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Comic Gallagher Coming to Ybor

By: Mike Merino
Published Aug. 4, 2017

The Tampa Bay area has raised its share of topflight entertainers over the years. Superstar wrestler Hulk Hogan, baseball great Lou Piniella and actor Channing Tatum are just some who got their start on the streets of Tampa Bay.
But on August 12, Tampa`s most famous funnyman will be performing his outrageous act in historic Ybor City.
Gallagher`s reputation as a cottage-cheese-and-watermelon-smashing comedian was forged in the ’80s on the strength of his many TV cable specials and highly interactive performances.
Few may know that this internationally known melon-slayer grew up in the Cigar City, and that his rise to fame and fortune was developed as a youth in a local roller-skating rink.
Now a ripe 70 years old, Gallagher is coming for a free outdoor performance at the historic Centro Asturiano. Robby Steinhardt, a Tampa native, rock violinist and former singer with the rock group Kansas, will be singing his hits with Tampa Bay`s own Stormbringer. Other musicians and a variety of vendors and food trucks will participate at this daylong event.
Leo Gallagher was born in 1946 in North Carolina. When he was nine, his entrepreneur father, always searching for a reason to move to Florida, packed up the entire family and moved to the Sunshine State. While Gallagher, whose nickname is Butch, was enrolled at Tampa`s Oak Grove Junior High, his father opened the “Roll-A-Rink Skating Center” on North Armenia Avenue, located just on the outskirts of West Tampa. His family of six lived behind the rink in a three-bedroom mobile home. “I became an excellent speed and figure skater, which helped my confidence,” said Gallagher, who added “I was also an Eagle Scout.”
An intelligent student, Gallagher went to Plant High School. “I was quite mischievous in those days, hanging out with my buddies and pranking folks at the Steak ‘n Shake across the street.”
Despite his youthful antics, Gallagher went on to college and graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. “I minored in English literature, which comes in handy when I mock language in my skits,” said Gallagher. “I often laugh to myself over the fact that I really wanted to be a scientist.”
After college, and still his outrageous and boisterous self, Gallagher decided to be a comedian. “I looked up my first talent agents in the Tampa Yellow Pages and found two,” said Gallagher. “One agent got me my first melon-smashing act in a bowling alley. The other agent introduced me to nationally known, comic/musician Jim Stafford. I began working as his road manager.”
Gallagher and Stafford hit it off. They traveled to California together in 1969. Soon he decided it was time to start performing by himself. He began honing his own act while frequenting many comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area. He was repeatedly denied appearances on the “Tonight Show” in the 1970s and 1980s because Johnny Carson disliked prop comedy. However, he was admired by a few of Carson’s staff. Gallagher eventually performed several times on the “Tonight Show” when guest hosts were filling in for Carson. Gallagher attributes the success of his career to his beginning appearances on Carson’s show.
As a child, Gallagher`s mother knew he despised fruit, particularly melons. She tried to force them on him to help reverse his recurrent constipation. He eventually thanked his mom for being fruit-pushy because it resulted in him earning millions.
Gallagher is most recognized for his finale when he smashes fresh fruit all over the front row with the audience, loving every juicy piece flying aimlessly over their entire bodies. However, a clear plastic cover is draped in front to protect their clothing.
This portion of the act is a parody of ads for the Ronco Veg-O-Matic, a kitchen appliance made popular from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. He wrote the routine for the “Sledge-O-Matic” and sent it to George Carlin and Albert Brooks so he could say that he had written a script for some well-known comics. “I`m glad they didn`t take it, I might have ended up as that scientist,” Gallagher said.
Throughout his comedy career, Gallagher has always cherished his upbringing in Tampa. His memories of the area are strong and he has many friends and family still in the vicinity.
However, with over four decades on the road, his health has taken its toll. He has suffered four heart attacks, replaced two coronary stents and made numerous trips to the E.R.
“Despite my health challenges, as long as I can breathe and move I`ll keep performing and tearing down the house with my personal brand of outrageous thinking-man’s comedy,” said Gallagher. “Just show up in Ybor and be ready to get smashed.”
The Ybor City Melonfest Featuring Gallagher and Artie Fletcher is scheduled to take place:
When: Saturday, Aug. 12, 1 to 8 p.m.
Where: Centro Asturiano, 1913 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa
Admission: Free. Vendors, food trucks, live music.
Info: (813) 229-2214

Silhouettes presents Shelby Bender

Silhouettes: by Tiffany Razzano
published 2/10/2017

An eighth-generation Plant City resident, Shelby Bender remembers the exact moment she recognized the importance of community.
As an elementary school student, one of the teachers would enlist the help of local children to collect money for the American Heart Fund. Bender and her sister were selected one year and helped that teacher for as long as she can remember. Dressed in their Sunday finest, the group of students went door to door, asking their neighbors to donate to the cause. Afterward, they’d meet at the TECO community center for refreshments and to discuss how much they collected. “That was probably the start of my being active in the community,” said Bender, executive director and president of the East Hillsborough Historical Society. “I’ve always been passionate about giving back.”
Aside from spending a few years in Gainesville while her husband attended college, Bender has spent her entire life in Plant City. “Some people have real strong roots somewhere and they’re well established,” she said. “I’m one of those people.”
When she and her husband returned to their hometown, they took over the dry-blend fertilizer manufacturing company his family had owned and operated for decades in Plant City. Though she went on to earn her associate degree from Hillsborough Community College while her children were little, she decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the time. “I had my full-time job with the family business. I was happy with what I was doing and the family was comfortable,” she said.
Then, after running the business for 30 years, Bender and her husband decided to shut down the manufacturing plant. The company had been in existence for 81 years. “At one point in time, Hillsborough County was a very large agricultural community,” she said. “But things change.” Forty years ago, there were “eight or nine dry-blend fertilizer companies” in the county, she added. “Now there are none.” Her family’s company at one time had been located in the heart of the city, near the railroad tracks, but Plant City’s midtown expansion forced them out.
Bender was 56 years old when the company closed down. “We had to reinvent ourselves and start over,” she said. “Sometimes in life you just have to write a new chapter.”
She decided to go back to school and complete her degree, earning a bachelor’s degree in general studies from St. Leo University and, later, a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of South Florida. She also worked for a year as finance secretary for Mulberry High School.
Even while running the company with her husband, she was always heavily involved with community activities, spending much of her time volunteering for the East Hillsborough Historical Society. Running her own business gave her the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time with the historical society. In fact, for years she was in charge of many of the duties she takes on today as executive director and president of the group. “When you own your own business, you can make your own hours,” Bender explained. “But I no longer had that flexibility while working for the school.”
So she and the historical society decided to get creative. The group always had an administrative person working part-time in the office. When that role opened up, they decided to revamp it, creating the executive director position for Bender. “I wanted to do this and I knew I could do this,” she said. “We just had to approach the role a little differently.”
As executive director, she works out of the historic 1914 Plant City High School Community Center – her former junior high school – which houses the EHHS office, Pioneer Museum and Quintilla Geer Bruton Archives Center.
Bender has always been interested in local history, as well as genealogy. She remembers as a young girl her grandmother telling her about their family history. “She was very influential. My own interest in our family history just kind of went from there,” she said.
Learning about her family, “who they were in reality, what they did, what kind of people they were,” connected her to her roots and strengthened her sense of self.
She’s traced her family lineage as far back as the 1600s, to England, Scotland, Germany and Russia. “As you keep going back, you develop an interest not just in local history, but in history throughout time,” she said.
She added, “It’s really interesting to see how they existed. A person might think we’re in hard times now, but no, we’re not in hard times.”
She’s also built up a roster of private clients, especially in the realm of adoption research. For nearly 25 years, Bender has worked with adoptees and birth families to make connections.
Bender has also co-authored four books on Plant City history and Tampa cemeteries. In fact, in addition to genealogy and family histories, her other specialties include historic preservation, the history and care of cemeteries and funerary art. “A cemetery is a true history of a community,” she said.
She serves on several other local organizations as well. She is chair of the Plant City Historic Resources Board. The board oversees three local and national register historic districts. She also serves on the Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Grant Panel and the Plant City Main Street Board of Directors, and is secretary of the Florida State Genealogical Society. And as a nearly nine-year member of the Hillsborough County Historic Advisory Council – and recently member emeritus – she’s helped establish numerous historic markers throughout the county by recommending and finding sites with historical importance to the community. Some of these locations include the Hillsborough County Cemetery, which served as a pauper’s cemetery, and Florida College in Temple Terrace.
The EHHS also hosts numerous events throughout the year in an effort to reach out to the community. They organize Pioneer Heritage Day each November, holding an open house at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The organization is also gearing up for their upcoming fundraiser, one of their biggest of the year, Bender said, running a strawberry shortcake booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival.
In addition, the group sponsors and runs a number of workshops for the community, from genealogy to cemetery care and preservation. The next workshop is “Copyright Workshop for Authors, Artists and Musicians,” to be held Saturday, Feb. 4, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the 1914 Plant City High School Community Center. The workshop is free and preregistration is required.
Then, on Saturday, Feb. 11, 7 to 10 p.m., the center will host the Florida Opry’s Country to Pop tribute show to country music legend Patsy Cline.
The organization tries to reach the community any way that it can, Bender remarked. “It’s important that we all remember where we came from,” she added.

HCSO Unclaimed Funds

Unclaimed Funds

Silhouettes presents Jim Webb

By: Tiffany Razzano

Originally appeared in the July 8, 2016 edition of La Gaceta Newspaper

Musician. Actor. Swing Dancer. Pilot. Marksman. Photojournalist.
Jim Webb is used to wearing many hats. “I’ve lived four lives in one so far, easily,” he said.
But these days he has honed in on just one passion: growing his business, The Webb Works. With an ear for storytelling, Webb specializes in producing legacy and web-based videos for businesses, governments and families. So he’s pushed his other talents and interests to the side for the time being to focus on sharing these stories. “Everybody’s got a story and I love helping people tell it,” he said.
Still, his varied interests come in handy whenever he’s trying to connect with the individuals who are featured in his videos. “I’m rarely not able to find common ground with people,” he said. “And as a photojournalist, I’ve had the opportunity to be out and meet different people, and I use these skills in my business and to connect with people. I’ve learned to draw people out. I have at least a little bit of capacity for showing interest [in others] and getting people’s stories, because everybody has one. It all plays right into my curious nature.”
Webb grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child, his mother enrolled him and his siblings in music lessons. In high school, he went on to join the marching band, performing in the brass section. He was also an athlete, lettering in tennis, cross country track and swimming.
He went on to study at Kent State University where he joined the marching band, was a diver on the swim team and also a member of the cheerleading team. “Boy was that a smart move on my part,” he said. “I got to be around some of the most beautiful women on campus. And when we went to other colleges, I got to be around some of the most beautiful women on their campus.”
During the summer of 1973, he headed to Wisconsin to perform with the legendary Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corp. That’s all it took for him to be “hooked” on drum corp. He performed with them through 1975, his last year of eligibility since he had turned 21. But that year the group was the undefeated Drum Corp International. He stayed on as an instructor for an additional five years. “It’s an art form,” he said, “and I haven’t seen a single marching band in high school or college that wasn’t affected by it.”
Decades later, his time with the Madison Scouts still affects him. “I draw on that daily for inspiration,” Webb said.
An avid photographer since a high school student – he borrowed his mother’s Kodak Instamatic camera as a teen “and she never saw that camera again” – he was offered a job taking photos for an NBC affiliate in Madison. After five years, he moved to Toledo, Ohio to take a job as a news photographer for the PBS station there and also to be closer to home.
In 1984, he accepted a position as photojournalist for WFLA News Channel 8. “I was in the news department there, shooting news on film, long before video cameras and live trucks and all of that,” he said. After a year and a half, he was promoted to chief photographer, overseeing special projects and the department. It was a time of growth at the station, he said. Staff doubled and the station added a number of special shows and weekend editions.
Webb has also remained involved with his many passions since moving to Tampa. He’s served as chairman of the board for the Suncoast Sound Drum and Bugle Corps and volunteered to work with the Robinson High School marching band.
He took up swing dancing, something he learned as a child, and not only did he frequent local swing dance events, he taught it as well for several years.
He continued to play music, forming a band – a 12-piece rhythm and blues revue – with other journalists for the Society of Professional Journalists’ Battle of the Media Bands, which raised money for its minority scholarship.
He took flying lessons after years of flying radio-controlled planes and spending time up in the air as Channel 8’s primary photographer. He even went on to fly with the Blue Angels. And because of a video he shot for a friend, he developed an interest in skeet and trap shooting, becoming a decent marksman.
Webb is also an actor and does voiceover work. He’s the official voice of the Tampa Bay Arts Center Entertainment Network. He’s appeared on stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall in productions including “Guys and Dolls” and “South Pacific.” He also appeared in the short film “The Wallet,” which was selected for the Gasparilla International Film Festival. (Several other films he’s filmed himself have appeared at the film fest as well.)
All the while, he worked for Channel 8. Working for the news station, he traveled the country – sometimes the world. “I got to tell stories and meet the most interesting people in the places that I’ve worked and get paid for it,” he said. He’s met everyone from actors to national leaders, from James Earl Jones to President Barack Obama and Colin Powell. He’s travelled around the country and to places such as the Kremlin, in Russia, and the Andes Mountains. “The list goes on and on. I’ve had many, many brushes with greatness. That camera has been my passport to travel to many places and do things I never would have done.”
But it wasn’t all fun for Webb. He also had to cover difficult stories about death and violence. “I’ve seen the very best and the very worst of the human condition from behind my camera,” he said. He recalls that when working in Toledo, every spring as the Toledo River thawed, a body would come floating to the surface. He’d inevitably have to cover this news. “I’ve recorded things, I saw things that I wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he said.
This is part of the reason he decided to leave the news business and create The Webb Works to focus on legacy and corporate videos. He wanted to make videos that told happy stories and touched people.
He recalls a series on aging that he filmed while working for PBS in Toledo. “I knew then that some of the people I was recording wouldn’t be around in 10 years,” he said. That’s how he realized the importance of preserving people’s stories. “You don’t want to wait until it’s too late. You want to get the twinkle of their eye or the sound of their laughter before you can’t. Those are the treasures”.
While he creates videos for corporate entities such as Tampa General Hopsital, WellCare and the University of South Florida, “the legacy videos are what I live for,” he said. “When I get my chance to sink my teeth in a good story, I want to record it. And there’s a lot of them slipping away from us.”
Webb currently operates out of a studio space on West Shore Boulevard. He’s recently teamed up with a film photographer, Hallie Ladd Heck, who also rents space in the same building. The pair are building out a larger, 1,400-square-foot studio with a green room and meeting space. He’ll be able to offer photography classes and swing dance lessons in the larger, open space. “It’s going to be really nice when we’re done in a few weeks,” he said. “There are so many possibilities.”
He’s also writing a book. It’s part memoir, sharing his life story, and part encouragement for others to pursue their passions. “I’ve been fortunate enough to do this my entire life,” he said. When he meets college students, he has one piece of advice for them: “Do what you liked to do as a child. If you do your passions, then you’ll never work another day in your life.”
He added, “Then I like to modify that a little bit. I tell them to do what you did as a kid that got you into trouble, but kept doing anyway.”

Ester Venouziou

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 16, 2016

Growing up in Brazil, Ester Venouziou and her family only shopped at local businesses. At the market, they could find everything they needed from produce and meat to clothing.
At the end of these shopping trips, Ester and her sister would be allowed to stop to buy books and comics. “It was like our reward,” she said.
Her parents also owned a business, a fabric store, Importadora Jenny, with three locations. As a child, Venouziou would accompany them to the store, helping them wrap purchases. Later, after the family moved to New Jersey when she was 12 years old, her parents switched gears. Rather than running their own shops, they represented Brazilian fabric companies in the United States, working hard seemingly around the clock.
This had a profound effect on their daughter. “I didn’t want to own my own business,” she said. “I saw my parents working all the time. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go to work and come home.”
She headed to Boston University, where she studied journalism and psychology. When she graduated, she came to Florida for work. First bouncing back and forth between newspapers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, and then landing in Gulfport in 2003. She moved to the area to work for the then St. Petersburg Times as a copy editor and designer, also doing a bit of writing for the paper.
In 2008, her parents traveled from New Jersey to visit her. While Venouziou was at work, her parents would keep themselves busy by going to the mall or eating at chain restaurants. She asked them why they didn’t frequent, instead, some of the many local, independently owned businesses. They told her that they simply didn’t know where to go. “If you go to Olive Garden, you know what you’re going to get,” she said. “It may not be a great meal, but you know what to expect.”
Personally, she had been interested in supporting local businesses since the late 1990s, during her second move to Fort Lauderdale. She had lived there in the early 1990s, but when she returned in 1999, she discovered that many of the smaller businesses had closed down and were replaced by national chain stores. “The whole feel [of the city] changed,” she said. “It didn’t feel like Fort Lauderdale. It just felt like every other place.”
So she made her parents a list of suggestions for Gulfport and St. Petersburg. Where to eat. Where to shop. Where to visit.
She posted her list on Facebook and friends suggested their own ideas. The list grew and Venouziou began to organize the businesses by category. Then she decided to create a simple website where she posted her lists and included information about each business.
This is how LocalShops1 was born. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. But it was fun for her, a passion, really, and she recognized the importance of supporting locally owned businesses. Initially it was more of a hobby for her, though, and often, she’d lose money on the endeavor. “I was just having fun,” she said. “I was losing money, but I didn’t care. I was just having fun. Instead of going shopping, I was spending it on the business.”
She founded LocalShops1 just as the “buy local” movement was starting to get off the ground nationally. When she first turned her personal focus to small businesses nearly a decade earlier, “it wasn’t really a thing,” she said.
This was before the recession hit, though, changing everything. “It made people think about being loyal to local companies, and a lot of people were starting their own businesses,” she said. “They were laid off and looking for a job and there weren’t any.”
Then, in 2011, Venouziou was laid off from the Times. So she decided to focus full time on LocalShops1. “When I got laid off, I was like, ‘I can’t lose money. I can’t support this,’ ” she said. “That helped me get more organized and it helped make LocalShops1 better.”
Around this same time, American Express launched its Small Business Saturday campaign, which supports shopping at local businesses during the winter holidays. That not only helped the “shop local” movement on a national level, but also put more attention on LocalShops1.com.
Venouziou and her team at LocalShops1 have certainly done their research. According to their website, dollars spent at local indie shops are more likely to stay within the local economy. They refer to a report by the Tampa Independent Business Alliance, which says that if all taxable purchases made in Hillsborough County on an average November shopping day were made at local businesses, it would have a $28 million impact on the local economy.
So she refocused her grassroots mission of promoting and supporting locally owned businesses. She put together an informal advisory council comprised of small business owners she trusted. “I wanted them to give me an idea of what they want as businesses,” she said. “Why would they waste their time doing something they don’t care about just because I think it sounds cool?”
She tightened up the membership structure offering a variety of services to businesses, artists and non-profits at various levels. It didn’t take long for her membership to grow. In 2011, she had around 150 members. Today that number stands around 350. “It feels like it’s more stable. They’re staying longer,” she said. “Looking back, I don’t think I was servicing people as much as I could have been.”
Venouziou also revamped events. Prior to her focusing on LocalShops1, events were held sporadically. She began offering networking events on a monthly basis. (The next one is Oct. 13 at Rococo in St. Petersburg.) These free networking meetings are open to the public as well as local businesses.
She also launched three signature events. Shopapalooza, inspired by Small Business Saturday, takes place at St. Petersburg’s South Straub Park. Typically, she’s held the event, which features more than 100 local vendors, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year, she’ll hold it two Saturdays: Nov. 19 and 26.
In August, they hold the Best in the Biz awards, to coincide with LocalShops1’s anniversary, and each spring is the Top Local Chef competition. And two and a half years ago, Venouziou launched the Live Local! magazine, featuring LocalShops1.com’s members.
Her latest endeavor is a LocalShops1 pop-up shop in Gulfport, which opened earlier this month. The bungalow features a front space which is rented out to a different artist or small business on a monthly basis for $300-400, depending on the time of year. “They come and go as they please,” she said. “I tell them to treat it like their own shop.” So far, the space is booked through February, aside from January.
There’s also space in the center of the store available for rent during First Friday and Third Saturday art walks and the weekly Tuesday market. “Think of it like vendor space at an event, but it’s indoors,” she said, adding that there is some outdoor space available as well.
Pop-up stores like these are popular in larger cities, like New York, she said. And it’s just another way to showcase local talent and businesses, she added. “I’ve been reading about them in other cities and thought I could do one here, on a smaller scale, obviously, based on my budget,” she said.
If this goes well, she’d like to open similar shops in other communities in the Tampa Bay area. It would need to be a walkable community, she said. “I don’t see this working on U.S. 19 anywhere,” she said. But she’s eyeing St. Petersburg, particularly in the Warehouse District, and says communities like Dunedin and Safety Harbor would be perfect for shops like these.
She’d also like to increase LocalShops1’s presence in Tampa, but needs to find the right partner to represent the company on that side of the bridge. “I’d like to be more in Hillsborough, but it’s hard to be over there, too,” she said. “I can’t be everywhere and I haven’t found somebody to represent us in Hillsborough yet, basically to be me over there.”
So for now, she focuses on her Pinellas County endeavors with one goal in mind. “I just want to get shoppers to get to know the businesses better,” she said.