When Jody Robinson was named Gecko Queen at the 2019 Gecko Ball she had no idea her reign would stretch into 2021. She had planned to pass the torch to the next non-gender-specific royalty at the 2020 Gecko Ball, which would have been held later this month.
Then COVID-19 changed all of that. This year’s Gecko Ball, like so many other popular annual events, was canceled and Robinson suddenly became the de facto 2020 Queen, continuing her reign until, hopefully, the 2021 event.
Robinson was certainly not the first person to be named Queen in Gulfport. In modern Gulfport, anyone can be the Gecko Queen; the title has gone to at least three men. In the past, however, the title of “Queen” was given to a young woman, in a tradition that goes back at least 60 years. It all began with sock hops in the 1950s.
In 1957, Patricia Horan was a 16-year-old who enjoyed going to teen dances sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at the Casino.
“We were good kids,” says Horan. “We didn’t drink or do drugs, we just loved to dance.”
In April that year, Horan competed against 32 young women for the title of “Record Romp Queen.” At her coronation she was joined by seven other girls on her court, and crowned by newly elected chamber president Kenneth Johnson. Horan was led to the throne by DJ Bill Mitchell – who would later buy and operate a local radio station.
“My duties were pretty easy,” said Horan. “All I had to do was to show up to the dances and reign over them.”
Her words of advice to current Gecko Queen Robinson?
“Be yourself and make a good impression of Gulfport to everyone you meet.”
The Record Romp continued for a few more years before it moved to the St. Pete Pier in the early 1960s, where Pepsi signed on as a headline sponsor.
Also in the mid 1950s, the Gulfport Lions Club sponsored Gala Days, a celebration of Gulfport’s founding. There were annual queens and their courts named throughout the late 50s and into the late 60s.
By 1969 there was an entity called “Gulfport Festivals,” a community-based group that produced all sorts of events in town, including the city’s 4th of July celebration. Various clubs and organizations sent representatives to serve as part of this planning group. In 1971, they started a beauty pageant to name “Gulfport Festival’s Queen.”
Seventeen girls, mostly from Boca Ciega High School, competed for the honor. Helen McCollough won that year, but all 17 received trophies. A Gabber article from that time said, “they were all lovely girls.”
The next year Janie Sharbaugh took the title and it was the first time the pageant was covered live by the new cable company TelePrompTer Channel 7. McCollough got married the day before the event and, since pageant rules required the queen to be single, first runner up Carolyn Arcemont got to be “Queen for a Day” before Sharbaugh’s coronation. (During the pageant, Sharbough was asked her thoughts on school busing, a controversial topic at the time.)
Gulfport Festivals went defunct before the next event; there was no 1973 queen. Sharbough reigned through 1974 when the Lions Club of Gulfport picked up the pageant as part of their Labor Day festivities, which included the popular fish fry. Organizers changed the name from Miss Gulfport Festivals to just Miss Gulfport (the recipient also carried the title of Miss Gulfport Lions). Sheri Cox was the first Miss Gulfport, and the Lions Club continued to name Gulfport Queens for almost the next 20 years.
Miss Gulfport Lions Club also represented the club at the national Miss American Bowl Pageant in Tampa Stadium later in the year.
In 1975 the city sponsored an event dubbed “Splash Day,” commemorating the beginning of the summer recreation program. Again there was a beauty pageant as part of the festivities, and 15-year-old Cindy Thomas was named “Splash Days Queen 1975”. Erin Carmoday, 13, was named Miss Splash Day.
It was a time of many queens, and pageants were popular. In 1975, Catherine Hitchcock competed with six other contestants for the Miss Gulfport crown. The Gabber sponsored Hitchcock, who was a majorette at Boca Ciega High School.
Lorie Metty took the bicentennial crown in 1976 and received a host of prizes, including a $20 gift certificate for now-defunct Maas Brothers department store
The Gabber noted, for reasons not quite clear, that 1978 was the “most successful event to date,” with Susan McDonaugh winning over 13 other contestants.
Despite a hurricane churning in the Gulf at the time, the 1979 event was not postponed and Jenny Driskell was named the new Miss Gulfport. Beginning the new decade, Jeanni Kruse competed with five other young women for the crown.
In 1981, contestants were asked, “If you had a teenage girl at home what advice would you give them?” The Gabber reported that “their answers would have made a mother proud.” The winner that year was Tami Barnhart; Lynda Gale Samuel took the honors in 1982.
Glenda Harness, Miss Gulfport 1983, got a special treat: receiving her coronation from McCollough, the first queen. Deborah Smitley took honors in 1984.
The pageant in 1985 was postponed until October while Labor Day Hurricane Elena spiraled just off the coast for several days. Eventually Christine George took top honors – and the title of Miss Congeniality.
Records are missing for 1986 (and 1988), but the “Heathers” ruled for two years: the 1989 queen was Heather Padula; Heather Cercil was 1990 queen. The last queen before these pageants were discontinued in 1992 was April Berringer.
Times have certainly changed. Our modern sensibilities are put off by pageants where young women’s bodies are studied and compared for a “winner.” That’s likely part of why these contests fell out of fashion, but in 2013, a new sort of “pageant” took root.
No longer about looks, the Gecko Queen is named based on the winner’s community involvement and commitment to Gulfport. The late Faun Weaver, who passed away in January 2019, took the first honor. Other Gecko Queens include Wesley Sloat, 2014, Vivian Marcum Hawker, 2015, Joan Prowton Samuel, 2016, Brian Liggins, 2017 and Jon Ziegler, 2018.
All hail the Gecko Queen!