GULFPORT - Outside the Gulfport Casino, the ashes of Morris the Casino Cat rest beneath a monument topped with a cat sculpture. Down the street, a ghost is said to roam the Peninsula Inn & Spa. A while back, there was a Chihuahua Rescue Festival, and the Gecko Fest is an annual highlight.
There are twin dolphins carved from dead oak trees outside the Backfin Blue Cafe and bon vivant characters such as Mary "Leppy the Clown" Bradshaw. "Isn't it fun here?" asked Mary O'Malley, owner and operator of Reef Dog Gifts & Grooming on Beach Boulevard. "Kind of funky, huh?"
Ironically, Gulfport was founded by a man with visions of a boomtown with a pace that would've scared away many of its current 12,000-some residents. It was called Disston City in 1884, when Henry Disston hoped a railroad line would lead a path from his town to the world. But the rails went to St. Petersburg, and the town that eventually was renamed Gulfport in 1910 became an out-of-the-way spot. "You've got to go out of your way to get here," said Bradshaw, 84. That's precisely what the elegant, yet eccentric, octogenarian does nearly every day, taking a bus or a cab from her residence in St. Petersburg to the town she called home for 20 years and loves like her closest relative. "I sleep in downtown St. Petersburg and live in Gulfport," said Bradshaw, who has a clown "ministry" and entertains generally for free and mostly at nursing homes, hospitals, benefits and parades. "I can't get weaned on 20 years of living and loving it. It's my goof-off place." She has moved to Presbyterian Towers, to a subsidized apartment near Vinoy Park and Straub Park, but she says the area isn't for her."I hate it," Bradshaw said."What do I do here? I eat!" She chuckled while sipping a drink and adjusting her orange, lime green and purple straw hat. She was wearing a bright yellow muumuu with angelfish and dolphins and coral prints. A pewter unicorn, a gift from her older sister, dangled from her neck. Her favorite breakfast spots are Sal's Town Shore Restaurant and the Gulfport Family Restaurant. She likes lunch at Aqua Bella and dinners at La Cote Basque Winehouse, where she prefers roast duckling with a cherry glaze. "We named a room for Leppy," said restaurant co-owner Carmen Frohne, a member of the Swiss family that has operated the dining spot for 34 years. "It's the Seclusion Room and has drapes, chandeliers, paintings and photos of Leppy."
"She always said, 'Oh, it's so secluded.' So we named it that for her. She is quite an old Gulfport story."
O'Malley, who sold everything and moved here from Chicago six years ago, found Gulfport by chance. She embraces its drive to be different and the joy of art. How many other dog-grooming shops stress art?
O'Malley has art decorating her entrance, along with a hand-painted, wooden reef dog decked in surfing trunks and sunglasses riding a wave. She offers doggie beach shorts and Hawaiian shirts and leashes, such as the hot pink one that reads: "One of us misbehaves." "We were checking out the area and turned the wrong way on 22nd Avenue," O'Malley said. "We ended up here and thought, 'Oh, my God, it's as cute as can be.' We bought a block house near the marina, a 34-foot sailboat and just love it." The Gulf of Mexico is quickly accessed through Pass-a-Grille Channel, and the Don CeSar Resort can be seen from the public beach.
Ken Bentley, of St. Pete Beach, was admiring the view of the Don CeSar on a recent afternoon. He celebrated his 60th birthday that day with a walk on the beach, Ipswich whole belly clams at H.T. Kane's Beach Pub, and a drink at Aqua Bella."This doesn't have the hustle and bustle of Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach," said Bentley, a native of Quincy, Mass. "It's a nice, quiet, small-town atmosphere that reminds me of New England. This is the closest thing to Cape Cod you will find. And I like all the old bungalow homes in town, too."
Michelle King, a city council member and real estate agent, said, "Gulfport reminds people of where they grew up, and it doesn't matter where it is that they grew up. We are a front-porch community." "Everyone gets along here," said Brian Lawless, who co-owns Cahill's Beach Side Bar & Grille on Shore Boulevard with his wife, Lori. They bought the business, leased the building and moved to town nine months ago. King said Gulfport is being discovered and housing prices are rising. A home on 27th Avenue home she sold seven years ago for $56,000 recently sold for $255,000 after about $20,000 in improvements, she said.
King noted that some artists are being driven out by rising costs, and she has proposed that the city council expand the zoning that allows for art-studio-and-home dwellings that currently exist only on Beach and Shore boulevards. "The people who flocked here came for art," said Nancy Gable, of Seminole, who makes everything she sells at Makin' Art on Beach Boulevard. "It did open the door to the city and joins the community together."
One of her paintings hangs down the street at the Backfin Blue Cafe, where art catches your eye even before you are handed a menu. The cafe has a stained-glass door made by the owner's father and two wooden dolphins outside. "The oak trees got big and died," said Backfin owner and chef Harold Russell, "and it looked like two dolphins were trapped inside the bark." So he commissioned an artist to come in with chain saws and create dolphins named for his twins - daughter Carly and son Camden, named for Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Gable has an acrylic painting of Gulfport Mayor Mike Yakes by the front door of her art store. The reserved, bespectacled mayor of the past 19 years is wearing a funny hat and carrying a staff with a gecko on it, an image Gable captured at the town's Gecko Fest several years ago."Make yourself comfortable," Yakes told a recent visitor to his city hall office. "That's what Gulfport is all about."
The town's merchants rally around the Gecko Fest, which is Sept. 2, and the monthly first Friday and third Saturday "Art Walks" on Beach Boulevard. Stores stay open late and local artisans line the streets to create a festival atmosphere. Yakes, 62, was born in Michigan but raised in Gulfport. His cousin, singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, visited during summers as a child. Yakes hopes to have Crenshaw, a pop and soul artist who played Buddy Holly in "La Bamba," perform a benefit concert at the Gulfport Casino. The casino, opened in 1906 as a waiting place for those connecting between streetcars and boats, became a social gathering place. It was known for its polished yellow pine dance floor in the Roaring Twenties. Today, ballroom, salsa and swing dancing classes are taught there. Dances are scheduled most Friday nights, and it's for rent as a wedding hall and for other celebrations.
A Great Old Place
Old landmarks and houses have a way of hanging around here. The Peninsula Inn & Spa was built in 1905 and last renovated in 2004. The rooms and suites in the rambling, three-story getaway have names such as Casablanca, Katmandu and Serengeti. You can dine inside or on the porch cooled by ceiling fans at the Palm Terrace Grill. "It's a great old place," said Karen Chapman, who owns the inn with her husband, Bob. "It used to be an inn and way station on the outer banks, where people would stay before catching the ferry to Tampa on a dock where the beach is today." Some guests stay longer than others. "We have the ghost of Isabell on the third floor," Chapman said. "My husband saw her and a chef saw her. She's an older lady." The Sea Breeze Manor bed and breakfast doesn't have ghosts, but has had Grammy Award-winning blues, folk and rock musician John Hammond stay while performing in the area. He autographed a poster on a wall of the Jamaica room he occupied. The Key West and Key Largo cottages are off the courtyard. "We have tons of parrots in Gulfport," said owner and operator Lori Rosso, "and they love to come into the courtyard. But what we have most here are killer views." The beach and Boca Ciega Bay are across the street, generally framed by palm fronds.
Rosso, 40, once worked in the White House as a trip coordinator for President George H.W. Bush and worked on the current president's inaugural gala.She wanted a change of pace and searched for bed and breakfasts in Europe before coming to St. Petersburg."The St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce informed me of this place, and I just knew when I got here," said Rosso, who four years ago purchased the house built in 1923. "It was those killer views." She paused and looked out the window past the breakfast room and the beach in the distance."Gulfport, it finds you," Rosso said. "It found me."
GULFPORT AT A GLANCE
NAME GAME: First named Disston City in 1884, then Bonifacio and Veteran City before it was dubbed Gulfport in 1910
FIRST SETTLERS: Former Confederate Capt. James and Rebecca Barnett in 1867
COLLEGE: Stetson University College of Law, housed in former Rolyat luxury hotel that became a victim of the Great Depression
MAYOR: Mike Yakes
POINTS OF INTEREST: Gulfport Casino, Catherine A. Hickman Theatre, Peninsula Inn & Spa, Gulfport Marina, Boca Ciega Yacht Club, Sea Breeze Manor bed and breakfast, Gulfport Historical Society and Museum, La Cote Basque French restaurant, Gulfport Public Library, Art Village Courtyard, Gulfport Recreational Center
Reporter Steve Kornacki can be reached at (813) 731-8170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.