Our Town

People and places that define Orlando

Being Sarah Palin

Conservatively speaking, Longwood’s Patsy Gilbert does a convincing impersonation of the political superstar. By Kerri Anne Renzulli

It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Suburban Republican Women’s Club’s Elephant Stampede —a schmoozefest for local GOP candidates—and Patsy Gilbert is acting like Sarah Palin again.

She just can’t help herself, and for reasons that go beyond her close physical resemblance to the right-wing standard bearer. Unlike Tina Fey’s famous Saturday Night Live impersonations that typecast the 2008 vice presidential candidate as a run-on-sentence blabbering space cadet, Gilbert’s treatment plays to the crowd’s fawning support of Palin.

Which is to say the Longwood soccer mom dons the requisite rimless eyewear and red jacket with black pencil skirt, teases her hair back and goes to work as the Palin who takes shots at liberals.

“The environmentalists say because of the oil spill there are more endangered species,” the look-alike tells the room of Republicans at the Elephant Stampede. “I think they’re called Democrats.”


Since the real Palin is a running joke in many comedic circles, Gilbert’s act may come across as counterintuitive. But Gilbert, 56, counters that perspective by listing similarities
to the potential 2012 presidential candidate that demonstrate that the two are alike in ways that go beyond the physical.

Both were pageant queens, share the middle name Louise, once worked as local TV-news broadcasters, have a child with Down Syndrome, can shoot a gun and lean far to the right.

Gilbert began mimicking Palin a few days after 2008 presidential candidate John McCain picked the then-Alaska governor as his running mate. Curious to see if she could pass for Palin, she paid a visit to local George W. Bush impersonator John Morgan, a longtime friend of hers.

“She walked through the door and used that Sarah voice she’d just discovered and I said, ‘Yeah, you’ve got something here,’” says Morgan, who’s a dead ringer for W. The two have since made several appearances together.

Gilbert has taken her brand of Palin across the country,  working events (she’s as hard to pin down on her fees as a politician is on voter issues) such as National Rifle Association picnics, where the real deal would feel at home. On two occasions she even met her mirror image—at a GOP rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, where the audience mistook Gilbert for the then-vice presidential candidate, and at an Orlando book signing for Palin’s best-selling memoir, Going Rogue.

Whether Palin is loved or loathed, Gilbert stands to get work, you betcha. “The more attention she gets, the more phone calls I get,” she says. “I always get more calls for gigs after she’s been on the TV doing her thing.”


Basket Case


Life in the exact-change lane takes a toll on a motorist with a jar full of coins. By Barry Glenn

We meet most mornings around 8:30 and say very little. I stay in my car, throwing money out the window, but I’m often told it’s not enough. I speed off in disgust, vowing never to return. Yet I always do.

Feelings of rejection, anger, ostracism—they all bubble up daily as I approach the Conway Road entrance ramp to the S.R. 408 toll road. I don’t have an E-PASS transponder or sticker so I cannot whiz through the plaza like motorists who do, shaking their heads at slow-moving cars in the exact-change lane.

Which is where I am, pulling up to the plastic container that swallows my 75 cents and ciphers—incorrectly—with a cheery churning sound. I direct a colorful vulgarity at the machine before taking off, plaza alarm buzzing, a photo of my license plate now residing in an expressway authority computer.

As I flee, I ponder several questions: What has driven me to choose the exact-change lane? Why do these receptacles that resemble Dali-esque urinals never work? And how long before I will be hunted down?

The answer to the first question is simple: I’m one who always looks to unload spare change, plus I happened to find an old jar at home containing $200 in nickels and dimes. For the other answers, I turn to the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, which oversees 105 miles of toll roads, including more than 100 exact change baskets. Lindsay Hodges, authority spokeswoman, says the baskets do work most of the time. But when stick-it-to-The-Man motorists toss in everything from dirty diapers to soft drinks to game tokens—well, the baskets can get constipated.

“I want you to see this,’’ Hodges says as she walks to a huge safe in an otherwise bare room at authority headquarters. Inside are dozens of money bags full of metal detritus the machines have rejected over the past 18 months. There are coins from Panama and the Philippines, tokens from Chuck E. Cheese and the Cave Spring Car Wash in Roanoke, Va., plus mutilated American coins—1,900 pounds in all, destined to be auctioned off to coin collectors.

Generally, the machines can separate the rogue coins. But when they malfunction, motorists often freak—sitting frozen beside the basket, contemplating outlaw status.

The good news is that we can all calm down. “We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt,’’ Hodges says. If it’s the machine’s fault, the tollmeisters usually can tell. And generally, bills for unpaid tolls won’t be sent out until the third violation.

Certainly, the expressway authority would like to see more people choose the stickers—they’re free, with a toll prepayment of $25. But even though electronic transactions now comprise 72 percent of the tolls it collects, the authority doesn’t foresee a completely cashless system. After all, there always will be tourists, or people who don’t have debit or credit cards to link to E-PASS.

However, there is now one less hoarder looking to unload his dimes and nickels. In late July, my stash runs out and I end my stormy relationship with the Conway Road toll basket. These days I zoom through the plaza, an E-PASS sticker affixed to my windshield, the days of balky baskets, red lights and buzzers now relegated to memory lane. But still driving others out of their minds.


Headdressed to Impress

‘Orlando’s most outrageous black-tie event,’ the Headdress Ball, turns 21. By Chelsy Tracz

If you’ve been to a number of charity galas in town you know it would be hard to tell one from the other if not for the cause each supports.

Then there’s the Headdress Ball.

“It’s wild, zany, crazy—really nothing stiff about it—with an emphasis on fun,’’ says Sam Ewing, who co-founded the Headdress Ball 21 years ago as a fundraiser benefiting the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida. The center provides assistance for those living with HIV and AIDS. “It’s impossible not to have a good time.”

Folks with stuffy personalities may think otherwise, what with the Las Vegas-style dancers, a drag queen as emcee and beefcake mermen in giant fish tanks. But for some of Orlando’s elites, including philanthropists, politicians and business leaders, the campy, late-late-night gala is a must-be-seen-at event for scoring points with the area’s influential gay community.

This year’s campy event is set for Oct. 2 at the Hilton Orlando near the Orange County Convention Center, and it’s expected to draw about 1,000 guests, paying anywhere from $200 for a ticket to $25,000 for a corporate sponsorship. Last year the Headdress Ball raised $280,000 in cash, with in-kind contributions (lighting, audio-video, talent, for example) totaling $650,000.
The highlight of what has come to be known as “Orlando’s most outrageous black-tie event” is, of course, the competition among the elaborate headdresses. Supported by one person, a headpiece can extend 13 feet high and 13 feet wide and can weigh as much as is humanly possible to carry.

For some headdress builders like Eva McDonald, 42, of Geneva, preparations for the competition start months in advance.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to build. I just start collecting things,’’ says McDonald.

McDonald used chicken wire, foam, cardboard, spray paint and out-of-season holiday decorations to build two headdresses she will enter in this year’s contest: a giant cupcake with a birthday candle and presents around it and a 7-foot-tall coconut palm tree with a giant banana and supersized pineapple.

This will be McDonald’s fourth year of competing, with a third-place award in 2008 her best showing.

Originally called “A Night Blooming,’’ the Headdress Ball began as a small, flowery-headdress competition among local florists, with drag queens entertaining during the breaks. It quickly outgrew the old Beecham Theater and moved to larger venues. Orlando magazine readers voted the Headdress Ball as their favorite charity gala in last month’s “Best of Orlando” issue.

“We created a monster because it takes so much work,” says Ewing. “But it’s a good monster because it gives back. I never saw this coming or imagined it being this big.”

For ticket information on the Headdress Ball, see Soiree on page 90.

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