Tracking the World’s Most Endearing Gobshite

Wild encounters with 24 -year-old Nat Geo speaker and photographer Bertie Gregory

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Next up in our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series is Nat Geo’s first-ever digital series star, Bertie Gregory. Gregory conceived of and hosts wild_life with Bertie Gregory after an assistantship to famed wild tiger documentarian and Nat Geo speaker Steve Winter (who came to The Straz in the 2014-15 season).

A native of Redding, England, a few miles outside of London, Gregory became obsessed with wildlife early, filching his father’s camera to capture the images he saw in the woods and waters around his home. By the time he was 16, Gregory’s photographs had gained national attention, and he got his first big break at 17 by winning his way into Britain’s ambitious 2020VISION nature photography project. Through luck, pluck and hard work, Gregory eventually won his way into Winter’s coveted assistantship position (we’ll let him tell you that crazy story.) The day after graduating college, Gregory was on a plane with Winter following leopards in South Africa. Since then, he’s been everywhere, eventually convincing Nat Geo Wild to let him launch his own digital series, wild_life, in August 2016.

Charismatic, quick-witted and deeply committed to wildlife, Gregory agreed to chat with us by phone for this exclusive interview about his life, his work and his upcoming visit to Tampa.

BERTIE GREGORY: Oh, I’m very excited to come. It’s gonna be fun. As part of this tour I’m visiting lots of places that I’ve never been.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Well, we love our National Geographic speaker series and we usually interview everybody for our blog who comes through. We actually had Steve here in the 2014 – 2015 season, Steve Winter. That was the year before the two of you guys hooked up for your epic life-changing adventure.

BG [laughs]: Yeah, something like that, yeah. So what kind of repeat business do you guys get? Do you think people in the audience, a significant proportion will have been at that talk?

CITA: You’ll be the first of the new generation of the Nat Geo speakers that’s coming. So, you’re going to be quite different from what we’re usually seeing. But our feeling is that folks who were here for Steve Winter are probably also going be here for you.

BG: Okay, cool. Well, that’s very exciting. That’ll be good. I can play with that.

CITA: If you just get a round of applause in the beginning for people who know of Steve Winter or were here for the talk, you can kind of riff. The audiences love you all. You’ll have a very friendly, very receptive audience. We usually have a lot of kids that ask excellent questions in the Q and A after.

BG: Great, great. When I did my first Nat Geo live presentation, it was at the National Geographic headquarters and half the audience or something is staff. So obviously they all know Steve. I don’t know if you remember much of Steve’s presentation, but every photo in existence of Steve in the field, he’s wearing a headband. That’s like his thing. So anyway, I came out with his headband on and half the room nearly died. But it’s the kind of thing that it’s either really funny or just what? Why are you wearing a headband? Who’s Steve?

CITA: Ha ha, right, which is a little bit of like a wah-wah kind of moment.

BG: Exactly.

Bertie & Steve

Bertie and Steve Winter photographing leopards in South Africa. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: But this is great conversation because it segues right into the first question. We came across your interview with Outdoor Photography magazine. You told this really great anecdote about getting the job with Steve, but I think they edited out some of the good parts. Will tell the story again?

BG [laughs]: Okay.

CITA: So what happened there?

BG: It was at an event called Wild Photos, which doesn’t actually happen anymore in the UK, which is really sad. But it brought together all the best wildlife photographer speakers in the world. The speakers they had there were amazing.

My year was a bit of an anomaly because I had met the person that organizes the speaker program. Well, I’d actually given a talk that she was at in London. She asked if I would like to give a talk on what it was like getting into the industry. So I rocked up at this event to give a talk in front of 600, 700 people at this really prestigious venue, the Royal Geographic Society in London. No connection to National Geographic.

I was way out of my depth because all the other speakers were some of the best wildlife photographers in the world. Steve Winter was there headlining the event. Word got out at the event that he needed a new assistant, he was looking for a new assistant. As you can imagine, this was a Willy Wonka golden ticket moment.

CITA: Of course.

BG: Every man and his dog was basically hounding him for the job at the event. In every break between talks when there’s networking with coffee and stuff, he’d just be surrounded getting hounded.

I figured well, there’s no point trying to compete with that because I have 15 minutes on the Sunday of the weekend. I was the very last talk of the weekend. It’s when no one can interrupt me; I can basically schedule my own job interview and Steve is going to be listening.

It was this amazing opportunity. I figured I’d speak directly to Steve … just with 599 other people in the room. I figured well, go big or go home. So let’s get his attention early on. I decided that it would be for some stupid reason because I think I’m a bit of gobshite, or at least my 17-year-old self was or 18-year-old self was.

And as I said, I basically put on his American accent and retold the story of the night before. How at the speakers’ party, the speakers’ drinks, I stood there surrounded by all of my photographic heroes: Charlie Hamilton James, Andy Ralph, Steve Winter, and they’re all buying me drinks. Then Steve just comes over with a big handful of shots and just says, “Hey, Bertie, time for some shots, brother.” And I just about died and went to heaven.

Anyway, I retold this story. I knew it’s the kind of thing that, with someone like Steve, is either gonna go down really well or really badly. Luckily, before I’d even hit the punchline, I could hear Steve laughing from the top layer in the theater. I was like, “Okay, that went down well, that’s good.”

But I didn’t think it would come of anything. I was just trying to do my best. Then afterwards he came up to me with the natural history editor for National Geographic magazine, Kathy Moran, and they offered me a job on the spot. I thought about it for about point three seconds.

CITA: Right.

Bertie & Steve 2

Bertie and Steve Winter on assignment for National Geographic in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

BG: And yeah, then what is it? Seven months later I graduated from college and the day after … I left graduation early to go home and pack. Because the next day I got on a plane with Steve to South Africa to start working on his leopard story for National Geographic magazine.

So yeah, it was ridiculous. And people ask, “Oh, how did you get in with National Geographic?” And you’re like, “Well, you can’t recreate that. That was just one of those things.” So yeah, that’s the story.

CITA: That is so funny. All right, so for your American audience, what is a gobshite?

BG: A gobshite, that’s probably not a very good phrase to use. It’s rude. So gobshite is probably, not literally like a big mouth that’s good at talking, ’cause that implies it’s a bit like, “Oh, look how great I am.” It’s more subtle than that I think. I don’t know. What’s a synonym for gobshite? You know, it was my cocky teenage self. Does that make sense?

CITA: Yes. In the south we say a ‘jackjaw’ or ‘jabberjaw.’ Is this your first time coming to Florida?

BG: I’ve been to Florida once when I was two. And I’ve been told by my mom that I cried the entire time.

CITA: We hope that doesn’t happen this time.

BG: I hope I won’t repeat that. Yeah, I think we went looking for alligators on those, the swamp hovercrafts and, yeah, apparently I made it a living hell for everyone involved.

CITA: We have a lot of Nat Geo people who do work in Florida because it’s so spectacular here in terms of wildlife. We were looking through your Instagram, and you and Steve went down and did the story on leopards and jaguars. We have a lot of alligators here, but many people don’t know that in the Pantanal, jaguars hunt caiman [a crocodilian similar to an alligator].

BG: Right.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like being out there and capturing footage like that?

BG: I mean it’s … I think people have a very romantic idea of wildlife film making. In that we … and this is not a rant. In that we just gallivant around the world having a wonderful time and we just go from amazing place to the next and the animals are just dancing in front of the camera the entire time. [laughs]

Of course, the reality isn’t like that at all. You spend most of your time swearing at baggage trollies in airports. Yes, we’re incredibly lucky we get to go to some amazing places. But most of the time, pretty much nothing is happening. But all of the getting bitten by mosquitoes, being sunburned, freezing cold, all of that stuff, all that waiting and boredom is all totally forgotten—the mind has a great way of forgetting pain—in just a few moments that happen per year.

I’d say I probably get, I don’t know, three or four moments a year when … 10 seconds, 15 second moments when I go, “Yeah, this is amazing. This is so lucky. Yeah, I’m very, very fortunate to do what I do.” One of those was seeing the jaguars down in the Pantanal hunting the caiman. I mean we waited, we spent 45 days on the river down there. It was all summarized in one shot really, which was 30 seconds of absolute carnage.

That’s one of the only times I’ve been looking down the viewfinder and gone, “Oh, my god, I’m actually in a wildlife documentary right now.” That sounds really stupid, but it’s true.

CITA: Well, it’s super humanizing to know that you, in the middle of your wildlife documentary, are like, “Oh, my god, I’m in a wildlife documentary.”

BG: Yeah, totally. It’s funny, when you do get those spectacular moments, I think you’d think it’s a really enjoyable thing. But actually, the more crazy the piece of behavior, the rarer the piece of behavior that you’re looking at, the more stressful and scary it is. ‘Cause the only thing going through my head is, “Don’t fuck this up.”

Then afterwards, once you’ve seen that the shot’s in focus and not wobbly and you were hitting the record button, then it’s the enjoyment of, “Okay, yeah, that was really special.” But in the moment, I don’t find it enjoyable at all. It’s horrible.

baby ocelot

Bertie encountered this baby ocelot that was part of the illegal wildlife trade and is now in a rescue center. She ran over when he leaned down to photograph her. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Man, so that is super cool. Not that it’s horrible for you, but to know that’s the reality of what you experience. Let us follow that up with a question which is really about the ethics of wildlife photography. Back to what you said about you’re there for 45 days and it’s summed up in 30 seconds: but, consumers of your work see the 30 seconds. So it looks instantaneous, the animal encounter. Then you have people who want to jump in their johnboats and go play with wild animals. What are your thoughts about the ethics of animal encounters?

BG: The mystique, I mean jokes aside, yeah, bad things happen when you do things that you don’t have the experience for. I’ve had experience with a bunch of animals and you apply what works with particular species to different ones. The ones that are potentially dangerous, of course you work with experts who teach you exactly how to do it. Because it’s just selfish and irresponsible to be near or trying to get near to an animal that you don’t know how to interact with.

Because if that animal, what if that animal harms you? That is so unacceptable because who gives a shit about your own personal safety and that you were harmed? The fact is, that animal, unfortunately in the world that we live in, the moment an animal lays a finger on a human, that animal has a death sentence. Particularly in North America.

You talk about any bear, any wolf, any predator, if it ever—in the extremely unlikely event that it were to attack you or have an aggressive encounter in any way—that animal has a death sentence now. That to me is so, so unacceptable to do.

The term ‘the subject comes first’ is 100% true. If the subject doesn’t come first, then if you’re just looking out for the product you’re trying to produce, then I think you’re in the wrong industry.

CITA: Right.

BG: Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry shares that opinion and those people give wildlife film making a bad name.

I think the moment you’re on camera, you have a massive responsibility. You really have to ask yourself why is it you that is on camera? If the reason that you’re on camera is for the sake of being on camera and you want to be famous and on TV, then there’s plenty of industries that that’s great for. Wildlife film making is not one of those.

All of the people that I want to work with in the industry and all the people that I’ve encountered that I’ve learned the most from and are the best at what they do, are the ones that are in it because they’re obsessed with wildlife first. And filming it is merely a great excuse for spending time outside with animals. It’s just a portal to focus your obsession.

CITA: You’ve been obsessed for a really long time. You said elsewhere that something like everybody you went to school with thought that you were an ‘absolute freak.’ This was just because you were different?

BG [laughs]: Oh, come on, you know sneaking off and skipping football practice to go jump in a river and film some swans is not a normal thing that a 14-year-old, 15-year-old should be doing. Yeah, of course at school ‘different’ is always weird.

But, the older I’ve got and the different people that I’m around, I wish I could’ve told my 15-, 16-year-old self, “Look, people will think you’re a freak now, but in a few years’ time, you’ll very quickly realize that normal is really boring.” And mad crazy obsessions with things are amazing and that’s what can lead you onto [your life] … [that’s] why I get to go all over the world and film animals. And get other people excited about what I’m excited about. I’m very fortunate.

So yeah, whenever I’ve given talks to schools, you often see the cool kids that aren’t really paying attention in the corner. I love calling them out ’cause it just makes them squirm. ‘Cause you’re not so much of a cool kid when 500 people are looking at you.

CITA: Right.

BG: Or they’ve made fun of some kid in the front for asking a geeky question. The great thing is I can connect with geeky kids in a way that perhaps some of my older peers can’t—in that I wasn’t at high school that long ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. So, I know how it works.

Saying to the nerdy kid in the front, “Just ’cause people might think that what you’re into is weird, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it and run with it. Because in five years’ time, yeah, you could be getting on a plane to go and film for National Geographic.” Rather than just worrying about who’s into the latest trend or the latest music or whatever. So yeah. I guess that’s what I’d say to that.

humpback whale

While filming on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Bertie encountered this 40-ton, 50-foot long humpback whale. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: That’s super cool. Like we said, we’re really excited to see the next generation arrive in this series to educate us and show us all the stuff that you’ve been doing. Our audience is just going to go bananas over you. So outside of the well-known coastal wolf experience that you had, what are your top three coolest moments in the field?

BG: Oh, man, that’s a hard question.

CITA: Yeah, the top three, top three. And this is going in print, so these better be good.

BG: Oh, Christ. Right, okay. Well, coastal wolf for sure.

CITA: Wait, you can’t use that one.

BG: I can’t? Why not?

CITA: Because we said outside of the coastal wolf what are your top three?

BG: What? Okay. So, it’s four really, you’ve lied. Okay. So I would go with seeing a peregrine falcon fly in front of the houses of Parliament in London. That was when I was 17, 16. That was when I was like, “Yeah, this is cool. This is really cool.” You can find wildlife in a city that’s just as exciting as anywhere else.

CITA: All right, cool. Number two?

BG: The jaguar and the caiman, I guess.

CITA: Are you just saying that because we brought it up?

BG: No, no, no, that honestly was. But I don’t know. So … this is going out before my talk? I don’t know if we want to say ‘spoiler alert.’


A male jaguar hunting caiman in Brazil’s northern Pantanal. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Okay, okay, okay. We’ll rephrase the question then. Are there any encounters that had to go on the cutting room floor of your talk that you wish you could talk about if you had more time?

BG: Oh, I see. Hmm. This wasn’t necessarily like the highlight of … it wasn’t necessarily an amusing wildlife experience.

CITA: That’s fine.

BG: But it was just funny the places that wildlife film making can take you and the ridiculous situations it can get you in. I was in Amsterdam filming for a Dutch cinema film about the wildlife of Amsterdam. It’s called Wild City (De Wilde Stad). It actually premiers quite soon.

I was on the roof of a bank, like mini skyscraper. Like a bank tower block. I was filming peregrine falcons, and I had a Dutch camera assistant. We sat on this roof for probably a week, basically all day, every day, sat on the roof waiting for the adult peregrines. They were nesting on a building that was right next to us. We were at eye level to the birds as they flew in and out and we filmed them hunting over the city.

We had a helicopter come quite close to us and really low. We were like, “Oh, that looks like a police helicopter, that’s weird.” It circled us a few times and then flew off. Then my camera assistant, who was Dutch said, “Bertie, you’re probably gonna want to read this.”

And he was looking at the 85, which is by the main Amsterdam news channel. There was a news article on the front page of that online newspaper that said, it translated literally to say, “Panic over sniper on bank roof.”

CITA: Oh, no.

BG: People thought I was a shooter and they’d rung the police and sent the police over to check out what I was doing. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was just minding my own business filming birds. So yeah, it’s amazing the kind of sticky situations that film making can put you in.

CITA: Wow. Yeah, man, you really lucked out there. What is next for you? You have a super amazing wild life, do you have something like a bucket list?

BG: Well, at my NG Live, I’m gonna tease what’s coming next. Over Christmas and New Year, I was down in the sub-Antarctic filming something very, very, very cool. And it’s one of the holy grails of wildlife film making. I expected it to be phenomenal, but it blew my expectations out of the water.

CITA: And you’re not going to tell us what it is.

BG: I’m not. But it’s gonna be coming out in the summer, and it’s really, really exciting.

CITA: Well, we can’t wait to see you next week.

BG: Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.


A photo from Bertie’s trip to the sub-Antarctic, approaching the Neumayer Glacier. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

Get your tickets to A Wild Life with Bertie Gregory  for his appearance in Ferguson Hall March 8.

If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere

Musicians and actors who make the leap to Broadway

Kill Bill super-assassin Uma Thurman skillfully executed a Broadway debut in The Parisian Woman in November 2017, as did rock ‘n’ roll superstar Bruce Springsteen in September, when he broke box office records and added Boss of Broadway to his long list of artistic credentials with his show Springsteen on Broadway. Michael Moore, political provocateur and filmmaker, took to Broadway in August with The Terms of My Surrender, his one-man limited engagement.


Fania Borach, known professionally as Fanny Brice, circa 1920. (Photo: George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress)

Local lore has it that the American crossover star phenomenon started around 1910 with Fanny Brice (the “Funny Girl” later played by Barbra Streisand), who made it on Broadway then took to Hollywood and radio. Brice set many precedents in her career, and this notion that performing artists launched a career in one field and conquered the next challenge as they gained success laid the foundation for stars to take the Broadway Challenge: they might be good singers or actors, but can they handle the greatest test of all, the demands of performing live at the epicenter of theater?

Take, for example, multi-platinum crooner Josh Groban, who debuted in the 2017 surprise hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 and walked away with a Tony nomination for Best Lead Actor in a Musical. Carly “Call Me Maybe” Rae Jepsen donned the glass slippers for Cinderella, and teeny-bopper heartthrob Nick Jonas took over for Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) as the lead in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Probably one of the best musical vehicles for pop singers is Chicago, and that cast has welcomed Ashlee Simpson, Sofia Vergara, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson and R&B superstars Brandy and Usher, among others.

In March, Deborah Cox, the Grammy-winning and multi-platinum recording artist, takes on the role of Rachel Marron in the musical adaptation of the Whitney Houston from diva-to-screen-siren crossover Hollywood hit The Bodyguard. Cox, who made her Broadway debut in Aida, started her career as a backup singer for Celine Dion and eventually made a place for herself on Broadway. She also starred in Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway and at The Straz in 2013.

The Bodyguard

Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron, with Jaquez André Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera in The Bodyguard. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cox, who proved her versatility on screen, stage and in the recording studio, continues to join the rising ranks of performers blurring the lines between “what kind” of star they want to be. With Springsteen’s success on Broadway in basically a troubadour stint and Kinky Boots inking Panic at the Disco! frontman Brandon Urie and Scissor Sisters rocker Jake Shears to rack up ticket sales, there’s certainly a safe bet for a box office draw of known names and faces in new territory. For Cox, of course, there’s the added pressure of stepping into some mighty big Whitney Houston-sized shoes. “I want to make sure that [Houston is] represented right. I know what the expectations are. …That’s pretty much what I’m going in there to do – give it my all, really make this show a huge success because the show deserves it. She deserves it. Her legacy deserves it,” Cox said in a 2016 interview with

To catch Cox* as Rachel Marron, get tickets for The Bodyguard playing in Morsani Hall March 20-25 here.

*Deborah Cox is not scheduled to perform at the Saturday matinee or Sunday evening performances.

Feel the Love Tonight

Hot onstage kisses from the land of Broadway in honor of Valentine’s Day

Love is often a many-splendored thing on Broadway. Equally often, it is a non-splendored thing (oh, Alexander Hamilton … but we’ll endure that moment next season). And, not quite as often, love is turned inside-out, upside-down and simultaneously ridiculed and held to lofty heights (anyone seen Edward Albee’s The Goat recently?).

In honor of Cupid’s busy day, we’re looking at the Broadway love scenes to look forward to for the rest of this season.

Alert: spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t already seen the shows.

If you read The Color Purple or saw the Whoopi Goldberg film, you know there’s a delicate, daring and sweet little kiss between Shug and Celie as the women embark upon an exploration of their relationship. In the show, it inspires Celie to start the touching duet, “What About Love?”

There’s hardly a 40-something alive who saw Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in the movie The Bodyguard who doesn’t remember the scarf-and-sword scene. The sexual tension, well, you could cut with a knife. *Ahem, sword.* So, there’s plenty of tension to spread throughout a musical featuring Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron, who, as you and her bodyguard Frank Carter must discover, has an irresistible charm.

Ahhhhhh … the hills are alive with the sound of Captain Von Trapp finally kissing Maria in The Sound of Music and Carole King’s romantic encounters in Beautiful—the Carole King Musical.

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giphy (11)

Some of our other favorite onstage smooches from shows that have played The Straz before include Cinderella

CinderellaTour3135r_Hayden Stanes and Tatyana Lubov in Rodgers + Hammerstein_s CINDERELLA. © Carol Rosegg

Hayden Stanes and Tatyana Lubov in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

…and, of course, what’s more romantic than The Book of Mormon’s duet “Baptize Me”?

Oh, and we can’t forget Elphaba.


After all, nothing says “I love you” like a tendency to get a little wicked.

Lady with the Million Dollar Smile

Diamond Teeth Mary sparkles as part of the Straz Center’s Rock the Riverwalk local musicians’ hall of fame.

Mary 4

Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

We’ve had a lot of legends grace the stages at The Straz. Around Tampa, we’ve been blessed with our own backyard musical demigods, many of whom people don’t realize grew up, lived or died right here in the Cigar City.

When it came time for us to plan something cool to commemorate our local artists for the Straz Center’s 30th anniversary season this year, we looked to our in-house musical legend Maggie Council di Pietra to help us compile a sample of some of the Tampa area’s famous and infamous musical lights.

Mary 1

Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Among these, we find the inimitable “Diamond Teeth” Mary, Mary Smith (half-sister to blues legend Bessie Smith), who found her way to Bradenton in 1960 after several successful years as a circus acrobat and, later, as a performer in the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The story goes that she stole a diamond bracelet from her abusive stepmother, disguised herself as a boy and jumped a train in Huntington, West Va. to run off and join the circus. The diamonds, which she initially sold off one by one to pay her way in life eventually made it into her teeth when she was a singer. As Mary tells it, she ended up selling the diamonds to pay for medical bills, right before she was rediscovered by a folklorist and immortalized by the Smithsonian.

“Mary was incredible,” says Dr. Blues, who worked with Mary to produce her album Walking Mary’s Blues. “She performed with Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati in 1954. She was a big deal. She had a great sense of humor and was always telling stories, though I never heard one about stealing the diamond bracelet from an abusive stepmother. She did sell them to pay for medical bills, though.” When Dr. Blues met Mary, she was substituting aluminum foil and Polygrip for her shiny smile, but some blues friends chipped in and got her diamond teeth back for her last tours. “I think it was cubic zerconia, but still,” says Dr. Blues, “the ‘diamonds’ were back eventually.”

Mary 2

Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Mary Smith died in 2000, a beloved member of the Tampa area blues community. Below, you’ll find a reprint of the memorial Straz Center grant writer and local legend Maggie di Pietra (who consulted for the Rock the Riverwalk exhibit) published in the St. Petersburg Times.

To see the rest of the people highlighted in the Rock the Riverwalk free exhibit, visit the Straz Center and cruise by the grassy knoll between the river and Morsani Hall.

Riverwalk collage


Diamond Teeth Mary
Remembering the ‘Queen of Blues’
by Maggie Council di Pietra
The original article appeard in the St. Petersburg Times April 28, 2000. Copyright © 2000 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

One thing is for certain, people in this area will never forget Diamond Teeth Mary.

We in the Tampa Bay area were lucky to share Diamond Teeth Mary’s last years.

When she died at 97 earlier this month, the memories flooded in.

Folks remembered her birthday parties at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, which drew crowds of blues enthusiasts, players and performers. Or her appearances at the Silver King Tavern in St. Petersburg.

Mary once sat in at the Silver King with showman James Peterson during a late-night set. She sang so well that Peterson, with a new battery pack on his electric guitar rig, went down on Central Avenue, lay down and stuck his feet in the air while he played, still able to hear Mary from inside.

Where blues rang out in Tampa Bay, Diamond Teeth Mary wasn’t far away.

Now, a party has been planned to celebrate Diamond Teeth Mary’s life and spirit. She pretty much planned it herself.

Harmonica growler Rock Bottom, a close friend of Mary’s for 20 years, explained that “Mary didn’t want a funeral but she wanted a party. She outlined the whole deal, down to the red beans and rice and stuff.”

Mary wanted it held at Skipper’s, and she wanted people who knew her to get together and play. Not like a series of band showcases. More like how it used to be, playing on someone’s porch.

“There’s no structure,” says Bottom. “That would be the music biz, and this is a memorial for Mary, and never the twain shall meet.”

The music industry was never kind to Diamond Teeth Mary, but she managed to perform and make a living for 85 years without its help.

Mary Smith McClain started her performing career when Billie Holiday was in diapers and Robert Johnson was a toddler. But her Cinderella story of running away from home in 1915 at age 13 to escape an evil stepmother had no prince charming; it was Mary’s own skills as an acrobat and singer that enabled her to survive.

By the time Muddy Waters and B.B. King were born, Mary Smith had years under her belt as a dancer and acrobat for the traveling minstrel/medicine shows across the Chitlin’ Circuit and had started to sing. Medicine shows, which were popular roughly from the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, were traveling troupes featuring free entertainment interjected with pitches for ointments and tonics — the same format adopted later by television, which played a huge role in the medicine shows’ loss of popularity by creating stars that many people could see at once.

Mary’s talent for drawing a crowd earned her a place with the best of the shows. She traveled in troupes like Irwin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show and for 11 years as part of the infamous Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Mary was commonly promoted as “Queen of the Blues” on the same bill with luminaries such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ray Charles.

Life on the road for black performers wasn’t exactly limousines and room service in those days. Often the troupes had to travel miles out of their way just to find a place where they could eat or sleep, only to be relegated to the back yard.

One of Mary’s contemporaries was Bessie Smith, who was a big sister figure for Mary until her death in 1937 in an automobile accident. In an interview in the early 1990s, Mary remembered seeing Bessie lying on a stretcher on the hospital floor. She lay there so long, Mary said, that her blood clotted on the floor. Although Bessie Smith was a huge star, a black woman in a hospital couldn’t expect to get immediate attention.

Along the way, Mary became known as Diamond Teeth Mary for the diamonds she lodged in her teeth. Mary knew how to play an audience as well as tell a story, and the survivalist persona she had crafted was well-honed.

Why the diamonds? Some said they were an on-the-road hiding place for diamonds from a bracelet her mother had given her. In other stories, the diamonds were from a necklace she stole from her abusive stepmother. In another interview, Mary said, “All the singers were doing stuff like that [then], with gold in the 1940s. I did diamonds, just to have something to make me stick out.”

During some of the leanest years, the diamonds were replaced for a while with tinfoil. In a recent interview, Mary’s caretaker said that Mary’s mother had come down with cancer, so Mary had her teeth pulled and pawned the diamonds to pay for her mother’s care. Later in Mary’s life, some Tampa Bay friends helped her have new diamonds installed.

Diamond Teeth Mary was booked at the old Palms Club on U.S. 301 in Bradenton when she decided to retire there in 1960.

It was the end of one era for Mary, but the beginning of another. She married Clifford McClain, her second husband and followed him to church. Mary moved her genre of focus from the blues to gospel music, which she claimed she had never sung before 1964. Mary became a star at church, singing Precious Lord and Amazing Grace, while falling into relative obscurity as interest waned in the blues.

In the late 1970s, when the blues was enjoying a resurgence of interest, Mary was “discovered” by folklorists who invited her to perform at the Florida Folk Festival. Her performance there brought down the house and earned her an invitation to a performance at the White House in 1980.

Why didn’t Diamond Teeth Mary record when all her contemporaries seemed to be doing it? She somehow evaded the recording studio in favor of live performances for decades. Some said it was her temperament; Mary liked to work things on her own terms and burned her share of bridges along the way.

University of South Florida anthropologist Maria Vesperi received an NEA grant in 1982 to archive some of Diamond Teeth Mary’s performances and stories on video. Vesperi offers another view: “Mary was a country person. She had the opportunities, she was sought after, but she didn’t want it — didn’t want the city life that went with being a recording star at that time, to have to live in an urban area. She liked being on the road.”

Vesperi tells how Mary’s occasional outward prickliness was explained to her one time by Johnny Morgan, who owned the Stuffed Pepper on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, one of the few blues venues around the bay area in the early 1980s. “It’s a survival strategy — it’s a defense. Johnny said he would have to look her in the eye and say, “Mary, you got paid.’ At her age, she never knew when her next gig would come up, and she took every gig for all its worth.”

Mary liked the attention she got from singing in church. “She’d been kicked out of several churches by the time I met her,” says Vesperi. “She was a genuinely spiritual woman, and it meant a lot for her to have a church. I believe it was a tough time for her, that the other church ladies didn’t like her singing in bars.”

But Mary thought of it as a mission. Who needed to hear God’s word more than those sorry souls hanging at bars? And Mary would work a little church into her blues — for free. Others who knew Mary also cite her struggle with a personal, internal conflict between religion and blues.

The 18 hours of video funded by Vesperi’s grant have never been edited. The reels were shot by nationally known cinematographer Nick Petrick, digitized last year for protection and archived at USF. Vesperi is seeking funding for post-production work.

The juke joints and dance halls Mary had played for black customers in earlier decades gave way to international audiences at festival stages, blues bars and even Carnegie Hall.

Mary never had any children, so there were no close kin around during her later years. It seems the blues community in Tampa Bay was her adopted family.

In 1996, local blues luminaries put on an all-star jam/concert to raise money for Mary, whose apartment had been damaged in a fire. Acoustic blues guitarist Roy Bookbinder helped Mary get a working telephone, and Rock Bottom and his friend St. Petey Twigg took Mary — wheelchair and all — on tours of Europe.

Traveling with Mary was an experience for Rock Bottom. “The first time she went [with St. Petey Twigg] to Sweden and Norway, she left all her Norwegian money, which was a considerable amount, in the trash in her hotel room. When presented with the money, and asked if perhaps she’d forgotten it, Mary angrily replied, “Don’t give me that gumbo money. You’re not gonna fool me. I want dollars!’ Mary was paid in U.S. dollars for the remainder of her tour.”

Locally-based blues diva Sandy Atkinson met Mary late in her life. About six years ago, Atkinson had just moved to the Tampa Bay area and was thinking maybe she was too old to pursue a lifelong dream of a career singing the blues. Then she saw Diamond Teeth Mary perform one night at the Ringside in St. Petersburg, and it gave her the chills. “Here I was, 40 years old off to see the wizard and there was this incredible woman onstage. She was just bouncing all over that wheelchair, and I had to go up and shake her hand.”

Atkinson wrote a song and recorded it on her latest CD called She Rocked, a tribute to Mary and how she influenced others with her tremendous energy and distinctive style.