, of course, because that’s how old Tampa rolled, he said.
Then there was the time Jimmy Dean saved the day — the “Big Bad John” country singer better known these days for his name on packages of sausage and bacon. Singer Robert Goulet, the baritone of Broadway who was a fixture on TV variety specials, was the scheduled performer at Curtis Hixon Hall for the coronation ball in the mid-1970s. When Goulet became too inebriated to take the stage, Dean, who happened to be in the audience, grabbed the mic and finished the show.
“I was the master of ceremonies and he came off the stage reeling and jabbering, said he was going to sing ‘Camelot,’ and he made no sense. And Jimmy Dean, the sausage king Jimmy Dean, came out of the audience and saved my ass. He carried Robert Goulet off the stage and finished the show.”
The Clarke family has witnessed the evolution of Gasparilla, from its booster beginnings, to its raunchy phase of bare-breasted women flashing for beads and intoxicated revelers urinating in yards with impunity. And then there was its stand-down with the NFL and civil rights leaders over the krewe’s failure to accept Black members. After canceling in 1991, a racially integrated Krewe of Gasparilla was joined in the 1992 parade by two new krewes — Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O’Malley, the first all-female group, and the Krewe of Libertalia, with a predominantly Black roster that also included white and Hispanic people and women.
“We did the right thing,” Dick Clarke said. “Today’s parade is much cleaner and much better, but it’s awfully big.”
Being a member of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla is no easy feat. Costumes of velvet coats, tricorner hats, boots and vests can cost hundreds of dollars. The pirates pay for what they throw, spending hundreds each on beads and trinkets. There are dues to pay to the organization as well, and many balls and parties to attend.
Richard Clarke estimated krewe members easily spend $6,000 to $7,000 a year. And to be a captain or king is even more because they are the hosts of their parties and balls, increasing their cost “by a factor north of 15 to 20.”
The krewe is fairly secretive about how many members it has or how many openings it allows every year. Past reports have estimated 600 to 800 members, but the organization would not confirm a number. A prospective member has to have a sponsor and a board vote to be welcomed.
“Yes, it’s a lot of fun, but I do it because the krewe does a lot of good with a huge scholarship fund, visiting hospitals, Make A Wish,” Bryan Clarke said. “So there’s some really good work. But beyond just a good time, the impact on the city of Tampa I don’t think is easy to measure. It has become a central theme of the city.”
The day itself can be grueling, starting in the morning at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club where a boozy milk punch loosens up the krewe and makeup stations get them ready. They head to the ship, march in what can sometimes be hot weather in heavy costumes and end the day 10 or 12 hours later roaming through downtown Tampa.
“Every good pirate can walk 20 miles on Bud Light, fried chicken and a Cuban sandwich,” Bryan Clarke said.
Dick Clarke said he was thrilled to have his kids and grandkids follow in his cavalier boots.
“When you think you put 250,000 to 300,000 people on the street with less trouble than we used to have,” Dick Clarke said, “you kind of feel proud that you have grown up and become mature enough to make this a great thing for the city.”
If you go
Gasparilla Parade of Pirates: The Jose Gasparilla pirate ship flotilla will show up from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday to capture the city of Tampa and then share their wealth of beads and doubloons with a lively crowd along the 4.5-mile parade route. The parade begins at Bay to Bay and Bayshore boulevards. It continues along Bayshore Boulevard to Brorein Street, turns east on Brorein Street, then heads north on Ashley Drive. The parade ends at Cass Street and Ashley Drive. Free. 2-6 p.m. Saturday