TAMPA — This weekend was to be the weekend, Tampa’s marquee party, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates.
But there won’t be any pirates marching along Bayshore Boulevard on Saturday.
There won’t be beads tossed from over 100 floats to around 300,0000 revelers.
There won’t be live music or fireworks or a pirate ship blasting its cannon.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates is postponed until April 17.
But what if, come April, health officials still think such a large public event is irresponsible?
What if the parade is canceled? It wouldn’t be the first time.
Since the parade was established in 1904, it has been canceled 11 times, mostly a mix of wartime decisions and, surprisingly, a lack of public interest.
“It is such a part of our life now that is hard to imagine a year without it,” the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said. “But it has happened.”
What the krewe calls the first Gasparilla Parade was not its event. Rather, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla marched as part of a Floral Parade during the city’s May Day celebration.
“Undoubtably the greatest and prettiest street pageant ever seen in Florida, and far ahead of anything ever attempted in Florida,” the Weekly Tribune reported in 1904.
The parade through downtown Tampa included civic associations, business leaders and elected officials, mostly on horseback and in carriages, but the Krewe of Gasparilla — named for fictitious Jose Gaspar and made up of men considered today as city fathers — stole the show.
“The brilliantly costumed pirate-crew made a handsome and dashing appearance,” the Weekly Tribune wrote. “It was the greatest feature of the May Festival.”
“Gasparilla II” was how the krewe’s second procession was billed in November 1905, as part of a parade celebrating the opening day of the State Fair.
“The pageant will be the most brilliant ever seen in Florida,” the Tampa Tribune predicted that October.
The pirates returned for the fair in November 1906, but they did not march for the next three years due to a “lack of interest,” Kite-Powell said. “It wasn’t a grand tradition yet.”
“George Hardee, one of the founders and the driving force behind Gasparilla, moved to Jacksonville. Without him, they just didn’t do it.”
The krewe again paraded through Tampa on Feb. 22, 1910, as part of the city’s Panama Canal celebration.
“We were the closest American port to the Panama Canal,” Kite-Powell said. “It was seen as a great boon to the success of our port. So, the city held a celebration.”
The Tampa Tribune reported that the 1910 parade “served to bring out probably the largest number of spectators that ever witnessed a similar event in Florida.”
The Gasparilla Parade was a standalone event for the first time in February 1913 and swelled in popularity each year through 1917 but was canceled the next two years due to World War I.
“It is the general idea that, with the country seriously engaged in war and requiring all its resources to carry the war to a successful conclusion, occasions of mere frivolity and merrymaking be discontinued,” wrote the Tampa Tribune in 1918. “His Majesty and his loyal subjects may make up for lost time and usher in the new era of good will and prosperity” when the parade returns after the war.
An impromptu citizen parade was held in Tampa upon news that the war was over.
“Tampa celebrates the dawn of peace,” was the Tampa Tribune’s Nov. 12, 1918, headline declaring victory.
The newspaper then reported, “Whistles blow, guns fired ... all the fountains of joy were turned loose, and the celebration was one of the old Tampa kind. It reminded one of the palmy days of Gasparilla.”
The Tampa Times announced the return of the real deal in September 1919. The parade held the following February was “one-third larger” than its predecessors, according to the Tampa Times.
The Gasparilla Parade continued as an annual event through 1941. It was then canceled for the next five years due to World War II. The decision was not celebrated by all.
“The more frivolous features of the Gasparilla carnival and the expenditure of time and money on elaborate floats would indeed be out of place,” the Tampa Tribune editorialized on Dec. 15, 1941. “But the parade and perhaps other features of the annual event might well be given a genuine patriotic purpose which would be valuable as an inspiration.”
Tampa resident Helen Porter wrote to the Tampa Times that she worried a lack of a Gasparilla Parade would hurt the economy that was dependent on tourism. In canceling the parade, she said, “Tampa will throw away its greatest drawing card.”
The war officially ended Sept. 2, 1945, and the pirates again marched through Tampa on Feb. 10, 1947. Crowd estimates ranged from 200,000 through half a million.
“Firemen called it Tampa’s biggest crowd,” the Tampa Tribune reported.
The 1991 parade was supposed to be the biggest in the event’s history, to be held the day before the Super Bowl was played in Tampa. But the parade was canceled, this time due to a lack of diversity.
The city and the NFL had pressured the krewe to accept Black members. The krewe called off the event instead.
Still, later that year, the krewe agreed to diversify its membership. The parade returned in 1992 and has remained Tampa’s signature annual event.
“We continue to plan for the 2021 Gasparilla festivities in April, including a number of contingencies that account for the health and well-being of all of our guests,” Peter Lackman, captain with Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, emailed the Tampa Bay Times. “We look forward to capturing the key to the city once again.”