A celebration for the upcoming 2013 Florida Strawberry Festival was held in Plant City on Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Evelyn and Batista Madonia Agriculutral Center on the Florida Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds.
There, at the media preview party, Robin Filippone greeted visitors at the door. Born and raised in Mango, Filippone said she can't even remember how many of the 78 Florida Strawberry Festival events she has attended.
Her grandparents were in the livestock market business, and "I've been it the cattle and orange business my whole ife," she said. Annual attendance at the Florida Strawberry Festival has been imperative, she added, for "seeing old friends, reuniting and making memories."
Former Florida Strawberry Queen Kristen Epps, crowned in 2008, was in attendance, to sing the national anthem. Up front in the audience were this year's queen, Kelsey Fry; her maid, Ericka Lott; and the remaining court members: Maddy Keene, Madison Astin and Jamee Townsend.
Being queen "was a blessing," she said, and she was "honored" to have been invited back to sing the national anthem at the start of the formal festivities Feb. 23, in the Evelyn and Batista Madonia Agricultural Center.
"This is a community that I would always want to be a part of," said Epps, a 2007 graduate of Plant City High and a 2010 graduate of Southeast University in Lakeland, with a degree in psychology and a minor in Spanish. "It's not stiff-necked, it's not hokey. It's a wonderful, real community and my grandfather was a strawberry farmer."
As for the strawberry itself, she added, "they're healthy and they're sweet and they're a natural teeth whitener."
Dennis Lee and his band were the night's performers, performing "everything from Jerry Lee to Roy Orbinson and, of course, Elvis Presley," as Lee put it.
Lee got his start at the Florida Strawberry Festival 31 years ago, as a clown and mime. Subsequently, he asked the fair manager if his band could play there and word came back that that would be okay. Lee quickly put a band together and now, as his grandfather put it, Lee is "getting paid for what I used to spank you for."
A colorful character with a sharp, yet friendly, wit, always in the mood to entertain, Lee said he chose professional performing as a lifelong career because "I like to hear people clap for me."
"I like the opportunity to touch people's lives in a way where you can make a difference and bring happiness to them," Lee said. "I thought through music and comedy, that's the way I could do it."
It was Lee's first performance at the festival's media preview day.
"I don't know what we waited for because he's a favorite at the festival," Joe Newsome said. "I think they'd stone us if Dennis Lee wasn't at the festival every years."
Newsome, for 24 years a Hillsborough County School Board member, forever stands as the namesake for the high school in Lithia. For 30 years, he has served on the board of directors for the Florida Strawberry Festival. He serves on the entertainment committee responsible for bringing big-name acts to the festival.
"We book 22 acts, we do that every year," Newsome said. This year's entertainment includes Trace Adkins, Chubby Checker, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Blake Shelton, Jim Sturr and his orchestra, Mel Tillis, Bobby Vinton and the Gaither Vocal Band.
- See 2013 Florida Strawberry Festival Headliner and Enteratinment Lineup
"I remember when the budget [for entertainment] was $400,000 and we thought that was unreal," Newsome said. Today's budget, including lights and sound, is in the neighborhood of $2 million, he added.
For Newsome, known as one of Plant City's first and longest-serving pharmacists, attendance at the festival has been a lifelong passion. The land he grew up on has since been sold to the Hillsborough County School District, which in turn has used the land for Strawberry Crest High School.
"I remember my dad would give me money to go to the Florida Strawberry Festival all day," Newsome said. "I think a ride cost a quarter then."
Newsome said he was especially proud of the $5 million Madonia Agricultural Center, in which the night's festivities were taking place, and of the two adjacent wings, or side pavilions, which open this year for the first time. (In previous years, tents were used to house the livestock.)
The complex is used during the festival to both house and present everything set to be judged, including "flowers and lambs and steers and hogs."
"It's been a long time coming," this $5 million complex, Newsome said. "We put everything we make back into the festival, and upgrading the grounds for the festival."
It takes about $5 to $6 million to run the festival, Newsome said, and that price would be much higher if it were not for the 3,000 volunteers and unpaid directors.
"It's a family organization and all those volunteers bring the community together," Newsome said.
Paul Davis, the fair manager, also serves on the membership committee.
"The hardest thing is to try to keep the old traditions alive and to bring in the newer stuff," Davis said. "We want to remember who brung us to the dance and we want to keep it fresh and exciting enough to make people come out. That is a hard mixture to do and we work hard to do it."