Citizens seek censoring of raunchy Fantasy Fest

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

November 16, 1992|By Nancy Klingener | Nancy Klingener,Knight-Ridder News Service Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Nov. 25.

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Even for Key West -- a laid-back, live-and-let-live resort town -- this party was too much.

And now Fantasy Fest, the annual autumn bash that attracts thousands of tourists and culminates in a parade that would earn an R-rating if it were on the movie screen, is under attack. Some of this year's fantasies, it seems, were too raunchy for public consumption.

Ever since Halloween, residents have been complaining about the Twilight Fantasy Parade held that night. Offending their sensibilities on Duval Street were:

-- The man in the trench coat doing the fake but explicit "flashing" to the crowd.

-- The women who wore body paint -- and nothing else -- as their creative costumes.

-- And a now-infamous parade "float" that actually was a pickup truck carrying a couple engaged in a simulated sex act.

"I'm tired of all the vulgarity," said Elmira Leto of Informed Families Monroe County. "It's getting more and more degrading to Key West. We can't go on as a community like this. It's out of hand, totally out of control."

Ms. Leto wants Fantasy Fest eliminated. At a town meeting, a lot of local resentment was aired.

The festival's organizers say they, too, were offended by the parade's vulgarity.

But eliminating a cash cow like Fantasy Fest -- more than 20,000 people are drawn each year to the event, nearly doubling the population of the town -- is not the right answer, they say.

The festival started in 1979 to attract tourists at what is traditionally the slowest time of the year. It has succeeded beyond all hope -- its bacchanalian image draws visitors from across the nation and even foreign countries. It is a mainstay of the local tourist economy.

"You do not throw the baby out with the bathwater," said Gerry Tinlin, a board member of the Association for Tourist Development, which founded Fantasy Fest. "That's stupid. That's foolishness. That's not the way to solve the problem."

Public outrage has been vocal. City Commissioner Harry Bethel said that his phone started ringing with complaints the morning after the parade and did not stop for a week.

The controversy is reverberating through Key West City Hall -- the mayor is forming a task force, and Mr. Bethel plans to propose new laws banning public nudity.

"We have to do something," he said. "The business community keeps saying they want to project a better image, a higher caliber of tourist. We're not going to do that if we have this kind of nudity. We're going to be spread across this country as a wild and crazy town."

City Commissioner Joe Pais blamed the worst behavior on local strippers, not Fantasy Fest.

"Those girls who were nude on our streets are professionals who do it for a living, at bars," Mr. Pais said. "I abhor the nudity, too, but I think it's come with the acceptance of the nude bars in town. You can't separate it from that issue."

Fantasy Fest organizers have always warned locals that the parade is an "adult" event. That no longer washes with some people.

"I've been here all my life and I welcome parades, and I welcome good, clean fun," said Adrian Goodrich, who was working downtown with his 14-year-old son the night of the parade.

"I'm totally against an X-rated public street," Mr. Goodrich said. "I don't think there's any place for that in our town or any other town. We're heavily taxed residents. We demand respect."

Mr. Tinlin, of the tourist association, said Fantasy Fest can remain an adult event without becoming X-rated.

"This is not a naked festival. This is not a drunken festival," he said. "It has never been a festival for kids. It's been a festival for adults. It appears now that some adults are offending other adults."

Key West is "an adult destination," he said. "It has historically been an adult destination."

That argument doesn't work for Ms. Leto, for whom Key West is not a destination but a home.

"I'm sick of people telling us to leave our kids at home. A parade is for kids and adults," she said.

"I want my kids to be able to enjoy everything Key West has to offer. But when they're offering them perversion and filth, I'm going to stand up."

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