By Joe O’Neill
The historic venue is entirely fitting.
Tampa Theatre will host the debut of the much anticipated documentary, “JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary,” in the coming week. Specifically, Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m. It’s an hour-long retrospective of Nov. 18, 1963, the day a sitting president made history by visiting Tampa for the first time.
I saw a preview tease back in May and was impressed. I was privy to the finished product the other day, and I’ll see it again.
The one-hour “JFK in Tampa,” written and produced by former TV reporter Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, works on two complementary, emotion-inducing levels.
First, it’s a paean to Tampa–and notably inclusive of Tampeños. Incumbent presidents don’t visit sleepy burgs lacking in electoral value. Tampa was evolving and mattered in a Florida that was narrowly carried by Richard Nixon in 1960. And Tampa, with its eclectic demographic and political mix, mattered in a growing Sunshine State that had been impacted by the Bay of Pigs debacle and had endured the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The documentary transports viewers back to 1963. Tampa was skyline-challenged and a good generation shy of any Megatrendy shout-outs. An unprecedented presidential visit was a national political rite of passage. This was Tampa’s coming-out party. Locals responded enthusiastically. “One Fine Day” by The Chiffons is playing in the background.
“JFK in Tampa” ranges from rare film footage of Kennedy’s five-hour visit, including stops at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, the International Inn and Al Lopez Field, to the personal recollections of Secret Service agents who accompanied Kennedy and Tampa residents who personally witnessed some part of history. Many of the local interviewees are familiar Tampa names–including Dick Greco, E.J. Salcines, Jack Espinosa, Bob Martinez, Kathy Betancourt, Richard Gonzmart, Malcolm Beard, Helen Gordon Davis, Steve Yerrid, the late Sam Gibbons, Fred Hearns, Jetie B.Wilds Jr. and Michelle Patty. And more. They all bring a perspective on the magnetism and connectivity that was Kennedy, as well as what that moment in time meant for Tampa’s national profile. On the latter subject, Mayor Bob Buckhorn provides additional, pertinent insight.
Humor and poignancy are memory staples.
* Prominent attorney Yerrid tells of seeing the president standing up in his black limousine to acknowledge the waving crowds. Yerrid begins to lose composure as the segment ends.
* African-American activist and entrepreneur Wilds was direct and moving. He provided Jim Crow context. “He sees me” spoke volumes. Although Tampa was part of the segregated South, “it was integrated that day,” recalls Wilds.
*Former State Sen. Davis was vintage in her characterization of the Kennedy good looks and motorcade charisma. “I swear our eyes locked” will be a classic.
“I didn’t want this to be exploitative,” explains Marvin Dingfelder. “There’s so much out there on the anniversary of Dallas. This one has a happy ending. I wanted to remind people of that. And of how accessible President Kennedy was. Today you have to be a big spender, donor, know somebody. But Kennedy’s visit to Tampa was a wonderful, accessible visit. That made it so special.”
And what ultimately made the two-year “labor of love” project doable, points out Marvin Dingfelder, was–in addition to a partnership with WUSF Public Media–individual community support.
“I was shocked at how many (resident contributors) came forward,” she says. “People were very generous with their time and their photos and their memories. Four families gave me home movies.
“This is also a Florida story,” she underscores. “It was a way to pay homage to someone I’d admired and loved for years, but it was also a way to do something for the city I love and live in.”
Second, this is about JFK four days before Dallas. This is the central casting president as we want to remember him. Camelot still had legs. Civil rights had an advocate. The Cold War chill seemed less piercing. Vietnam was not an ineluctable quagmire. There were no emergency room bulletins this day in Tampa.
Security was an issue–not just a job description. Secret Service agents had come in the week prior to assess the 28-mile motorcade route, especially the part that wound through downtown. And Kennedy would be in full, campaign-style outreach mode. Literally.
Every floor of every building over two stories on the route was accounted for by a police presence. A phalanx of motorcycles–in the form of a diamond–surrounded the presidential limo. There were rumors of rogue Cubans still seething from the Bay of Pigs disaster and even Klan concerns. There had been threatening letters and at least two suspects who warranted hands-on follow-ups. One was under surveillance at home, the other was in jail. The scenario was “scary” notes one official. “The threat level was very high,” recalls another.
Developer Charles Banks remembers being deterred from taking his assigned seat next to Kennedy at Lopez Field. He was frankly afraid of who might be planted in the loudly enthusiastic, sometimes surging crowd. Banks said it was “a dangerous time for him (JFK) to be in the open like that.” Ominous.
While security concerns have a necessarily foreboding presence given what happened later that week, Marvin Dingfelder doesn’t allow it to skew the documentary to the dark side. This is still about JFK in Tampa, not Dallas–however much that can loom in the minds of viewers.
“I hope people love it,” she says. “For the past two years I’ve lived in 1963. I was holed up for months at a time. I’ve fallen in love with these stories. I have this old-school side, I know. I can be romantically sentimental. That’s in here.”
What’s also in here is an account of something historically important that ran the risk of being posterity-challenged.
“I’ve accumulated as much as possible into one neat time capsule,” explains Marvin Dingfelder. “That’s important because we’re losing too many of these stories that should be cherished. Future generations will have this one. I wanted to weave a storyline to last, to help preserve our history.”
Indeed, a copy of the documentary will go to the city of Tampa, to the Tampa Bay History Center, USF and the Kennedy Library. It will soon be playing throughout the state on all (13) PBS affiliates. The TBHC also will be featuring “JFK in Tampa” outtakes that didn’t make the final cut. “The cutting-room floor,” adds Marvin Dingfelder, “is now a Tampa Bay History Center wall.”
Tampa Theatre doors open for general seating at 6:45 on Thursday. Tickets are $12 at the box office or $13.50 online at Tampatheatre.org. A Q&A session will follow the documentary.
There is also a VIP option for $125 at the box office or $130 online. The 5:30 VIP tickets include a cocktail hour, appetizers from CopperFish, a signed copy of the book “Kennedy Detail” and an opportunity to mingle with several of President Kennedy’s Tampa Secret Service agents.