Ybor history lesson

Boys and girls, may I please have your attention. It’s time for a Ybor City history lesson.

It’s said that Don Gavino Guiterrez, a Spanish civil engineer, came to the Ybor area in 1884 in quest of guavas. Finding nothing but swamplands, he abandoned the idea and was to return home. During a stop in Key West, he visited two friends, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor and Don Ignacio Haya, who were looking to relocate their cigar business.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

For more than half a century, Ybor City was known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” producing more than 400 million cigars per year. With a climate that acted as a natural humidor for the tobacco leaves, the city found itself in the midst of a thriving industry.

But by the 1950s, almost all the factories were gone.The workers found better living conditions and preferable jobs further into Tampa. For almost three decades, Ybor City was home to empty buildings and barren streets.

The mid-70s saw a rebuilding of Orlando’s downtown with Church Street Station’s renovation. In the hopes of recreating its success here in Tampa, the city started recreating Ybor City. By the end of the 1980s, Ybor was more than just a historic landmark; it was becoming a party headquarters.

“Ybor was considered a no-man’s zone then,” said Curtis Ross, USF learning communities adjunct instructor and Tampa Tribune pop music critic.After moving to Tampa in 1987, he said his friends would give him a “horrified look” when they found out he would be Ybor-ing for the night.

While most of Ybor’s hot spots were renovated cigar factories, The Masquerade night club, at the corner of 15th Street and Seventh Avenue, has the richest history of all. First opened in 1917, it was called Rivoli and was apparently used as a burlesque theater. The upstairs floor may have hosted secret sexual liaisons while main floor’s screen showed some of the first silent films ever introduced to Tampa.

In the early 1930s, the entire building was renovated and a steel structure was built directly behind the original theater. The Seventh Avenue entrance remained open, and the old auditorium was converted into a long hallway and lobby leading to the main theater. Around the same time, the theater’s name was changed to The Ritz, playing feature films that had opened several months before in town.

Midway through the 1960s, the theater began appealing to a different crowd when they switched over to adult-oriented films. There was even a time when the theater hosted live strip shows.”My mother used to take tickets at The Ritz before they changed it into an adult theater,” said Kathy Fernandez, Tampa native and CEO for LifePath Hospice. “When I tell people about it today, they look at me in shock, saying, ‘She worked where?’ I always have to explain that it was once a regular theater.”

In 1983, the theater was renovated and signs reading “Puttin’ on the Ritz” beaconed the new look. When these plans failed and the theater closed, a theater group called the Playmakers began rehearsing and performing in the theater’s auditorium.

An alternative club called The Masquerade had opened in 1988 a little further north on the 19th Street block. Almost a year after opening, the club was closed because of drug-related difficulties. By 1990, they were ready to reopen and relocate.

The Ritz Theater became its new home.

With a grand opening concert played by Nine Inch Nails, The Masquerade at The Ritz heralded a new age for the turn-of-the-century theater.

So what else was there to this “no-man town?”

Across the street stood an old five-and-dime store, W.T. Grant’s. In the hopes of creating a new age club, Grant’s was gutted and reopened in the early 90s as The Rubb, a vegan-style restaurant by day and techno club by night. Recent renovations and a grand reopening produced Club Fun, known for crazy promotions such as glow stick-toting monkeys and Sumo wrestlers on hydraulic lifts.

The Masquerade’s former location, 1902 E. Seventh Ave. was converted in 1994 to the Empire nightclub. Within its first year, the club was doing well enough to renovate and open its second floor, with access to inside balconies that overlooked the dance floor and outside ones atop the busy strip. A punk/goth club, the interior was painted completely black and found its weekends full of combat boots and grungy attire.

Next door was a blues and jazz club called Blues Ship Cafe, owned by a local seafood restaurant. The cafe promoted weekly brunches of soul food and blues during the day and live jazz at night. In 1996, then-93.3 disc jockey Todd Clem, a.k.a. Bubba the Love Sponge, opened Bubba’s Beach Club. Controversy followed him just as closely then as now, and the club closed within the year. Turbulence, as it’s called today, came around shortly after Bubba’s bust.

Across the street at 1915 E. Seventh Ave. was an old cabinet warehouse that was eventually renovated into The Groove nightclub in 1993. Boasting a healthy dose of computer-generated techno music and non-alcoholic “smart” drinks laced with protein and amino acids, the club created quite a controversy as government officials began banning all-night rave parties. The club was bought in recent years and changed to the country-line dance club, Spurs.

Now a high-rise of movies, dining and arcade gaming, Centro Ybor was originally constructed around 1912. Then called the

Centro Español Plaza, it housed another social club of Ybor. As the 80s saw a sharp increase in Ybor City interest, its windows and doors were boarded up to make room for the boom sweeping along Seventh Avenue. In the late 90s, the city approved a $5 million renovation that produced what it is today.

And who can forget the parades?

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival actually started in 1904 when Tampa’s elite decided they wanted a bash that rivaled New Orlean’s Mardi Gras. They invented a pirate, José Gaspar, who, with colorful floats and crews of “pirates,” captured the city for the day and shared his wealth of trinkets, doubloons, and yes, beaded necklaces. The night parade was added in 1985, when daytime festivities weren’t enough for the party-goers.

And, of course, there’s Guavaween, now in its 18th year running.

“Once in ’91, the crowd was so thick I could pick up both feet from the ground,” said Ross.

So what’s in store for Ybor City now? After all the new openings in just the past ten years, it’s a wonder there’s even room to walk straight on some nights.

Who would’ve known?

And all because of some guavas.

n Contact Danielle Ritchie at oraclefeatures@yahoo.com