Fruit for Thought

Coconut Grove is nearly unrecognizable as the charmingly seedy, artsy beach town it once was in the Sixties and Seventies. Back then, most of the irascible old guys who hang out at the Taurus now had just begun to walk upright, and drink beer legally -- let alone bitch about local politics. Or so the legend goes. Now the place is more like Coconut Grove as imagined by Epcot -- slicker and a lot less interesting.

Except once a year. One Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year (this month it's December 29), a motley group of Miamians gathers in the Grove's Commodore Plaza in an assortment of vehicles, floats, and bedroom slippers to celebrate the truly bizarre nature of South Florida, arguably the center of weird for the planet. "We have skewered and parodied the high and the mighty every year," brags Buzz Fleischman, a professional humorist with the eyebrows to prove it. "It's social commentary disguised as street theater." Fleischman, an avid Strutter for the past twenty years, last year put his 85-year-old mother in a pink Cadillac and pink wig to portray the sinister leader of a group of beauty extremists called "the Mary KKK." It's that kind of parade.

What people love about the King Mango Strut is its apparently spontaneous, unruly, rough-around-the-edges quality. The antithesis of the bland, high-production, establishment King Orange Jamboree Parade (a.k.a. the Orange Bowl Parade) -- which, after a 76-year run, died of its own unwieldiness last spring. No small irony, since the Strut was co-founded 21 years ago by a pleasant Grove curmudgeon named Glenn Terry, after the pharisees on the Orange Bowl Committee rejected his kazoo and conch-shell band for their stately affair. "It's a noncommercial parade on a shoestring budget," Terry explains of his stridently amateur production. This year's theme: "Welcome to Flori-duh."

But even a tiny affair like the Mango Strut (which attracts 6000-7000 gawkers) requires enormous energy and commitment. It wouldn't happen without a hard core of organizers willing to spend months cajoling permits, dollars, and the participation of up to 500 silly and creative souls. Every year is a funding struggle, one that would be easier if the Strutters would just give in and let it be the Cocowalk Mango Strut, or something equally sanitized. "Here's what we can do," poses a frustrated Terry after learning very few local businesses want to cough up support without getting advertising space in the parade. "We can move the parade to Hialeah. We can sell out and try not to let it change us. Or we can say, the hell with it, we've done it 21 years, that's enough." Terry says this every year as organizers beg, borrow, and peddle parade T-shirts to glue the Strut together for roughly $5000-$6000.

For a couple of months before the parade, maybe two dozen of the inner circle gather weekly in the back room of the Taurus to plot. There's lots of drinking, smoking, drawing on paper napkins, singing, and speculative use of props. At one meeting in early December, it was revealed that airport director Angela Gittens had gamely agreed to be the token "honest politician" grand marshal this year. But the subversive potential took over immediately. "Could she be pregnant and pull an airport expansion out of her belly?" asks Fleischman. No. Other ideas were tossed around. What about Gittens as Jackie Brown, the sexy drug-running stewardess played by Pam Grier in two movies of the same name? Not likely.

Fleischman reassembled a defunct, paper-ballot voting machine used in past skits about the election debacle of 2000. "Look," he said. "We can chain [recently "retired" county elections supervisor] David Leahy to this and have him break free, or have him carry it around his neck like an albatross." "Yeah, well, Leahy's got nothing better to do now," someone cracked, as Keith Root tested out a theme song written to the tune of "Tom Dooley," a quirky folk ballad about a hillbilly who murdered his ex-lover and was hanged for it. Root slipped into a folk singer-style voice: "There's a lot of love songs written about the eternal triangle," he began campily. "This one's about a verification specialist, a man named Shiver, and a condemned man, Dave Leahy, who in the morning must go." Cue the imaginary banjo: "I met him in the morning/To start up his machine/Met him in the morning/He shouted something obscene ... Hang down your head, Dave Leahy ..."

As funny as this is, the somewhat esoteric choice of a Fifties-era ballad about a nineteenth-century crime fable underscores the pop-cultural epoch the majority of die-hard Strutters use as a field of reference: "Everybody at the meetings is between 45 and 55," laments Terry. "It hasn't kept up with the new generation." And this is a problem. The wicked and mischievous spirit of King Mango needs new blood to cope with the hassle of running a first-rate parade with no commercial sponsors year after year. (A few businesses and the city make small donations, but per Terry's dictum, none gets to co-opt any part of the parade.) Strut legends like former Taurus bartender Butch Warren and former jewelry-store owner Wayne Brehm have succumbed to cancer in recent years, taking a considerable amount of wit and sheer looniness with them. Even "Draino" is gone, a long-time Mango Strut drag queen and otherwise well-known Grove character who drank, swore, smoked, and peddled inexpensive lunches from the back of his rusty, old fart-style three-wheeler. Brehm, however, still manages to be in the parades. Two weeks after his death in 2000, his ashes appeared in classic style, carried in a container with a sign reading, "He May Be Dead, but He'll Still Be Voting in Florida."

With this kind of colorful history, it should be easy to attract the young and subvertible. Regina McFall, a costume shop technician at the University of Miami's Ring Theater and sometime fashion instructor, says she's tried to get students involved in the Mango Strut, but usually when they get a look at the graybeards with their cornball notions, the reaction is, "'Oh, it's all old fogies here,'" she shrugs. McFall herself finds the guerrilla theater irresistible. "I'm here because of political activism, but they insist on humor," she says, casting a mock-disparaging look at her co-conspirators.

Terry, a former lawyer who (swimming against the consumerist slide of his own generation) gave it all up to become a middle school art teacher, chalks this up to cultural dissipation. "Political dissidence was cool in 1969," he offers. "I guess it doesn't matter anymore. The Orange Bowl Parade died and we will too. Just not this year." For now the hope for the Mango Strut's future rests on the shapely shoulders of Antoinette Baldwin, a 39-year-old former stewardess who now works with her architect husband. "Antoinette's young, pretty, and Hispanic, just what this parade needs," Terry says of Baldwin, acknowledging the largely middle-age Anglo skew of parade planners. A goofy, energetic woman, Baldwin was duped into joining the group a few years ago, then gulled into basically running the show by Wayne Brehm. "He roped me in," she recalls, tapping the bright yellow plastic hard hat on her head. "And when he saw I was having fun, he said, 'Guess what, I'll probably be dying in the next year, so you better learn everything now.'"

Baldwin's most memorable moment came last year, when she and her brother acted out the infamous terra-cotta tea canister tableau of Mari and Joe Carollo, former mayoral couple. Dressed in slippers and pajamas, an artful bruise coloring her cheek, "Mari" and "Kid Terra Cotta" went round for round, cracking up the crowd, while arm candy Thalia and Sissi look-alikes -- former Carollo girlfriends -- judged the winner. When the action stopped, a woman in the crowd approached Baldwin. "You got it wrong," the familiar-looking brunette told her. "The black eye was on the other side." Baldwin, flabbergasted and wondering whether she'd have to duck a real slap from the real Mari, responded: "I know. The thing is I'm left-handed and it looks better on this side. I took some artistic license." Mari found the parody funny. "We took pictures with her and she was very nice," Baldwin laughs. "I'm sure she realized after it was over how ridiculous the situation was."

Baldwin is more optimistic than Terry about the Strut's future. She thinks there will always be nuts in Miami willing to take up the challenge of celebrating the town's foibles. "People ask me all the time, 'Why do you do it? Why would you want to wear rubber noses and fake mustaches and do cartwheels?'" She pauses, then shrugs. "Because of the pure fun of it. I found a group where everybody is like me. They like to wear lampshades and parade in the street. It makes people laugh." Then Baldwin turns back to fine-tuning a song for one of the skits. She sings a few bars of her Enron parody, to the tune of "Da-Doo-Run-Run": "I met him at the shredder and my heart stood still/At En-ron ron ron/At En-ron ron ..."

Brief Selections from Twenty Years of Mango Madness:

1982: Precision Lawnmower Drill Team, Citizens for a Total Tan (nudists), and Cosmic Claus, Santa's beer-drinkin' weed-smokin' younger brother.

1986: Biscayne Boulevard Chamber of Commerce: a gaggle of pimps, hookers, and drug dealers touting the slogan "Vice is Nice."

1989: Pock-marked Panamanian general Manuel Noriega chased by a crazed dermatologist.

1990: The Booger King, ruler of a local fast-food chain.

1992: Marjory Stoneman Douglas's evil, mangrove-cutting twin.

1994: Illegal Aliens Synchronized Swim Team, the Banana Republicans, and "Summit of the American Drug Lords -- This Hemisphere's Real Power Brokers."

1996: The City of Miami's $68 million financial crisis sparked the theme, "Give So Others Can Take," with skits from Miami's blind auditors, a telethon to save the city, and an auction of public property like bridges and city buildings.

1997: In honor of the city voter-fraud scandal, the League of Dead Voters dominated, with coffin creatures doling out votes to crazy mayoral candidates Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo.

1998: It was the year of the Clintons, with dominatrix Hillary, pantsless Bill, and the cigar-toting, semen-stained devil in a blue dress, Monica Lewinsky.

1999: A pre-raid Elian Gonzalez and the Raftettes marched with Y2K bugs and People magazine's "sexiest" mayor Alex Penelas, wearing boxers and red fishnets.

2000: A Million Chad March kicked off a parade dedicated to the presidential election debacle, with Al Gore and Pat Buchanan chasing votes, and the Supreme Court singing for Dubya.

2001: "United We Strut," featuring the Beach Boys-inspired Taliband, an Osama piñata filled with Pop Tarts, security by the Office of HomeBoy, and the Wake of the Dead Dot Coms.

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