What started out as a simple themed party evolved into a ball, a coronation and auction fundraiser for a local business group, charities and now grants for artists.
Gulfport’s Gecko Ball is in its 10th year, said John Haugen, the 2018 organizational committee co-chairperson. He has been involved with the volunteer committee of about 20 people for about seven years and has served as chairperson for three. Brittney Sherley is also a co-chairperson this year.
The sponsor is the non-profit Gulfport Merchants Association that will be officially merging with the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce on July 1 to form a new business group called the Gulfport Merchants Chamber (GMC). It is their major fundraiser of the year. As a group, their mission is to advocate visitation and tourism for Gulfport.
In addition to contributing to local charities, this year the group will also give two Rise and Shine grants to local artists who have not been identified yet, said Haugen. For more information about the grants, see visitgulfportflorida.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Gulfport-Merchants-Association-Artist-Grants.pdf.
In addition to dancing, the event includes awards for individual- and group-themed costumes, a live and silent auction and, since 2013, the coronation of the new Gecko queen. The role of the queen is to serve as an enthusiastic goodwill ambassador for Gulfport during the next 12 months, said Haugen. The queen can by any gender and any age.
The late Owen Pach, a local artist well known for his glass blowing, blacksmithing and sculpting, “conceived and originated the annual auction of artist-created Geckos,” said Daniel Hodge, one of the event’s organizational committee members for nine years from 2009 to 2017. Hodge has served as the chairperson and has helped with promoting the event. Since 2010, “nearly 80 geckos have been created and collected by art lovers who have attended the ball and Owen created at least eight of them over the years.”
This year, the gecko-inspired works of nine local artists are being featured in the live auction at the ball, said Haugen.
Beginning on Friday, August 3, the artwork will be on display at Gulfport’s Catherine Hickman Theater, he said.
“From there, the artwork will be displayed in nine local locations, usually restaurants,” said Haugen. “This year, the Gulfport Historical Museum might get a piece of art.” On the day of the ball, the pieces will move to the casino.
Twenty-five percent of auction proceeds go to the artists and the remainder will go to the GMC, he said.
Why do people get so into dressing up and participating in the Gecko Ball?
“It’s one of the most fun parties you’ll get a chance to go to,” said Hodge. “We consider it Gulfport’s party of the year. Gulfport’s creative juices get flowing. Just about everyone that comes to the ball is wearing some sort of costume. It creates a lot of memories and history.”
Tradition dictates that at least one gecko is a part of each person’s costume and it can appear on vests, hats, sleeves, purses, shoes and even on a spear or parasol.
“Everyone loves to be part of making a tradition,” said Hodge. “It’s been a sell-out every single year.”
When the Gecko Ball was conceived, the Gecko Festival was already on its way to becoming a popular annual event, he said.
“The Merchants Association felt like we could add other components in the month of August to extend the celebratory feel and also to give people something to do in the hot month when things are slow around Gulfport anyway,” said Hodge. “The ball was also conceived as a fundraising element.
“And, each year, a portion of the proceeds of all Gecko-related events goes back to local charities.”
Over the years, the charity component has become more formalized with an annual application process for community support grants, he said. “We’ve helped out a lot of local charities.”
During the initial years, crowds numbered from 200 to 250 and were mostly located outside, said Jon Ziegler, a Gecko Ball costume designer from Gulfport.
“The first year was at a restaurant-bar in town and it was fun,” said Hodge. “It was just more informal. For the second year in 2010, we did a lot of planning and wanted to really put it over the top.”
That year, the ball was held at the Peninsula Inn for the first time and, with more room, they began to include the silent action.
“The silent auction is one of the biggest fundraising components of all – even more than the ticket sales,” said Hodge. “The array of items that are offered is staggering. The businesses are very generous with providing gift certificates or cards for dining, accommodations, merchandise, artwork, sporting events, cultural entertainment and trips. We go all over the Tampa Bay area.”
The crowd filled up the event space at the inn in 2010 and “it rained really hard,” said Hodge. “Everyone had to huddle together on the porch and inside. It was all fun and part of the memories.”
By popular demand and beginning with the 5th year in 2013, the ball moved from the inn to the Casino where the capacity is about 400.
“We loved the intimacy of the inn but the event outgrew the size of that venue,” said Hodge.
For this year’s ball, which will be August 25 from 6 to 8 p.m., hors d’oeuvres are being made by the Backfin Blue Café and will be presented on trays by servers walking the Casino floor throughout the evening to eliminate lines at a buffet table, said Haugen.
A live band is included in the ticket price and a cash bar will also be available.
Tickets for this year’s ball are $35 each and will go on sale beginning July 4 at the Gulfport Beach Bazaar, 3115 Beach Boulevard, and online at visitgulfportflorida.com. Reserved tables of 10 or 12 are available at the Gulfport Beach Bazaar on a first-come, first-served basis.
Since Hodge is not serving on the organizing committee this year, will he be attending the event?
“I would never miss a Gecko Ball,” he said, laughing.
Is he willing to give any hints about his themed costume?
“It’s a secret!” he said. “It’s more fun to keep your mouth shut and just show up in costume. I’m not one to wear form-fitting tights like Superman or Batman. But, a group of us are coming up with a creative solution.”
Info Box –
Gecko Ball Themes Through the Years
1st in 2009 = no theme
2nd in 2010 = Geckos In Wonderland
3rd in 2011 = The Lizard of Oz
4th in 2012 = Hooray for Geckowood!
5th in 2013 = Gecko Night Fever
6th in 2014 = Roaring Geckos
7th in 2015 = GeckoGras!
8th in 2016 = 20,000 Geckos Under The Sea
9th in 2017 = Geckostock
10th in 2018 = Geckocon