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Tampa's 1958 Snow Show was an epic fiasco

It was supposed to be a winter wonderland.
Three million pounds of snow were placed on Franklin Street for the Great Tampa Snow Show. [Times files]

Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 25, 2003.

TAMPA - It was supposed to be a winter wonderland.

When Beach Park's Howard Hilton was planning the Great Tampa Snow Show, he envisioned smiling kids, Santa Claus spreading good cheer, frolicking reindeer and lots of snow. A giant Christmas tree would hulk over the festivities, and there would be a massive, five-story ski slope.

Instead, Hilton's eight-day event turned into the most flawed spectacle in Tampa history.

The event took place 45 years ago and was designed to promote downtown businesses during the Christmas season. Even though hundreds of thousands came to the show, it resulted in 47 lawsuits, three dead deer and several sunburned seals.

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Hilton and his partner at Hilton & Gray Advertising Agency, Bill Gray, had been hired by the Greater Tampa Merchants Association to create a seasonal promotion.

The concept was simple: Hilton, then 32, wanted to create a winter carnival similar to what he had in college at Dartmouth. He pitched the idea, and his plan caught on; influential downtown business owners and others contributed substantially.

To create a festive atmosphere, the concept was to close five blocks of Franklin Street and cover it in ice and snow.

Tampa doesn't exactly have tundralike conditions. So how does one cover Franklin Street in 3 million pounds of snow?

Hilton looked up "ice" in the Yellow Pages and picked a place at random. His finger settled on the City Ice Co.

After Hilton explained the situation to Emmett Stewart, who primarily made his living icing down shrimp boats, Stewart volunteered his company's services free - in exchange for his daughter being used in publicity photos and named queen of the snow show.

City Ice Co. trucks would grind 300-pound ice blocks into " snow," to be placed along the road and the ski slope.

The event received plenty of coverage, from local media to publications as large as The New York Times. Among the invited guests: Norwegian ski jumping star Leif Svendsen, who was to inaugurate the show with the first run down the slope.

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Things pretty much went downhill from there.

Did anything work out the way Hilton had hoped?

"That's a good question," Hilton said. He paused for a few moments and thought. "No. I can't think of a thing."

Before the show, the governor of Minnesota promised to ship "The Nation's Tallest Christmas Tree" to Franklin Street. Bad idea.

A logging company built a makeshift road through the North Woods and felled a tree, then a bulldozer pulled the tree along the road toward railroad tracks. There the tree was loaded onto a train to Tampa.

Unfortunately, the tree snapped when the train rounded a bend in central Indiana.

The governor decided to try again. But road conditions had deteriorated, and the bulldozer sank in a quagmire and couldn't be retrieved until spring.

Politics came to the rescue. The mayor of Duluth, considering a run against the governor, offered a tree.

The third tree made it safely to Tampa, where it was to be raised on Franklin Street. Engineers dug into the road to provide a stable resting place, and everything appeared to be fine. The tree was gently placed into the hole.

Suddenly, the tree sank - right through a city sewer line.

"A surge of disgusting goo oozed up from around the tree, gushing up and swirling over the tree's lowest branches which now rested flat on the roadway; the trunk was no longer visible at all," Hilton wrote in his unpublished autobiography. "Unaccountably (and I thought, undeservedly), people started giving me dirty looks as the odious, repugnant glop slurped relentlessly over gutters onto sidewalks."

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It took days to repair the street, clean the tree and lift it.

One of the biggest problems was something Hilton couldn't control: the weather. Temperatures were in the high 80s for the Nov. 19 through 26 show, a heat wave that caused the snow to melt quickly. Band leader Jack Golly remembers how difficult it was to keep the slope covered.

"It was just ridiculous," Golly said. "They had that snow machine blowing out there. By the time the top was covered with snow, the bottom would melt."

That didn't bode well for Svendsen, the Norwegian skier who was set to kick off festivities that morning and night by sliding down the ski slope.

To make things worse for Svendsen, six college students had decided to toboggan down the slope the night before his 10 a.m. run. Their stunt knocked snow from the slope, exposing the chicken wire underneath.

But Svendsen was a trooper. He was willing to go down the slope anyway.

"He raced down the two-hundred foot slide to the excited screams of the crowd, hit the icy ski run at the bottom, careened unsteadily for a hundred feet or more, and then tumbled head-over-heels, skis and poles flying, to the horrified gasps of the onlookers," Hilton wrote.

Svendsen could have been hurt - or at least knocked out of sorts.

But he remained a trooper. He returned to the top, and his second attempt went perfectly.

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Others' rides down the slope didn't go quite so well that day, though.

Several tobogganers from the University of Tampa tried the slope after Svendsen.

The first group crashed, as did the second. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, Hilton wrote.

By opening night, the crowd had grown far larger than Hilton had expected. It was later reported by BusinessWeek that 30,000 people attended that night, Hilton said.

Things were spinning slightly out of control. Several people had been arrested for throwing ice balls, and several store windows had been broken. And following its dangerous opening act, the slope was temporarily closed.

The promotion of the slope, however, was one of the things that drew people to the event. The crowd was outraged when it was announced the slope was closed.

Fearful of a riot, Hilton did what he felt he had to do: brave the slope himself. He paid three men $10 each to ride a toboggan with him down the slope.

The ride itself went fine, but, Hilton wrote, "In holding the side ropes which ran along the edge of the toboggan, my knuckles were scraped raw by the chicken wire covering the slide."

Though snow was added overnight to the ski slope, the second day of toboggan rides was no less dangerous than the first. Two women were hurt when their toboggan crashed. One had a possible broken back, the other a possible concussion.

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The slope was closed - permanently.

One of the other events was Jack Kelly's Ice Frolics, at which 20 skaters performed on an ice rink.

The show was to take place three times a day, with the rink free the rest of the time for anyone who wanted to skate.

On opening night, however, the show lasted just 20 minutes.

That night, the crowd pushed in so tight to see the show that the front row was jammed against the edge of the 4-foot-high stage. The show started well, and all was fine until its first-half finale. That's when one sequined skater whirled and twirled, kicking her skate in the air.

The skate hit a woman's forehead, slashing it.

The music and skaters stopped performing, and the injured woman was taken to Tampa General Hospital. Thankfully, Hilton said, the injuries were not serious.

The snow show's ice problems didn't stop there.

WFLA radio built an ice cube that Hilton said was 8 feet high and weighed 8 1/2 tons. It was placed in front of Maas Bros., the city's major department store at the time.

WFLA had decided to stage a contest for "The World's Largest Ice Cube." People entered their guesses about how long it would take for the cube to melt; the grand prize was a trip to the Swiss Alps.

The cube was melting rapidly, but someone, wanting it to melt even faster, sprinkled rock salt on it.

That wouldn't have been a problem, but some sections melted faster than others. As Hilton wrote, "It began to look like an upside-down pyramid."

WFLA officials built a 2-foot fence around the cube, but on the day before the show was to conclude, the fence didn't do its job. The cube fell on a 5-year-old girl, pinning her to the sidewalk.

Thankfully, Hilton said, the girl wasn't seriously injured.

Even Santa was a source of problems.

Several Santas were hired for the show, and one made false promises to children. When kids sat on his lap and listed Christmas wishes, he told them they could pick out gifts free at Maas Bros.

Mothers blamed Maas Bros. for false advertising, and its sales promotion manager called Hilton to complain.

Hilton approached the Santa - and discovered the source of Santa's rosy cheeks. Santa had a straw running from his beard to the flask inside his shirt pocket.

That Santa got canned.

But believe it or not, this was the lesser of the show's Santa woes.

Clark's Credit Clothiers was allowing the show to use a dressing room for the Santas to change into costume. That worked well until one Santa stayed hidden in a dressing room until the store closed.

When the coast was clear, Santa broke through the wall to the building next door, Hayman's Jewelry Store. Santa practically cleaned out the place.

Ho, ho, ho.

Six penguins were to have been donated to the show from Buenos Aires, Argentina. It should come as no shock that they never arrived.

The penguins were quarantined indefinitely in Lima, Peru, because of the threat of parrot fever, a rare infectious disease that causes pneumonia in humans.

But their story is far less tragic than what happened to the show's seals and deer.

In his autobiography, Hilton admitted event organizers were negligent in the treatment of the two seals that had been borrowed from Lowry Park Zoo. Their pool was too shallow, exposing portions of their backs to the sun.

Animal rights activists weren't pleased the seals were left with blisters the size of grapefruit halves, Hilton wrote.

In the end, event organizers provided a bigger pool for the seals and kept the animals under close watch.

At least the seals lived. Three deer made an even bigger sacrifice.

One week before the show, six deer were shipped from Louisiana to Lowry Park Zoo. The deer were set loose in a fenced-in area, where they were to be picked up for the show and used as "reindeer."

On the Monday before the show, four men from the parks department attempted to round up the deer. Despite hunting in two jeeps, it was difficult to corral the animals. The chase went on for hours.

Eventually, two of the deer seriously injured themselves by running into the fence. They had to be shot.

"A third deer, evidently frightened far worse than the other two, ran full blast into a tree, killing itself," Hilton wrote. "At this point, the appalled and saddened men, lovers of animals, called off the chase."

As far as he knows, Hilton said, the descendents of the other deer are still wandering around the zoo.

One area resident volunteered a backup deer of his own, which Hilton gladly accepted - sight unseen. The deer, from Alaska, was delivered downtown and placed in a pen.

Soon after, Hilton got a call from animal rights activists. They said he'd have to remove the deer or be cited for abuse.

Hilton went to see for himself.

"The deer was molting, and there were huge raw patches on it where the fur had fallen off," Hilton said. "It looked horrible. And the kids were crying."

Then there was the time Hilton met with a sergeant in front of Maas Bros. an hour after the show had ended that night. Apparently, Hilton was told, one of the show's performers had a late-night job as well - as an alleged lady of ill repute.

On a side street, Hilton was shown the trailer where the performer was said to have been committing heinous acts. The trailer, also used as a dressing room for performers, had a group of men waiting outside its door.

Apparently the show wasn't so wholesome after all.

Practically two years later, one of the largest cases against the snow show was heading to court. The woman who claimed her back had been broken was suing.

But the night before the trial, Terry McNabb, who represented the show organizers, bumped into the woman dancing at a club.

"He just went up to her and said, "We ought to talk about this,' " Hilton said. "She was mortified."

That was one of many cases against the show to reach settlement.

"Thankfully, we got a $1 million Lloyd's of London insurance policy - which was a lot of money in those days - to protect us," he said.

For a long time after the show, Hilton was filled with regret. The event had put a terrible strain on him, and much of it had flopped. He said only his wife, Dottie, was able to keep him sane.

Forty-five years later, however, Hilton looks back on it and laughs. There were some good things to come of it, he admits. Downtown business was boosted by the large turnout, and his advertising company got plenty of name recognition.

"I would say that it's like my experience in service in World War II," Hilton said. "I wouldn't take $1 million for my experiences, but I wouldn't do it again for $1 million."

How do you get a reindeer into Florida? It's complicated

Is it naughty or nice to teach kids to believe in Santa?

We went to Santa School. Here's why it's a more important job than you think

Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 25, 2003.

TAMPA - It was supposed to be a winter wonderland.

When Beach Park's Howard Hilton was planning the Great Tampa Snow Show, he envisioned smiling kids, Santa Claus spreading good cheer, frolicking reindeer and lots of snow. A giant Christmas tree would hulk over the festivities, and there would be a massive, five-story ski slope.

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