Our Town

People and places that define Orlando



Bob Cheever says he brought Delilah to Lake Eola Park a few years ago to educate people about pythons.

Photo Courtesy of Bob Cheever

Raising ‘Delilah’

The gigantic but gentle python lived comfortably—and sometimes indoors—as the family pet for 17 years. By Dan Harkins

Bob Cheever has fond memories of living with Delilah for 17 years. When his daughters were little they would take turns riding on the family pet in the back yard. Occasionally he would lug Delilah to Orlando’s Lake Eola Park, where kids would marvel at her monstrous proportions and stroke her leathery hide. She would bask in the sunshine, and in her celebrity, posing for pictures with children and adults.

She was fat and happy, Cheever says, which was the best way to keep a Burmese python that would grow to 18 feet and 400 pounds.
“I have pictures of both girls, at different times, riding her around the yard,” Cheever, 39, says. “That was a part of their life. It was nothing extraordinary to them. . . . Was I comfortable? Yes. But I was cautious, as a parent. I didn’t leave her alone with them.” And he stuffed Delilah full—rabbits being the usual meal—to discourage her natural instincts from kicking in.

During the growing years, Delilah lived in a terrarium at the center of the Cheever home in Apopka. She liked to be handled, Cheever says, but she’d usually aim for someplace warm to snuggle with herself.

“If I didn’t keep my eye on her she’d beeline it for the fridge,” says Cheever. Then she’d push it out into the middle of the kitchen so she could curl up to the coils in the back.

Cheever’s daughters, now 9 and 14, have missed the snake since Cheever moved his wife, Andria, and kids to West Virginia. The plan was for Delilah to hang out in the backyard of his brother’s home, also in Apopka, until Cheever could arrange to bring her north.

But apparently a neighbor of his brother had concerns about living near a snake that’s almost the length of full-size pickup. So in September, state game officials took Delilah away. The seizure made national news, with video showing the snake willingly slithering into a pet carrier made to hold a lap dog.

Only a few months earlier, an 8-foot-long Burmese python suffocated its owner’s 2-year-old daughter in Sumter County. That tragedy elevated pythons and their owners to the level of scorn often reserved for pit bulls and their keepers. By the time state game officials seized Delilah—the biggest snake they said they had ever seen—the rush was on to crack down on large snakes.

Game officials moved Delilah to a Bushnell herpetologist’s facility and later cited Cheever with unsafe housing of a “reptile of concern,” a second-degree misdemeanor with a $316 fine.

Delilah may have a new home by Thanksgiving, Cheever says, though she won’t be moving to mountainous West Virginia. He says several reptile sanctuaries have expressed interest in Delilah, but he’s adamant that she’s not for sale. He says his family only wants to be able to visit Delilah and for her to be comfortable.

The separation from Delilah has been hard on his daughters, Cheever says. “They’re always saying, ‘Daddy can’t we get her and bring her up here? Does she have to stay down there?’ It bothers me. I miss her too.”

Paperback Peddler

Author Tom Levine takes his book sales personally, going door to door to sell his works. By Jay Boyar

Early on a temperate Tuesday morning in College Park, a reed-thin figure with close-cropped gray hair is making his way up and down Edgewater Drive.

Without bothering to knock—and ignoring the occasional “Absolutely No Soliciting” sign—he charges through the door of office after office, each time introducing himself and announcing his mission.

“I’m Tom Levine,” he says in his bright, mellow voice, flashing a good-neighbor smile. “I’m sellin’ my new book.”
Some office dwellers seem slightly irked to have their morning coffee disrupted by this casually dressed, oddly cheerful fellow. But others are clearly pleased—and possibly a little excited—that an actual, bona fide author has suddenly materialized before them, proffering his latest literary opus and perhaps cadging some candy from their little desktop dishes.

“I’m always hunting for dark chocolate,” reveals Levine, who acknowledges a particular fondness for Peter Paul Mounds.
The book in question is Paradise Interrupted, a self-published, environmental-themed novel with a rare, engaging style and plenty of broad, sometimes tasteless humor. The Saw Palm literary journal has described it as “a parody of all things Florida” spun around “the trials and adventures of a mismatched amalgamation of characters.” The book is Levine’s follow-up to Bite Me!, his 2002 collection of wry, pointed fishing stories, which he is also peddling.

If Levine’s name rings a bell, that may be because the 59-year-old Orlando gadfly enjoyed a burst of fame in 2000 when he ran for mayor. Lately, he’s been putting a lot of energy into writing those books and, especially, selling them door-to-door (at business addresses, not residences) throughout Florida.

The books are also available in conventional bookstores and through his Web site, defiantworm.com. But it’s the door-to-door approach—as if Levine were a Depression-era Bible salesman out of Paper Moon—that suits him best.

“I’ve sold stuff ever since I was a kid. Even when I ran for mayor, I went around door-to-door and sold my stuff, which is myself,” he explains. Then, with a wink, he adds, “Apparently, it wasn’t that good a product.”

Levine says he’s sold more than 8,000 copies of Bite Me! and 5,000 of Paradise Interrupted at $18.95 a pop, or thereabouts. (The figures could not be independently verified.) After an hour or so of pounding the pavement, he has located two paying customers and at least as many “almosts.”

One of his tricks is to get a prospect to actually hold the book in his or her hand, after which it takes a certain cold bloodedness to reject the author outright by handing it back. In general, though, Levine doesn’t seem to rely on tricks so much as attitude.

“I’m not the kind of guy that can sell snowballs to Eskimos,” he admits. “I’m just a friendly guy and I like people. I think, actually, that’s the key.”


 

Her Job Was a Scream

Former UCF student Cheryl Hines is now an actress on Curb Your Enthusiasm and a director with a movie at the Orlando Film Festival. By Jay Boyar

When Cheryl Hines was a student at the University of Central Florida, she spent a lot of time screaming in the shower. In fact, that’s how she supported herself.

Hines is now an Emmy-nominated actress, best known for her role as Larry David’s estranged wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. But back in the late 1980s, she worked at Universal as a Janet Leigh-type stabbing victim in the shower-scene re-creation of the park’s now-defunct Psycho attraction.

Hines would slip into a flesh-colored bodysuit and scream her lungs out in front of 400 people at a time. At first it was fun, but eventually, you might say, she curbed her enthusiasm.

“The first year I really gave it my all, but after that my screaming really started to wither,” she admits in the amusing, not-quite-whiny, voice familiar to fans of Curb. “It became more like the irritated woman than the got-stabbed-in-a-shower woman.”

Soon enough, Hines transitioned from screaming to more nuanced forms of acting. And she has recently transitioned again, directing her first feature film, Serious Moonlight, which will be presented Nov. 6 at
7 p.m. at the Plaza Cinema Café as part of the fourth annual Orlando Film Festival (where she will participate in a Q&A session after the film).

Serious Moonlight is a dark-toned comedy about a workaholic lawyer (Meg Ryan) who panics when she discovers that her husband (Timothy Hutton) is secretly seeing another woman (Kristen Bell). In shaping the film, Hines drew on personal experience.
“I had a boyfriend who cheated on me once, and it was devastating,” she reflects. “It makes you feel crazy and desperate. I understood the desperation of this character.”

Serious Moonlight (which opens commercially on Dec. 4) was written by Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed and starred with Hines and Keri Russell in the 2007 comedy-drama Waitress. After Shelly was murdered shortly before Waitress premiered, her widower approached Hines about directing Serious Moonlight.

“I did feel a responsibility [to Shelly],” says Hines, who had never directed a movie. “I knew that this project was important.”

Hines, 44, is a Florida gal all the way. Born in Miami Beach, she attended middle school and high school in Tallahassee. Her sister lives in Deltona, two brothers live in Sorrento and Hines recently bought a house near one of her brothers.

While the fledgling director enjoyed her years as a communications major (and theater minor) at UCF, she sometimes had to speak up to be taken seriously.

“When our teachers would teach us some sort of technical lesson, they would always call on the guys,” she recalls. “I finally said, ‘Are the girls going to get a chance to try it or not?’”

Eventually she did get her chance, and, she says, the training “was helpful” in directing her first feature film. But, she adds with a laugh, “it wasn’t enough” to fully prepare her. As she explains:

“We’re not splicing reel-to-reel tapes anymore.”

Wonder Dogs

At the University of Doglando, man and his best friend bring out the best in each other.
By Terry O. Roen

Brandon Rogers’ speech disorder makes it hard for him to talk to people. But when the 19-year-old speaks to a fluffy white dog, his words are clear.

Likewise, Christopher Baker’s autism often causes him to spin in circles. Call a dog to his side, however, and Christopher, 18, sits peacefully, as if in awe.

At Orlando’s Magnolia School for the physically and mentally disabled, man and his best friend are bringing out the best in each other.
Thank Cheryl Hite-Scherer and Teena Patel for that. Hite-Scherer teaches a class of six Magnolia students whose disabilities range from schizophrenia to epilepsy. Last fall, she was combing the Internet for teaching ideas when she came across a site for the University of Doglando. She discovered that Patel, owner of the canine care and training center, used dogs in therapy and was interested in expanding the program to help disabled and troubled youths. Patel offered to teach the Magnolia students dog-training skills, and Hite-Scherer bought two 9-week-old Samoyeds, a sociable breed good with children.

Today, the students are bused once a week to Doglando in east Orange County to learn training skills—which they practice on those Samoyeds back at Magnolia, using hand signals and simple commands of sit, stay and come.

The teacher and trainer have seen many benefits from their collaboration. The gentle Samoyeds, named Shannon and Sheamus, help soothe students (especially after seizures) and teach responsibility. Students who observe the dogs’ mistakes during training are motivated to correct their own behavioral issues. Math and science skills are sharpened by charting the Samoyeds’ growth. And daily walks improve both the animals’ and students’ fitness.

But Hite-Scherer and Patel are just getting started. Coming in January: the launch of Paws Making PALS (Positive Achievements Learning and Sharing), a nonprofit made possible by a $40,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Central Florida. PALS’s first venture will be a towel service for animal shelters and local veterinarians, with the highest-functioning Magnolia students ages 19 to 22 providing the labor. Other plans include having some of the schools’ 182 students train shelter dogs to make the animals more adoptable, while others assemble “dog baskets’’ of donated items for those who adopt pets.

The hope is that the work today will pay off in jobs tomorrow—when the students can take their skills of washing and folding towels to local hotels or use their dog-training abilities at shelters and pet stores.

Says Hite-Scherer: “We found a need in society and a place where our kids can give back and feel good about their efforts.’’
Those kids continue to amaze the 30-year teaching veteran. For instance, after a classroom guinea pig died, Hite-Scherer wondered if the students really understood the concept of death. She found out during a funeral for the creature, when a boy suddenly broke into song, putting his heart into an inspiring solo that echoed across the schoolyard and brought the school’s instructors to tears.

He was singing “Amazing Grace.’’

An Outsider Now Wants In

A frequent critic of local government hits the campaign trail for Orange County mayor, pledging to lower taxes and repeal the toll increase. By Mike Boslet

Only a few months ago Matt Falconer would have told you that he intended to change local government by not being part of it. He had spent over a year being a tenacious watchdog, hounding Orange County commissioners about the tax burden on small business owners, and he’d decried through e-mail blasts to thousands what he saw as spending sprees by Orange and Orlando leaders. In 2008 he self-published a book titled The Socialist Republic of Florida, in which he blames regulations and high taxes for causing the state’s recession, and he recently distributed a report calling for consolidation of services among area municipal governments.

“I’m a big believer that you can do more from the outside,” he told Orlando magazine in March.
Evidently, Falconer isn’t a believer anymore.

It’s a September evening at a defunct restaurant near The Mall at Millenia and Falconer is greeting men and women who have arrived for a campaign rally and fundraiser. He’s dressed in a dark blue suit with a light blue dress shirt and a shiny yellow tie, an American flag pin adorning his left lapel. His thick brown hair looks perfectly combed and sprayed in place. Falconer sounds very much like a politician playing to the crowd as he introduces his wife, Cheri, and their two teenage children. Then he launches into a litany of pledges he would keep if he’s elected mayor of Orange County. Among them: lowering taxes by more than $1 billion a year (big applause), repealing the expressway toll increase (raucous applause) and letting voters decide the fate of some costly civic projects, a clear reference to the downtown venues, (polite applause).

He is unveiling his “Contract with Orange County Voters,” an 11-item list of pledges reminiscent of the “Contract With America” that Newt Gingrich and other Republican U.S. House members announced before the 1994 midterm elections. Indeed, Falconer says he e-mailed Gingrich a copy of his “contract” and received a positive reply.

Falconer is going for the whole enchilada in his foray into politics, running as a reformer. County commission members Bill Segal, Linda Stewart and Mildred Fernandez are also in the nonpartisan race to replace the term-limited Rich Crotty. The primary election is set for August 2010, with the top two vote-getters advancing to next November’s general election.

“I decided to run for mayor because I strongly believe our local government policies have caused great harm to our local economy,” Falconer says. “I plan to lower taxes, encourage job creation and show other counties in Florida a path to a brighter future.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that the 48-year-old Windermere resident would run for  the top municipal job in Central Florida. Sensing Florida’s economy was about to crash, Falconer, in 2007, pulled back on his business of developing shopping centers on the periphery of Wal-Marts and began to devote his newfound leisure time to being a gadfly. He led a group called the Orlando-Orange Taxpayer Budget Review Board, sending out mass e-mails that usually bemoaned municipal government spending and warned that such tax-supported projects as the downtown venues and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research would do more to hurt the local economy than help it.

Falconer himself has been merciless in his attacks on the six-figure salaries of some public employees, namely Brie Turek, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s young chief of staff, and Mike Snyder, the executive director of another favorite target of his: the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. And he has even gone after a sacred cow: firefighters, saying they, too, are overpaid.

Falconer’s opposition to public-worker unions and his criticism of the above-average pay and defined pensions that Orlando and county workers receive (compared with compensation in the private sector) likely won’t win him much support among the approximately 10,000-plus area employees of various local governments.

But he isn’t after the votes of public workers, anyway. The audience at his second campaign rally since he announced his candidacy in July is a mix of Libertarians and Republicans whose feelings are puréed into a common anger toward high taxes, growing government spending and corporate welfare. There is a hint of a Tea Bag Party in the air, which isn’t surprising since Falconer led a Tea Bag protest on July 4 in Orlando. Still, he sees his supporters not as part of a fringe movement but as a group of reform-minded fiscal conservatives.

“The one common denominator with my supporters is they do not belong to a special interest group,” Falconer tells the crowd. “There are no lobbyists at this event, no union representatives and no government contractors. No one here is involved in the ‘culture of corruption.’ My supporters simply want to reduce the burden of government on the taxpayer and small business so our local economy can survive.”
That they do.

Ezell Harris, the only African-American in the room and a candidate for Daisy Lynum’s Orlando City Council seat, says Falconer’s fiscal conservative views “all make sense.”
“Efficiency in government is what we need,” says Harris, who owns a travel agency in Parramore. “We’re going to be forced into consolidation.”

Falconer is a proponent of regionalization, under which Orange County and municipal governments within the county would consolidate such common departments as fire, public safety, and parks and recreation within certain regions. In April, the Falconer-led Orange County Taxpayer Review Board released a report titled “C.A.R.E.,” which is supposed to stand for “Consolidation And Regionalization for Greater Efficiency” if you omit the adjective. The report is Falconer’s manifesto for cutting government spending and reducing taxes by consolidating services.

But like some of his pledges, such as repealing the toll increase and changing the pension plans of future county employees, Falconer can’t make his wishes come true on his own. As mayor, he would have to form majorities among county commission and expressway board members as well as win the support of elected municipal leaders.

Tough acts for an outsider to pull off.

Campaign fundraising has already anoin-ted the clear front-runner in the race—Bill Segal, whose commission District 5 takes in Winter Park and most of College Park. Campaign records show he had raised $350,000 as of June 30, while Falconer had lent his campaign $100,000 and Stewart had taken in $47,000. Fernandez, the last of the four to enter the race, only recently started fund-raising.

Falconer says he isn’t overly concerned with Segal’s rainmaking. “I think he has a lot of special-interest support,” he says, “but I don’t think he has any popular support.”

Besides, Falconer believes the electorate’s ugly mood gives him one big advantage that will turn this race inside out.
“All the taxpayer frustration,’’ the outsider says simply, “is on ousting the incumbents.’’

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