One More Time from the Top

The explosive partnership of Broadway star Gwen Verdon and choreographer/director Bob Fosse finally goes mainstream in a new miniseries from F/X starting Tues., April 9.

Even if you know absolutely NOTHING about Broadway, you know about “jazz hands.” And if you know a little about Broadway, you know the man responsible for crystallizing the impact of jazz hands in a musical is Bob Fosse. If you know A LOT about Broadway, especially Broadway dance, you know that Fosse is kind of a god, kind of a sad sack of a boy-man, and completely credited with inventing the modern musical on stage and screen.

And if you really, really know a lot about Broadway dance, you know Fosse’s jazz hand style came straight from Al Jolson and the Nicolas Brothers and his ascension into mythical status wouldn’t have happened without Gwen Verdon. (Or dancer Joan McCracken, but that’s another miniseries for another time.) In other words, Fosse didn’t happen in a vacuum, and there’s a lot more to his legacy than the man himself.

Around here, we don’t care how much or how little you know about Broadway history, but we do get excited to see such an important story in the evolution of American art get the royal treatment from a major network—and a gigantic advertising budget to ensure the word’s getting around.

On the off chance you’ve been distracted by other news lately, we’ll bring you up to speed: Sam Rockwell (Charlie’s Angels; The Green Mile; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri among a million others) plays the cigarette-booze-pill-and-sex-addicted mercurial, enchanting and inspiring Bob Fosse. Tony-winning evergreen ingenue Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, The Greatest Showman and the play Blackbird) stars as redheaded triple threat and saving-grace-guiding-light-hard-as-nails-showgirl Gwen Verdon. The series, Fosse/Verdon, starts on Tuesday, April 9. The series plays out over eight episodes, taking audiences through fifty years—thirty of which center around the Verdon-Fosse creative collaboration that overtook their lives and changed the American entertainment landscape forever.

Verdon and Fosse were colleagues (she was a huge Broadway star when he was an up-and-coming choreographer with only The Pajama Game under his belt), then lovers, then spouses, then parents, then separated. During that time, the combined force of Bob’s visionary genius and Gwen’s dancing/comedic/technical/personal brilliance delivered Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, Chicago and Cabaret to name a few. Their daughter, Nicole Fosse, co-executive produced the miniseries and guided much of the artistic interpretation of the source material, Sam Wasson’s metaphorically and physically heavy biography, Fosse.

The Fosse/Verdon production involves current Broadway game changers. Lin Manuel-Miranda also produces the show, and Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson penned the teleplay. Seasoned fave Norbert Leo Butz stars as Fosse’s intellectual pal, the playwright Paddy Chayefsky, and previous Chicago stars Susan Misner (a.k.a. Stan Beeman’s Wife from The Americans) and Bianca Marroquin play McCracken and Chita Rivera, respectively. Newcomer Kelli Barrett (Getting’ the Band Back Together) landed the choice role of Liza Minelli, and we’ll get to see Ethan Slater (SpongeBob in the selfsame musical) tackle Joel Grey. A few newly-minted recognizable faces from hit television shows also make an appearance, namely the lithe and lovely Margaret Qualley as Ann Reinking, Fosse’s ultimate girlfriend-of-girlfriends after the split with Verdon.

In all, it’s a heck of a cast, a dynamite production team and a timely moment in entertainment history to attempt a more authentic look at the disturbing behaviors that drove such a towering creative partnership. It’s also time for Gwen Verdon to get her due for the living generations of Broadway fans who know Fosse but say “Gwen who?”

Another note, since we’re talking Fosse, is that we decided to name our Straz Center coffee shop after the very dance that made Bob Fosse a Broadway name—Steam Heat, from the eponymous dance number everyone loves in The Pajama Game. It’s also worth noting that one of Ann Reinking’s students, Kelly King, now directs our Patel Conservatory Popular Dance Program.

Students posing with Ann Reinking at the Patel Conservatory’s ground breaking in 2004.

So, grab your ultra-sheer black tights, garter belts and French cut leotards for what we hope to be a *fingers crossed* riveting immersion into all that jazz.

Gimme a Beat

Ultra fan fave Tap Dogs returns with new blokes, new moves and new drummers—the jaw-dropping duo of Warped Tour veteran Caitlin Kalafus and Final Fantasy percussionist Noriko Terada.

Tap Dogs drummers Noriko Terada and Caitlin Kalafus. (Photo from Instagram: noriko_terada_drumsume)

For those of us who were around in the 90s when Tap Dogs made its first tours in the United States, the sight of barrel-chested, be-jean-shorted Aussie beefcakes slapping their Blundstone work boots around a minimalist construction zone was a revelation of the form. Tap Dogs drilled down into the idea of percussion as a prosaic, pedestrian fact of life. The show deconstructed (if you will) tap dance and rebuilt the notion of how beat-making could look and sound. Industrial. Rough. There could be flannel involved—and water and working-class sight gags.

Naturally, the show skyrocketed in popularity. By 1997, four separate tours of the show traveled the world to meet the demand of folks wanting to see the blue-collar dance phenomenon from Down Under.

Photo from Instagram: @tapdogsofficial

Dein Perry, the show’s creator and choreographer (himself a former steelworker from Newcastle, Australia), tweaked the show as times changed, leveling up the moves, upgrading sets and stunts, continually modifying the show to keep it as exciting as those first tours. Today, Tap Dogs is seeing a revival of sorts; it seems as if the next generation of live performance audiences finally got a gander at the show.

No doubt the new incarnation of Tap Dogs is greatly enhanced by the percussive talents of the show’s drummers, who now perform onstage with the Dogs. One they hired fresh off her Warped Tour and stint as Cyndi Lauper’s drummer and the other is best known for her unforgettable work as the percussionist for all the Final Fantasy video games.

The two—Caitlin Kalafus and Noriko Terada—symbolize why Tap Dogs maintains its popularity: they are really cool. And, like the Dogs, neither is reserved in the least when it comes to full-on hammering away with their tools. Their maniacal glee matches the intensity of the rough-and-ready dancing to a T, often pushing the guys to their limits as the women drive a relentless, fun, and mind-blowing force of sound for the show.

Caitlin Kalafus started gigging as a drummer at 12 years old, playing in bars and eventually winning Disney’s Next Big Thing competition with her band Kicking Daisies.

Here’s some grainy footage of an unknown Caitlin crushing the drums at The Orange Ale House on Cinco de Mayo 2007. She’s 13 years old:

And here’s Caitlin twelve years later warming up before the curtain rises on Tap Dogs in Durham, NC, just a few stops from the show’s run in Morsani Hall March 29-31:

Caitlin landed a spot with Mother Feather on the Vans Warped Tour 2017, then gigged with Cyndi Lauper’s band while the 80s icon toured last year. Kalafus has appeared as a guest drummer on Late Night with Seth Myers and as a spokesperson for Zildjian cymbals. She rocks.

Kalafus’s counterpart, the Japanese wunderkind Noriko Terada, joined Tap Dogs in 2012 after a super successful career as the percussionist for Video Game Orchestra, featured in the Final Fantasy series. Terada’s training began at 3 years old with piano, but at 11 she discovered the drums and that was that. Terada—as you will see and hear in the show—can play anything that makes noise. She’s fun to watch, which you’ll discover at the show, too. She also rocks, gigs everywhere and represents Japan for Hits Like a Girl, the international, girls-only drum competition.

Check out the Tap Dogs official Insta account for some killer videos of Caitlin and Noriko rehearsing for the current tour, like this one:

From the Hip: Q&A with Piff the Magic Dragon and The World’s Only Magic Performing Chihuahua™, Mr. Piffles

If the phrase “magic performing chihuahua” didn’t have you clamoring for tickets on our website, maybe this down-and-dirty Q&A with said pup’s pet human—wacky magician Piff the Magic Dragon—will give you a little more hype for this unusual show arriving in early April.

The Straz Center’s INSIDE magazine managing editor Carol Cohen caught up with Piff, who is unrecognizable as his alias John van der Put, for a rapid-fire interview we’re posting exclusively on the blog. Piff and Mr. Piffles toured with Mumford and Sons, also scrounging up quite a bit of acclaim a few seasons ago on America’s Got Talent (he’s British but lives in Vegas, so.)

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Piff the Magic Dragon and Mr. Piffles.

How did you get started in the business?
I started off as a magician, working in bars and restaurants before moving on to private parties, corporate dinners and other calamities.

What’s always in your refrigerator?
I have no idea. Last time I looked, there were three bottles of root beer and something possibly resembling cheese. Or cake. Or bacon. That was six months ago, and I haven’t dared since.

What is your worst quality?
Refusing to open the refrigerator.

What music is on your playlist?
That new Mumford & Sons album, Delta.

What’s your sign and what does it say about you?
My sign is Gemini, which loosely translated from the original Latin means “don’t touch me.”

Read any good books lately?
Yep. Fox 8 by George Saunders.

Cat person or dog person?
More like a Chihuahua person. Which is somewhere in between. It’s like a cat with love.

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Photo from Instagram: @mrpiffles

What’s the greatest thing since sliced bread?
Sliced cheese.

What’s your “guilty pleasure” television show?
Adventure Time. Why would they cancel it?

In the movie version of your life, who would play you?
I heard the Geico Gecko is interested in the part.

What are your thoughts about our great state of Florida?
Why do you have so many snakes and crocodiles? The only reptiles that should be allowed are magical mythical ones, I.e., me.

Who or what inspires you?
Mr. Piffles. Every day. His endless optimism that chicken is just around the corner at any given moment.

What do you consider your greatest successes – personally and professionally?
Professionally, being the first magic dragon to headline my own show in Las Vegas at The Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Personally? The discovery of Bacon Cheese Cake.

If you hadn’t chosen a career as an entertainer, what other career path do you think you’d have followed?
Maybe fronting a series of adverts for Geico.

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The magic man in the dragon suit appears with his chihuahua in Ferguson Hall on April 4. Check ‘em out!

Belting Reigns: An Exclusive Interview with Storm Large

Rocker, chanteuse and raconteur Storm Large (yes, her real name) is a consummate performer—storyteller, writer, high-decibel rock belter, actress and crooner in the woozy, boozy husky-dusky style. After her stint on Rock Star: Supernova catapulted her into America’s living rooms, she became a household name, ultimately re-directing her career trajectory to fronting for Pink Martini, the ultra-hip, multi-lingual contemporary big band everybody loves. Storm formed her own bands The Balls and, most recently, Le Bonheur, both gaining a cult-like fan base. Striking, vulnerable, brutally honest and still eager to grind through the influences of her punk rock youth in her cabaret show, Storm is an experience that matches her name.

We caught up with Storm on the phone during her east coast tour, which stops by The Straz on Thursday, April 4, to chat about the price of reality-TV fame, her career and food.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

Caught in the Act: You seem to be a thinking woman, an angry woman, a thoughtful woman’s woman. You’ve been open about your background with Crazy Enough, a one-woman-show about reckoning with your mom’s mental illnesses that you turned into a memoir. You were famous on television for a while when you were on Supernova in 2006, and you’ve come to what appears to be, at least in your other interviews, a peaceful place of acceptance. You’re in this different part of your career from The Rocker Storm Large. Do you feel like a famous person or do you feel like a normal person who is very visible?

Storm Large: I don’t really feel like a famous person. I don’t know what a famous person would typically feel like. When I was on television and right when I got off television, I was kind of famous. I did not like that. Right now, I feel really great. I think I don’t feel famous. Not that being famous is necessarily a bad thing. Not to disparage people who are famous. I didn’t enjoy that experience very much. It was frightening, and it was very weird, and awkward, and incredibly demanding. And a weird responsibility to strangers that I’d rather not have.

CITA: Did you feel that you had to “perform” their idea of you?

SL: No, I felt like I had to hide. In terms of dealing with people in the public, when I was feeling like a famous person, I was very, very, very, very, very, very self-aware about be nice, be nice, be nice, don’t give anyone any reason to say something nasty about you. When little kids come up to you and their parents are pushing them towards you for whatever reason, be very gentle. Try not to swear. When people start crying because they’re meeting you, don’t laugh because you’re like, “What the hell are you crying about?” You know, “Why are you crying?” People would offer incredibly, dangerously, personal information about themselves to me, as if they had a very intimate relationship with me. It was really not what I liked. I did not enjoy it. I always try to perform at the top level of whatever I’m doing. When I’m on stage, I always try to, you know, when it’s time to perform. I definitely always do my best, whether someone thinks I’m famous or not.

CITA: You said elsewhere about feeling like you, yourself, are a cabaret storyteller. The term “cabaret” is sometimes confusing for people. When you come down here, most of our audience will probably recognize you from the work that you’ve done with Pink Martini. Will you talk a little bit about what means to you to be a cabaret singer?

SL: It doesn’t mean anything really to me … people call me a cabaret singer because I’m not a rock singer. I’m not an opera singer. I’m not a jazz singer. Cabaret just kind of encompasses any genre that doesn’t really necessarily have a genre. It’s kind of a lazy way to describe someone you don’t want to really get into describing. I’m like a punk rock balladeer storyteller. A punk rock balladeer raconteur. I still sing rock and roll music. I still have that grit and that gravel, but I like to use my voice also in a pretty way, in an intimate way. I love to tell stories. It all kind of comes together in the whole show. The more intimate the space, the more effective the whole show is. Because I can get into people’s faces. It’s really lovely.

CITA: Talk a little bit about the show. What musicians are you going to bring with you? What are the arrangements like? Are we going to hear some punk rock ballads? What’s the deal?

SL: Yeah, you will. You’ll hear some things that are unexpected; things that sound differently than you might expect them to sound. You might hear something very traditional. I’m going to be bringing my band, La Bonheur. They’re a rock ensemble: piano, guitar, bass, drums, and I play ukulele and some percussion, and yeah, it gets loud. It gets bawdy, it gets raucous, but it’s also very smooth and very beautiful. I mean, the band plays so … They’re great, great musicians and good friends of mine. There’s a level of comfort on stage that I really enjoy.

CITA: Well, that’s awesome. What from your punk rock days still lives with you?

SL: I think I just have, you know, some brain damage from the drugs and the bashing myself around, and sleeping in the street, and being a shit-head. Maybe that’s kind of what’s opened up my creativity. Who knows? Maybe it’s cut off a large part of my creativity. I could have totally stunted myself with my bad behavior.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

SL: One thing I’m pretty sure I have from having lived that way—it lives on in me energetically in terms of the way I see the world—is I understand how a lot of people see things. I have a good strong sense of empathy with people, and sensitivity. I’m like overly sensitive, really. I mean, I talk all tough, and I look really tough, but I’m such a puss. I’m such a squishy, like overly sensitive. I cry over very little thing. I used to hate that about myself, but now I really appreciate that I have heart, having encountered a lot of heartless people. I’m just like, “Wow, I would so much rather burn than be cool ever.”

CITA: When you come to The Straz, will this your first time in Tampa?

SL: I don’t think so.

CITA: Are you looking forward to anything in particular about heading down to Florida that we can share with our readers, some of whom may be being introduced to you for the first time?

SL: Well, I would like to know what your particular food is? Every city has its own kind of take on some kind of food you’re famous for, or drink you’re famous for, or something. Do you have one?

CITA: We do. If you’re a vegetarian, or a vegan, you are way out of luck, though.

SL: I’m not. Is it alligator?

CITA: Not in Tampa. You have to go a little bit further south for that. First, you have to know that Tampa was a huge, huge cultural crossroads back in the 1800s because of the cigar industry. We had Cubans, Germans, Spanish, Italian. It was a hodge-podge, and everybody had their own cigar factories, and they had their own mutual aid societies, but everybody got along. They were making mad, serious, sick bank because cigars were so incredibly popular. The Cubans naturally gave us cafe con leche, which is delicious here. The original Cuban sandwich was invented in Tampa for the cigar workers.

SL: Shut up!

CITA: It’s true.

SL: The original Cubano was invented in Tampa?

CITA: In Tampa, yeah.

SL: Oh my god.

CITA: We had the first Cuban neighborhood. It wasn’t New York, it wasn’t Miami, it was Tampa, honey. We have a piece of land in downtown, in a place called Ybor City—that’s where most of the cigar factories were—that literally belongs to Cuba. It’s Cuban soil.

SL: That’s awesome.

CITA: Yeah, it’s nutso.

SL: Then I know what I’m getting when I get down there.

CITA: Yeah. You’ve got to get a Cuban sandwich and a cafe con leche.

SL: You got it.

CITA: That reminds me that you, before your true destiny called you, were going to be a chef and you ended up in Portland.

SL: Yup.

CITA: Do you have a favorite thing that you make? Is cooking still something that you pursue?

SL: I cook all the time. I’ve been staying with mostly friends and family on this tour and I cook, almost every night. Last night, I made my Greek chicken, which is chicken marinated in Greek yogurt. Lots and lots of garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh parsley. Let that sit for at least an hour. Then you bake that with a lot of salt and pepper.

CITA: You bake it right in the marinade?

SL: I usually take it out of the marinade and just wipe a little bit off. The dairy will brown. It makes it nice, but I kind of like brown skin. It’s usually chicken thighs, chicken legs.

CITA: Yeah.

SL: I make pretty killer salads. Let’s see … tonight I’m going to do beef tenderloin with brown butter garlic.

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Photo from Instagram: @Stormof69

CITA: We want to go on tour with you, except that we’re vegetarian, although you can probably whip up some delicious veggie cuisine, as well.

SL: I make great vegetarian food, but my business partner is vegan; he and his wife make amazing food, like crazy creative, interesting food.

CITA: When you and your crew get here, you’ll have to make sure you eat downtown. Get Cubans, café con leches … you’re in a fantastic performance space here at The Straz, so you’ll have a really great time.

SL: Thank you so much.

Storm Large and her band La Bonheur perform as part of the Straz Center Cabaret series. Hear them in the Jaeb Theater Thursday, April 4.

Everybody Looks Good in a Tux

An Ivy League tradition shed the shackles of the patriarchy, gaining a glorious new talent with Sofia Campoamor.

Yale University’s formerly all-male a cappella group The Whiffenpoofs began in a delightfully Victorian upper-crust circumstance involving a local tavern, a freezing New England evening and a handful of Glee Club members with access to beer.

The story goes that roughly a century ago, some Yale upperclassmen who happened to be in the Varsity Quartet ducked into Mory’s Temple Bar to escape the bitter New Haven cold. Needing very little liquid encouragement, the young men began singing and harmonizing, charming the barkeep and fellow patrons. The young men began meeting each week, gained a following and formed an a cappella group featuring the best singers Yale had to offer. Needing a name, quintet member Denton “Goat” Fowler suggested a mythical dragonfish from a common joke called a Whiffenpoof. Capturing the levity they wanted, “Whiffenpoof” stuck. In 1909, Yale University’s The Whiffenpoofs were born, staying the country’s oldest all-male a cappella group until 2018, when the Whiffs voted to open the group to Yale’s best singers, whoever they may be. (The university’s all-female group, Whim ‘N Rhythm made a similar vote.)

Composer and soprano Sofia Campoamor auditioned, landing a Tenor 1 spot and securing her place in Yale history as the first woman to don a Whiff tuxedo. Although assigned soprano parts, Campoamor’s range plummets to alto and bass when necessary or vaults to operatic head voice for higher soprano notes. In an article for Yale News, her singing peer Aissa Guidno quipped that Campoamor’s exceptional range “doesn’t really exist.”

Campoamor auditioned for The Whiffenpoofs with Sara Bareilles’s “Manhattan,” a popular tune that displays both a vocal and emotional range for a skilled singer who can capture very nuanced phrasing, pulling something a little extra out of the end notes. Campoamor impressed the judges, and now she joins the top tier of Yale singers as The Whiffs embark on their 2019 tour.

Whiffs go on national tour after their junior years, taking a leave of absence from their studies. They return to Yale at the end of the tour to start their senior years. So, each year, a new class of Whiffenpoofs charm the nation with their tradition of robust singing and wacky harmonizing. The Whiff class of 2019 arrives at The Straz Wed., March 27, to perform in Ferguson Hall.

While Whiffs ’19 may be the first co-ed class, efforts were made 30 years ago to lift the gender restriction as members realized they were withholding their resources and privileges from qualified singers. In 1987, Whiffenpoof David Code lobbied to open the group to women, a position that polarized the campus and sparked a debate that grew, as Code reported in The New York Times, “ugly and personal.” Yale itself went co-ed in 1968, the year Code cites as being the year The Whiffs should have also started auditioning qualified female singers. “Finally … meritocracy is here,” he told The Times. “I’m thrilled. I’m delighted.”

Sofia’s inclusion doesn’t strike the current make-up of Whiffs as political. “If people judge Sofia on her quality as a singer, they would reach the same conclusions that we have,” says current Whiffenpoof musical director Kenyon Duncan. “This class of Whiffenpoofs is exceptionally talented.”

Hear for yourself:

Get your tickets now before Poof! they’re gone.

How Did You Get That Shot?

Longtime Opera Tampa and Straz Center photographer Rob Bovarnick reveals the secrets behind capturing that Pearl Fishers photo.

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Cardboard box. Plastic bag. Three thousand white beads …

What sounds like either the making of a Mardi Gras costume or the making of a very bizarre murder comprised the basic backstage ingredients of one of the most popular graphic concepts in Straz history. Inspired by Annie Leibovitz’s iconic photograph of Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a tub of milk, the “face” of the Opera Tampa 2018-2019 season became, literally, a face. Seen everywhere from region-wide advertising to billboards along I-275, the “Pearl Fishers photo” has created an unexpected bit of buzz for its arresting, unusual beauty—very much like the opera itself.

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Behind the scenes of the photo shoot. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The driving forces of The Straz’s in-house ad agency and PR firm are VP of Marketing Summer Bohnenkamp, Senior Director of Communications Paul Bilyeu and Creative Director Mei Crain. Prior to each season, they brainstorm with individual marketers to determine the creative “look” of opera, Broadway, Club Jaeb … everything. Last spring, Paul showed the photo of Whoopi for his pitch for the concept of a woman’s face emerging from a sea of pearls. It flew. He called longtime freelance photographer and friend Rob Bovarnick of Rob-Harris Productions, explained the idea and Rob began to visualize the shot.

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Time to add the pearls! (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

“We determined early on we wanted to use real beads, not photoshop them in after the fact,” Rob explains. “We carefully discussed the size of the pearls because we wanted it to look correct, scale-wise. We always need enough room for all types of marketing uses. Whether it be on billboard, which is usually a longer horizontal format, or on a vertical brochure. So, we brought multiple sizes of cardboard boxes to the shoot. We found the right shape and height for the model’s head. Since we were “floating” her head within the box, we used a plastic bag to seal the box which made a pillow for her head to sit in. We made sure she didn’t have any strain on her neck; then once we got that adjusted, we could start adding the pearls.”

The model, Mischa Temaul, had to keep her head perfectly still while Rob took the photos, otherwise the shifting pearls would ruin the picture. “It was like going to get a CAT scan. You have to hold extremely still, but she did great. We found that the overhead view was more dramatic and more universal for a multi-use in advertising. You have to think about leaving enough space for copy.”

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A few of Rob’s favorite shots from his portfolio of Opera Tampa photos. Clockwise from top left: Lucia di Lammermoor (2009), Romeo and Juliet (2006), The Barber of Seville (2008), La Bohème (2013).

Rob should know. He’s been creating most of the Opera Tampa promotional photos since 2006, when he landed Romeo and Juliet as his first assignment for the company. “We love working with The Straz. We appreciate when there’s something different, and we have to figure out how to make it happen. I’ve been working with Summer, Paul and Mei and the rest of the staff for so many years, about 13 years. There’s a comfort level with having us just run with their ideas.

And it’s great for us, we love the problem-solving challenge of trying to create something really unique.”

Rob Bovarnick - Photo by Eric Swanson

Rob Bovarnick. (Photo: Eric Swanson)

Rob-Harris Name Explained
Many people think Rob Harris is one person when, in fact, it’s two. Here’s the story:

“I started my business in 1987 with my former University of Tampa college photography professor, Lew Harris. When we were coming up with ideas for company names, we both felt that Rob Harris had a better “ring” to it than Harris Bovarnick. Shortly after naming our company, we went to a local bank to open a business checking account. The first think the bank teller asked us was “which one of you is Rob Harris?” That’s when we decided to put the slash in between Rob and Harris: Rob/Harris. Since the beginning of the digital age, we have had to change the slash to a dash and add Photography and Video in addition to Productions for better search engine optimization.” – Rob Bovarnick

Hometown Hero Goes National – Geographic, That Is.

Tampa Bay area photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. advocates for wild Florida. His powerful images of our own miraculous wildernesses and passionate education about saving what’s left landed him a slot as a speaker for National Geographic LIVE! He kicks off his road speaker career right here in Ferguson Hall on Tues., Feb. 26 with Wild Florida: Hidden in Plain Sight.

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Carlton testing a camera at Babcock Ranch State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

As we type, Carlton is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, setting up his signature remote camera traps for panthers somewhere in the vicinity of Labelle, FL. Last week, we caught up with Carlton on his lunch break to talk about his work and his upcoming engagement at The Straz.

Caught in the Act: We want to start with the story of how you ended up giving this talk at The Straz. Last year when National Geographic LIVE! speaker Cristina Mittermeier was here, you were in the audience. And you guys went out to dinner afterwards with Sarah Gecan, our Nat Geo marketer. She was so taken by your passion for Florida wildlife and conservation in general that when the opening came up this season, she was the one who said, “Get Carlton.”

Carlton Ward, Jr.: That’s awesome. That’s very cool. Yeah, this is my first Nat Geo Live talk on the road. I did one at National Geographic headquarters last March, which was when the people from the Nat Geo Live program saw my presentation there. That’s when we started talking about putting me on the schedule for late 2019-2020. Then this cancellation came up [on The Straz season], so I’m getting to do my first on-the-road talk at home.

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The Aucilla River spreads out into the Gulf in an area known as the Forgotten Coast. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: And we are pumped. The show is selling like hotcakes, Carlton. You are really well-loved. You probably know that, especially from the success of the Florida Wildlife Corridor films. People have been really enthusiastic about the fact that you’re on the season this year.

CW: Oh, that’s super cool. Yeah, it’s a hometown audience and we’ve had such good media following from WUSF and other things on the topics I work on, so that helps. The reason I do what I do is to raise the awareness for the wildlife and the land conservation that we need to do to sustain it, in Florida.

CITA: Environmental issues can be thorny topics in Florida because Florida’s boom was a development boom. So, it’s ingrained in the cultural psychology that we’ve got to build, we’ve got to develop, we have to keep growing.

CW: Yes. I focus on animals like the Florida panther and the Florida black bear because they utilize large landscapes and they show us the land that we need to protect. Not just for them, but for all the other wildlife and for ourselves. We’re losing more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat every year to development, and we need to accelerate the pace of land conservation to balance that out if we want to have viable wildlife habitat in the future.

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A young male Florida panther who triggered a camera trap. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CW: Florida cannot sustain the human population that’s projected to be here over the next 50 years unless we get smarter and do things differently. The same land that is the path of the panther is also the headwaters of the Everglades and the headwaters of the St. Johns River and the water supply for most of Florida’s population. So, steering development away from these last corridors of green land is in our self-interest, as people who are aspiring to live here and have any quality of life in this state.

We have to start building up and not out. We can continue to develop, and we can continue to accommodate the population growth, but we’re going to have to do slightly higher density development, building closer to our urban cores, and not doing the hundreds of thousands of acres of tract homes every year that will end up undoing all the conservation progress from the past 50 years.

The cool thing is we still have this opportunity in Florida where—because of our agricultural corridor and the fact that we still have millions of acres of ranches and timber lands and farms and groves—we still have a chance to sustain a connected green corridor that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for that agriculture.

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Seventy miles west of Key West, the lighthouse at Loggerhead Key marks the tip of a Marine Protected Area where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico meet. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: That’s something that you try to do, in your photojournalism and with the work you do for Florida Wildlife Corridor, is building relationships between all the different types of people who have interest in the undeveloped lands. Correct?

CW: Yes. I mean, … it’s just the conservation priorities seem to get lost. And it’s not because Floridians don’t want land protection. It’s because the specific needs for that land protection are kind of “out of sight, out of mind.” For example, we have amazing natural areas, but we don’t have something like the Rocky Mountains where you can sit in a city like Denver and know that you have an important wild space that is the source of all your water and your clean air and your food. With Florida being so flat, we don’t see it. We don’t recognize the Green Swamp north of Tampa as the headwaters of five rivers and the water supply for most of the Tampa Bay area. Because it’s only 100 feet elevation higher than Tampa. It’s hidden in plain sight.

So that is a theme. I think if people see and understand these areas, through pictures, through maps, it will lead to policies and decisions that help preserve them.

heron

A great blue heron in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: You’ve been involved in wild Florida your whole life. You’re a multi-generational Floridian. Would you consider yourself just a country boy? Would you put yourself in that category?

CW: No.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about that?

CW: I have a pretty good set of redneck skills, but I grew up in the suburbs of Clearwater. I grew up on the coast with a family ranch and family heritage in the heartlands. So, I kind of had one foot in each world my whole life. I think that’s why I’m as motivated as I am. Because if you grow up in Tampa or Clearwater, you’ll end up caring about the water in the bay, but you don’t end up knowing about the Green Swamp or the Peace River. Or, if you grow up in Arcadia or Wauchula, you may or may not see the pace that the houses are exploding out of Orlando and Tampa and Bradenton and moving towards you and threatening the land around you. Being in both of those worlds, I think, helped me have the perspective I have now.

cattle ranch

4G Ranch, in Pasco County, is the site of an innovative partnership where wetlands are filtering reclaimed urban water and recharging the underground aquifer at a rate of 5 million gallons per day. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: In all your work, what have you discovered that is the most inspiring for people who are unfamiliar with Florida’s environment? What inspires people most to get involved or get interested or learn more?

CW: I find that … with my photographs of bears and panthers, people don’t know those animals exist in Florida. And that’s a starting point, [for people to realize] that Florida still has wild enough places to support large, wide-ranging wildlife. I really get a lot of comments on my Instagram feed and other places, where people had no idea that these things exist in Florida. It’s also true when I photograph and publish pictures of Florida cattle ranches. People don’t know that we have that type of land and those type of people who are so deeply connected to the land. The Seminole tribe also. People think about the Hard Rock Café maybe, but don’t know that we have Native Americans, an unconquered tribe of Native Americans, living in The Everglades. Still.

everglades

Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park, which is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: If we can play devil’s advocate for a second … let’s say we want to come down to Florida and retire, so we’re interested in golf and shopping and having a leisurely life. We don’t care about the panther or the black bear. How do you explain to people why a wildlife corridor would matter?

CW: On one hand, I’d say to those people we are not separate from nature. We are buffered from nature by our technologies. But, if the environment can’t support wildlife, it ultimately may be missing some things to support us. Another common element is water. The strongest argument for why we need to care about these wild places is the water and the quality of life for people. It just so happens that water is the common ground that sustains wildlife and sustains working agriculture. It also sustains rural culture and heritage. Just look to last summer to the red tides and the algae blooms. We’re seeing at a large scale exactly how our coastal way of life is negatively impacted because we’re not taking care of interior Florida the way we need to. Everything in Florida’s connected.

Bear

A Florida black bear near Big Cypress National Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: We really are so excited about your talk here. We feel pretty privileged that we’ll be your kickoff venue for what’s probably going to become a very illustrious speaking career with Nat Geo.

CW: Okay. I really appreciate it. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Don’t miss Carlton Ward, Jr. for National Geographic LIVE! Tues., Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.