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."

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Rebecca Wakefield