No one is as cool, creative or as interesting to the history of Key West than Tony Falcone. He would be the last to admit that his role in putting Key West on the map has been monumental but when people from all around the world put on tutus and party like rock stars this week, we have Falcone to thank.
Gregarious and friendly, Falcone had an unusual start to Key West greatness. The Italian from Wayne, Pennsylvania graduated Muhlenberg college, joined the Navy to end up on the staff of Admiral Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations. He then went on to New York City to write TV commercials. Luckily, on a camping trip to the Keys in 1973, he stopped in Key West for a few drinks and fell in love with the island.
“Gingerbread Square gallery had just opened and when I walked in, there was Tennessee Williams on one side and Truman Capote on the other. For an English major it was everything,” said Falcone. “Key West isn’t about rich people, or important people, but interesting people.” By 1975 he and his partner, Bill Conkle, moved permanently to a dilapidated house on Applerouth Lane and opened the store Fast Buck Freddie’s, now the home of Virgilio’s. Falcone and Conkle lived in hammocks in the stockroom and took showers under a garden hose as “Old Man Applerouth yelled at us over the fence,” and loved every minute of it.
Fast Buck Freddie’s quickly become a staple on Duval Street, selling home goods and attracting snowbirds and tourists. The store caught the eye of the late David Wolkowsky, who in 1978 convinced the partners to move to its longtime home at 500 Duval, now a CVS.
But back then summer season was rough, with zero tourists, “You could just stand in the middle of Duval and there would be no one. There were a lot of divorces,” Falcone said. This prompted Falcone and Conkle to scheme with friends Joe Liska and Frank Romano to devise a way to get snowbirds back earlier than November. It was simple: throw a week-long costume party with parade. They christened it “Fantasy Fest”. Hard to imagine now, but businesses were skeptical. So they fronted their own money for the first parade and even promised to sweep Duval afterward. It didn’t just succeed, it turned into a sensation.
“Oddest thing about me, I don’t really take ownership for it. I am still just amazed by it,” said Falcone. Actually, what Falcone is most proud of is helping to preserve the Key West Bight back in 1992 from becoming a waterfront of condos and development. And he was instrumental in saving the old Strand sign from being demolished on Duval.
“It’s about fighting to save Key West for future generations,” said Falcone. And if his coolness factor didn’t reach 11 already, he got to see Bob Marley and Donna Summer here as well. As Fantasy Fest turns 40 next year, undoubtedly Falcone will be there to blow out the candles.
Full Name? Anthony Vincent Falcone – after my granddad.
Do you have a life credo or motto? “Become friends with people who aren’t your age. Hang out with people whose first language isn’t the same as yours. Get to know someone who comes from a different social class. This is how you see the world. This is how you grow.”
Watching Fantasy Fest now, what are your thoughts? After the parade is over, I like to sit somewhere along Duval Street and just watch the costumes, the mix of people, their interactions and get a rush seeing everyone having so much fun.
What’s your favorite Fantasy Fest memory? It was the first parade, when among the few floats that we had, Sister, a local celebrity in her own right, painted herself silver and rode the parade as a naked hood ornament. Seems like she started a trend.
Fantasy Fest is worldwide, now even on CNN; do you have any more great ideas for Key West? We’re certainly established as a party town. Now I wish we could be as well known for all the arts on our island. It’s all here with The Studios, the Literary Seminar, our film festival, all the museums, the theaters, our music, etc. I wish there was a way to create an event bringing everything together at the same time and receive the same accolades of Miami’s Art Basel. Also, as just another thought to help promote this, I have always wanted to start naming some of our non-historic streets after all our writers. Hemingway, Williams, Frost, Sinclair Lewis, Bishop, Silverstein, etc. Just as we have done with the presidents.
Why do you think locals love it so much, the costumes, the parties – why are we so drawn to it year after year? Well, maybe not all locals love it so much. And they certainly let me know! But the ones that do, and there are a lot of them, really embrace it. From the very first year it was meant to be a celebration of creativity. The costumes, the floats, the parties were all an opportunity to be imaginative, artistic, inventive, For some it means going all out, working on costumes, floats or parties for months. Or maybe it’s painting the kids and riding in the Zombie Bike Ride. For others it’s buying a mask and walking in the Friday local’s march. But whatever, it’s a great energy after the long hot summer. And I bet even some of the haters are out there with their lawn chairs watching all the zombies go by.
Would you ever run for KW public office? OMG! This town knows way too much about me!!! And anyway, Jimmy Weekley is my commissioner and we’ll never get him to retire!
What did you think you would grow out of but haven’t? Fantasy Fest for one.
Which TV, movie or superhero character is your alter ego? Anthony Bourdain
What job would you be terrible at? Either auto mechanic or definitely an accountant!
If invisible in Key West what would you do? Now are you trying to make me into a dirty old man! Well, spying in on The Weekly staff meeting and seeing how they choose their 20 question candidates definitely has my curiosity.
What question can you ask to find out the most about a person? What did you do this past Saturday?
Favorite guilty pleasure? Cucumber Caliente at the Agave Bar
What job would you secretly love to have? City landscaper. I’d have trees going from the airport, all the way to Duval. Plant Royal Poincianas on both sides of First Avenue. Every street should be studied to show off that we live in a tropical paradise. And yes, there’d be a lot more to this island than palmetto palms!
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives? Burning Man
Lunch with one famous person, whom would you choose? Shel Silverstein
Finish these sentences …
My friends and family would describe me as … not willing to accept my age.
My autobiography would be titled … Off the Beaten Path.
I can never refuse … helping a friend.
When I go, I will go … with a big smile.