Gulfport, Florida, is a relatively small, artsy, and eclectic city, right next to St. Petersburg, and sits on the south end of the Pinellas County peninsula. At the south end of Gulfport, is a small beach, and on the beach itself sits Gulfport Beach Pavilion #6.
Something quite magical goes on most Sunday afternoons under the roof of the small pavilion. And, while the magic in the pavilion involves music, don’t expect to observe youth, rock and roll, rappers, or any Hip-Hop. You won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find something much more interesting, and perhaps, much more touching and meaningful.
Pinellas County, Florida, and St. Petersburg in particular, has long been known as “God’s Waiting Room,” given the traditionally large number of seniors who have retired in the area. But, the seniors spending their afternoons in Gulfport Beach’s Pavilion #6 aren’t “waiting” for anything; they’re dancing the afternoon away. And, they’re dancing to some great old tunes.
Quite often I head down to Gulfport on Sunday afternoons, because it’s a relaxing time, and because it best fits my schedule. I really don’t know what goes on in Gulfport, its beach, or Pavilion #6, during the week, but, at least on Sunday afternoons, I know exactly what’s happening.
Around half-past noon, a musician usually arrives, sometimes with an electric piano, sometimes with an accordion, or, sometimes with something else. While getting set up, and while the testing of the sound equipment is underway, senior citizens begin to trickle into the pavilion one or two at a time, and sit down at the picnic tables that ring the small open air pavilion. As they arrive, even though the music hasn’t even started, most place a dollar bill in the tip jar which is set up on one of the tables. Shortly thereafter, with little or no fanfare, the music starts, and, that’s when the magic begins.
I arrived on Gulfport Beach yesterday at my usual time. Given that the temperatures were only in the mid-60’s, there were only a few people at the beach, and those who were there, were dressed for winter. Beachgoers greeted the cooler temperatures with hats and jackets, and some were wearing scarves and gloves. The only living things at the water’s edge were the gulls. Just like every Sunday, on benches up and down the beach, elderly men sat alone looking out toward the water. I always wonder what these men are thinking about so intently. Maybe they miss their children and grandchildren who live far away, or, perhaps, miss a departed loved one. Whatever they are thinking about commands their attention utterly and completely, and not even the music causes them to avert their gaze.
Once the music began in the pavilion yesterday, the magic started to happen, as it does every Sunday afternoon. As the musician sang and played, appropriately enough, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” the Sunday faithful inside the pavilion, never more than a handful or so and bundled up in jackets on this unusually cool day, began to dance. One lady invited her partner to give her the “first dance of the new year,” and he quickly accepted. As more upbeat tunes were played, things got a little livelier, and when one elderly woman said, “Let’s kick up our heels,” she went ahead and actually did so. You have to appreciate it, and when I write about the magic inside the pavilion, this is exactly what I mean.
As the music inside the pavilion played on, those men on the beach benches continued to stare out into the sea. An old man from New Hampshire, inside his recreational vehicle, sat in front of those big front windows, watching the magic happening inside the pavilion, but never stepped outside. Other seniors pulled up into the parking lot in front of the pavilion, and watched silently as the music, and the magic, played itself out. They never got out of their cars to dance, and probably never will. But they, like the men sitting on the benches, and the man inside the RV, will be missing the sudden “magic” which transforms ordinary senior citizens inside Pavilion #6 on Gulfport Beach, into energetic, fun-loving, dancing youngsters, once again, if only for a couple hours, on any given Sunday afternoon.