Oddservations Special Report: Largo City Officials Deter Halloween/Horror Tourist Attraction/Retailer from Opening Doors

I realize 99.9% of what I write here today will fall upon deaf ears, even to the most die-hard fan of horror, but I'd like to make it clear that I have labored in support of this cause and will continue to do so. Should you decide to enlist, your efforts are most welcome. P.S. this is a personal commentary, and not an attempt at legitimate journalism.

"Don't like the look of this old town,
What goes up, must come down"

Johnny Rotten's prophetic lyrics seem to ring true in a slumping little Florida town wedged between St. Petersburg and Clearwater known as Largo (or should I say "Lago"*). This unfortunate situation began last Sunday morn, when I was taken aback upon reading an article by reporter Eileen Schulte in the St. Petersburg Times concerning the efforts to open what I consider a most welcome addition to our community: a horror/Halloween-themed tourist attraction/retail shop known as Castel Bentuit. Described as a tribute to all things scary, Castel Bentuit will feature a year-round haunted house, dinner theater, magic shows, gift shop, and movie exhibition hall (they plan on screening "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") - in other words, a horror fan's dream-come-true. The attraction, which is sure to garner attention and patronage from fans all over the world, is the brainchild of Helene Urbin, and is supported by her boyfriend Bert Beigel.

The horrifically humble beginnings of Helene's dream began in Oldsmar, a town just north of Clearwater, where she ran a fun, year-round haunted house/retail shop at a flea market called The Terror Shop, where yours truly was an enthusiastic customer. Sadly, The Terror Shop closed its doors after an admirable stint at the market, but Helene's ambition was to take her dream to a next, permanent level.

So, years later she's at the beginnings of setting up shop in Largo, in a Bible-black building decorated by outstanding airbrushed horror art by Rod Ballard and guarded by two titanic 12' gargoyles. The exterior decor would make any horror fan salivate with anticip-ation, and I can tell you that this horror fan is eager for Helene to set up shop and open doors for business.

As Ms. Urbin struggles to get the attraction ready for customers, along trots life's villains, this time in the guise of the Largo city shakedown squad who I'm sure were chomping at the bits to find things wrong with the structure. Now, for those who you who never has the displeasure of cruising Missouri Avenue, where Castel Bentuit is established, it's pretty much one breath away from Dresden, circa Feb. 1945. Condemned tenements, graffiti, and general shit piles are familiar sentinels, making Castel Bentuit looking like the most elegant place on the strip.

Largo's "Director of Community Development" (an Orwellian moniker if I ever heard one) Michael Staffopoulos claimed to do a "double take" upon sighting the Castel's now-famous mural, evidently an individual who's capable of seeing nothing but ugliness in a purposely moribund artistic creation. Should Mr. Staffopoulos fantasize that life be about gingerbread houses, Hillary Duff, and Barney the Purple Dinosaur, I'd like to inform that there is a large, international population out there who deeply appreciates the beautiful aesthetics of horror and Halloween - and they have money to spend.

As predictable as tonight's sunset, the stunning mural was deemed "in violation of city code" according to the bureaucrat, as he proceeded to tattle to even more Largonian city staffers who are in turn are making life very difficult for this ambitious couple. Ordinarily I'd be willing to sympathize with the city of Largo on some of these allegations, but for far too many years I've been the recipient of several horror stories (excuse the pun) of similar incidents of bullying by a small town that's honestly, quite null and void. In fact, it's a dead heat between them and Pinellas Park when it comes to being the Tampa Bay area's crowning humiliation. The department that regulates signage is a particular fly in the ointment, in fact the street name refers to them as "the sign Nazis". This info was told to me by at least two Largo business owners, who shall remain nameless. In addition, Largo has managed to chase away the perennially-fun Renaissance Festival and the one-shot but excellent Fright Fest during the Halloween season. Dare a cultural event be outside the mainstream, you can count on Largo to put a kibosh on it quicker than a greased pig stampede.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of this whole scenario is the creepy eagerness the city of Largo displays in ensuring that this particular business fail, especially when one considers that Mr. Bert Beigel is a holocaust survivor and victim of Alzheimer's disease. I suppose that if Mr. Beigel was able to triumph over the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, he won't be intimidated by a gaggle of Largonian obstructionists.

"I don't like the look of this town..."

Only time will tell whether Castel Bentuit will beat the odds and overcome the hassles of city regulators, but one can be assured that any barricade Largo can put in the way of local entrepreneurial businesses, they will gleefully do so with a vengeance. For what it's worth, Urbin and Beigel have this horror fan's 101% support, and I would hope that all citizens across this great country decline to side with those who seek to cripple the creative spirit and make hard times for those who wish to enrich lives and follow thier dreams. Let's hope that Mr. Staffopoulos turns out not to be an Angel of Failure and the city of Largo is able to power down their notorious engine that shatters dreams and fuels hopeless mediocrity. But as long as there are Botox-bloated bureaucrats more interested in sprinkler systems and sign violations than assisting their fellow citizens succeed in business, than the Tampa Bay area will forever be the Land of Tiny Dreams.

* "Lago" is the name of the western town Clint Eastwood's character renamed "Hell" in "High Plains Drifter"

For my personal response to Eileen Schulte and the St. Petersburg Times, please refer to my letter below, and I sincerely hope that the city of Largo makes a noble effort to cooperate with these business owners in a friendly, and not harassing, manner.

Re: City Haunts Creepy Store
Article in St. Petersburg Times, Clearwater section 2/18/07

Dear Ms. Schulte/Staff of St. Petersburg Times,

As both a devotee of the horror genre and one who was raised in Florida - the tourist attraction capital of the world - I was very intrigued with your City Haunts Creepy Store article, which chronicled the plight of Helene Urbin to pursue her dream of establishing a delightfully imaginative retail shop/tourist destination. The article seemed well-balanced, as not to make shadowy specters of neither Ms. Urbin nor Michael Staffopoulos the “Largo Director of Community Development”.

While the situation can be likened to “David vs. Goliath”, it is my hope that both parties will maintain friendly relationships as they work together in making the grand opening of Castel Bantuit the ultimate goal. On one hand, an enterprising woman, exercising her right to pursue happiness, is starting her own business to serve a population interested and intrigued with haunted house attractions and horror-inspired films, literature, and art (both multi-billion dollar businesses) on the other, a city worker presumably looking out for the physical safety of future patrons of such an establishment.

As a simple taxpayer largely unfamiliar with the intricacies of city codes and ordinances, I spent time on Sunday visiting the location, in hopes of understanding what exactly Mr. Staffopoulos’s complaints were. The article made reference to “an elaborate wall mural” that “did not meet city code”. I was a first-hand witness as were several other groups of people who stopped to take pictures of the vilified mural and the Castel itself. We all found the painting to be terrifically well-executed, and very complementary to the theme of the attraction. Why, Castel Bantuit hasn’t yet opened, yet there were many cars that stopped by, curious of the prospect of experiencing such a concept!

All of us who came out and patronized the location were delighted with the fun props: 12’ Gargoyles, an old hearse, wonderful hand-painted props standing in the windows. It was a celebration of imagination, and something people who deeply appreciate creativity are looking forward to. If some of the negative attitude toward this business stems from the fact that the subject matter is, admittedly, “dark”, I’d like to remind my fellow citizens that this is still a free country, and some of the populous prefer their entertainment and culture slightly more mysterious than tap-dancing penguins, Hillary Duff, and the Disney Channel.

Another thing I’d like to point out is that Missouri Avenue isn’t exactly Park Place. While driving down the street, we noted countless properties in a far worse state (and far less presentable) than Castel Bantuit, which is still a work-in-progress. In fact, the building looks quite spectacular when compared to many of its decrepit neighbors. Has the city of Largo ever considered that once built, Castel Bantuit will serve the community perhaps as a destination that may attract fans of the fantastic genres (horror/sci-fi/fantasy) from all over the world? In addition, it would employ local citizens, some of whom likely will be artists, sculptors, and authors; possibly serve as a venue to exhibit independent films; and would be the ultimate location for creative types to meet and collaborate. I’d call an exciting development for Largo, wouldn’t you? Maybe even the best thing to hit the town since the departure of the Renaissance Festival years ago.

However, it is Ms. Urbin’s responsibility to construct the building to code, but I would hope the city representatives are working with this female entrepreneur in a cooperative, not harassing, manner. As American citizens and taxpayers, it is our civic duty to encourage the success of business owners, especially such a daring and unique concept such as Castel Bantuit. Such an element would be a tremendous boon to an ambitious community that wishes to improve its image, generate some excitement, garner tourism dollars, encourage creativity, and promote culture. I think it’s a winner, and will be the first in line when it opens for business.

- Andy Lalino