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Key West's Fantasy Fest Turns 40: A Founder Looks Back

Nancy Klingener
Tony Falcone has a collection of t-shirts from Fantasy Fest throughout the years, including the first one in 1979.

The local legend in Key West is that a few businessmen started Fantasy Fest in 1979 because they wanted to drum up some business at the end of the off-season.

That's true, says Tony Falcone, who was one of those founding fathers for what has turned into the biggest annual event in the Keys. But it's not the only reason.

"This is when all divorces would happen, this was when everyone was fighting. And we really were trying to figure out what we could do to relieve this," he said. "So I think Fantasy Fest, while it did come from an economic point of view, was also for us as well. For a psychological point of view."

Credit Rob O'Neal
Tony Falcone, left, atop a Fantasy Fest float with another festival founder, the late Joe Liszka.

Falcone and his partner, Bill Conkle, owned a Duval Street store called Fast Buck Freddie's. They got together with Joe Lizska and Frank Romano, owners of Key West Aloe to brainstorm. Falcone said Conkle suggested it would be easiest to throw a party around Halloween, when everyone loved to dress in costumes anyway.

"It started small. The concept was we're going to have a parade and we're going to have floats and hopefully get people to wear costumes. I think the initial parade probably had around 22 floats. But it was one hell of a parade," Falcone said.

One float in that parade, in particular, became an island legend.

"Sister, who was our local … well, she actually was a witch. But she was a good witch. She was a personality," Falcone said. "She showed up with a big black car. And it came down the street and she was on the front of it, sprayed silver, as a hood ornament. With no clothes. She was totally naked, hood ornament, coming down Duval Street."

Sweeping up after

Falcone said the parade was a hit, but not the 10-day long, mega-event it has become — at least not right away.

"The hard part was that not a whole lot of people were believing in this thing. Especially the people with the money. Actually for the first couple years, at the end of the event, whoever was a board member at that time we all had to kick in money to help cover the expenses," he said. "We must have had some kind of city blessing but not a whole lot because, after the first parade, the next morning it was Frank Romano, Joe Liszka, Bill Conkle and myself with brooms, sweeping up Duval Street."

What's happening when and where at this year's Fantasy Fest? Check the schedule here

Every year, Fantasy Fest has a theme. This year's is "In Tune But Off Key," so it's basically all about music. In 1983, the theme was "The Plays of Tennessee Williams." Falcone said the playwright, who lived on the island for 40 years, was grand marshal that year.

And Fast Buck Freddie's, which was famous for its elaborate floats, made one called, "A Hurricane Named Desire."

"Basically was this giant billowing black cloud, huge, coming down the street. Hidden inside this cloud was an airboat engine, sitting inside the truck and as it passed it had these winds going up to 40, 50 miles an hour, blowing across Duval Street.

"And it was followed by an island that had a hut that was being blown over. It was built on a diagonal. And there's a couple in the hut trying to make love but the wind was too strong for them, while behind them was a giant volcano that was erupting.Thus, a hurricane named desire," Falcone said. 

Falcone said he's proud of the event and often thinks about Conkle, who died 25 years ago, when the event comes around. The primary Fast Buck Freddie's store closed on Duval Street in 2012.

"I often wonder what it would be like if he was still here," Falcone said. "What would our floats be like, because I know he'd be making us make floats."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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