There’s something about Siesta Key beach on the Fourth of July that makes rain clouds steer clear.
Call it Mother Nature’s patriotic streak — or coincidence — but, once again, the fireworks show sponsored by the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce was threatened by a bit of forecasted rain. And, for the eighth time, lead pyrotechnician Craig Merrill launched an 18-minute dazzling flurry of pops and bangs, all choreographed to music, with no interruption.
But Tropical Storm Debby left little room with which Merrill could work. Usually, volunteers set up the explosive canvas 600 feet from the surf, but they only had 400 feet to navigate for this year’s show.
Thus, the shells were smaller — six inches or less in diameter compared with the eight-inch shells used in the past. And folks who watched from their balconies on Point of Rocks on south Siesta might have noticed the trajectory made viewing difficult. The higher-flying fireworks had to be angled slightly, making the larger mortars explode at smaller heights.
However, the crowd erupted in a roar heard all the way in Siesta Isles after the show ended, and participants said it was one of the best shows in the two-decade history of the event, which was originally conceived to honor Desert Storm troops during the first Iraq War.
Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputy Chris McGregor said at the July 5 Siesta Key Association meeting that there were only seven arrests during the 15-hour shift the previous day. Most of the arrests were for disorderly intoxication, he explained, and there was one petty theft arrest, when an individual from Port Charlotte attempted to steal a bicycle. He said the large digital sign warning beachgoers not to ignite their own personal fireworks show was successful — the downward slope of illegal fireworks citations continued this year.
The 12 officers who patrolled the beach before and after the fireworks show had air support from a helicopter.
“With the number of people, it’s nice to have an eye in the sky,” McGregor said.
Also, a newly formed technology unit was on site to aid beach patrols.
But teenage drinking again plagued the Fourth of July event. McGregor arrested a 15-year-old boy for underage drinking at this year’s Independence Day celebration. “It is a problem, but I think it’s always been a problem before I was a cop,” McGregor said.
“And long before that,” said SKA board member Bob Waechter.
The VIP Beach Party was crowded with nearly 550 people who bought advance tickets that included a parking spot, food and an open bar near the small pavilion on the east side of the main thoroughfare for the $35,000 event, which is underwritten by the Siesta Chamber. There was a shortage of valuable picnic table space for chowing down on shrimp cocktails, a new culinary offering this year.
“We almost really did bring in more tables,” said Kevin Cooper, executive director of the Siesta Chamber.
As the event carried on, more than 12 stragglers purchased wrist bands for the party, and by the time Cooper began helping clean up the beach, the chamber had reached its goal of nearly $35,000 to pay for the fireworks. The Ted Stevens Band entertained the crowd with hits from across the musical and historical spectrum and the chamber’s Jacqueline Abney said that the non-profit organization would likely book a live band next year as opposed to a DJ, which it has done in the past.
The event was, in total, a success according to Chamber Chairman Mark Smith, who held his regular position as the watermelon carver during the party. And the billowing clouds didn’t send event participants scattering for cover as they had in the past, leading to some tight space on the picnic tables lined up for food catered by the Village Café, Captain Curt’s and Mattison’s.
“Last year it monsooned almost right up until the moment when we were getting ready to shoot the fireworks off and the year prior, too, it was very wet,” Cooper said. “We were really blessed.”
The Watermelon Man
Mark Smith took his usual place next to the watermelons during the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Fourth of July VIP Beach Party, ready to serve the juicy fruit on a sweltering afternoon.
“As mundane as it may sound,” Smith said, “it’s actually a very exciting job.”
Smith told the Pelican Press the secret is all in the cutting technique.
“I’ve gone from slicing to carving,” he said.
In the past, Smith would slice watermelon, leaving pieces that sit flat on the table. But he started carving “three-dimensional” pieces that stand on the rind. He even conducted his own food experiment by placing the sliced watermelon on the front of his serving table and the carved pieces in the back.
“People will reach across the table to grab the three-dimensional watermelon pieces,” he explained.
This year, Smith went through seven watermelons, nearly double the amount at last year’s celebration.
“(The VIP Beach Party) was absolutely a success,” he said. “The music was great, the food was great, and the watermelon was great.”
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