About Michael Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida's largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels "Bloody Rabbit" and "Koby's New Home."

The Florida Tea Party is here to stay, the new chairman says

ORLANDO – In their first year trying to become a political force in Florida, the Tea Party found a candidate for Congress in an Orlando-based district, and put up an active grassroots campaign in a year when the term “Tea Party” reigned supreme.

Their candidate, Peg Dunmire, ended up losing the race for Florida’s 8th Congressional District. In a year when Republican voter turnout was heavy and the party scored record victories, Dunmire and the incumbent, Democrat Alan Grayson, lost to the GOP nominee, former state Sen. Dan Webster.

At the same time, the Florida Tea Party did score one big victory. Early on, this party devoted to conservative principles endorsed a little known businessman who was taking on what appeared to be a long shot bid for the governor’s office. Rick Scott was initially thought to be an underdog in the Republican primary, since party leaders had mostly coalesced around Attorney General Bill McCollum as their nominee. And even if Scott could somehow win the primary, the Democrats appeared ready for him with their own strong nominee — Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer.

Scott ended up defying the odds – and the odds makers’ predictions – by narrowly defeating both McCollum in the primary and Sink in the general. Today, the Tea Party is citing its early backing of Scott as a prime reason why they plan to stay united and keep building the party as a genuine third party movement in Florida.

And Dunmire has a special interest in the Tea Party’s future: she’s accepted the role of party leader from the outgoing chairman, Fred O’Neal. And Dunmire admits she has ambitious plans for the party’s future.

“I am now the new chairman of the Florida Tea Party, and I think there are several things we have to do as a party,” Dunmire said. “We need to reach out to all the Tea Party groups and make it clear we’re here to stay.”

Peg Dunmire pledges to keep the Florida Tea Party active and thriving.

The Florida Tea Party has, since the days when O’Neal first formed it, stood for conservative principles: a balanced federal budget, strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, limiting the role and size of the federal government, and turning more decisions over to the states, not the feds. And while they’re actively recruiting candidates to run for office under the party’s banner, they’re not averse to endorsing someone from the two major parties that support their views. This year, that included Scott and Marco Rubio, the successful Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.

“We supported other candidates in the Republican primary and most of them won,” said Tea Party member Doug Guetzloe. “We were instrumental in backing Rick Scott in the primary when most of the party establishment was backing Bill McCollum.”

But Dunmire stressed this doesn’t mean the Tea Party will eventually fold and become a faction of the Florida Republican Party. This is one third party movement, she said, that’s here to stay.

“They’re welcome to join us,” she said of the Sunshine State’s registered Republicans. “But we are the Florida Tea Party. That means we’re organized to put up candidates. We want to identify and nurture and grow really good candidates. We need to put a structure in place where they can learn to be good candidates. We are going to hold all the candidates accountable if they’re representing the people of Florida.”

More specifically, Dunmire said she welcomes candidates who support the Tea Party’s agenda of lower taxation, elimination of state and federal budget debts, and opposition to the high speed rail and SunRail commuter rail projects.

SunRail is a 61-mile commuter train that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then continue into Osceola County, ending at the Poinciana Industrial Park. The high speed train would run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando International Airport, then down to Walt Disney World, Lakeland, and Tampa. Both projects are meant to get motorists off congested highways like Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike and create more transportation options in a state where the car has long been king.

The Florida Tea Party remains strongly opposed to the SunRail commuter rail line.

The Tea Party has been opposed to SunRail from day one, calling it a huge waste of taxpayer money that not enough commuters are going to end up riding.

“You don’t have to have high speed rail or a SunRail system,” Guetzloe said. “We do need a mass transportation system, but we need a bus hub system to get people from one place to the next, for people who don’t have cars. Commuter rail can’t do that.” 

Doug Guetzloe does his radio show from the Tea Party's office at The Plaza in downtown Orlando.

Guetzloe noted that ballot referendums aimed at raising taxes to fund new transportation systems lost in Osceola, Polk and Hillsborough counties in November – and Guetzloe’s group Ax The Tax was instrumental in fighting all three. He noted that Gov.-elect Scott has been a critic of SunRail and the high speed train and added, “I think Rick Scott has got the message.”

The Florida Tea Party also plans to build up its credibility after getting accused by some Republicans of being a front for Grayson. The theory was that Grayson had encouraged the Tea Party efforts – perhaps even helped the party financially – in the hopes that Dunmire would split and divide the conservative vote with Webster.

Dunmire has denied that charge from the beginning, and still does.

“We know we’re a legitimate party,” she said. “I want this to be successful. I’m a real student of organizations. You have to see how successful they are, and at the first of the year, we’ll be having organizational meetings.”

Grayson also said the notion that he encouraged Dunmire to run is ridiculous.

“It’s just another example of the right wing’s gift for making up plausible lies,” Grayson said. “I could care less which faction won. It doesn’t matter to me which faction of the Republican party employs the term Tea Party. What bothers me is the media were so willing to repeat this self-serving propagation. I didn’t give her (Dunmire) any money. Why should I? It was just the incessant drumbeat of ‘It’s alleged this, it’s alleged that.’ You’d think that after months and months of this, some facts would be tossed in.”

In fact, Grayson said the state’s GOP establishment clearly turned against the Florida Tea Party not for ideological reasons, but out of a sense of panic. The party had been hit by a well-publicized credit card scandal involving former state chairman Jim Greer, and was terrified that voters might actually view the Florida Tea Party as a legitimate alternative, he said.

“This is an utterly dysfunctional, corrupt organization – and I’m referring to the Republican Party of Florida,” Grayson said.

Dunmire said she plans to start building up the Florida Tea Party by dividing the state eight regions.

“I want to do it by region because regions are more manageable,” she said.

And she agreed with Grayson that during the campaign, the local media paid little or no attention to her efforts, so she has no interest in relying on those sources in the future.

“My experience is the media have ignored us, so we will develop our own media, and that’s also part of our strategy,” Dunmire said.

Parliament House celebrates Dickens — and celebrities — in a unique, hilarious version of “A Christmas Carol.”

ORLANDO – Imagine you’re a big star in the 1960s, winning a Tony award for playing Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and cutting 10 gold albums, snagging an academy award nomination for best supporting actress for your role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” taking home a Lifetime Achievement Award for your collective body of work on the Broadway stage.

Then along comes the 1970s, and public tastes begin to change. New faces are getting all the attention; you find yourself taking roles in “The Love Boat” on TV and in movie bombs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Pretty soon you’re doing “Hollywood Squares” next to Big Bird – is there any more desperate sign of a career that’s tanking?

If you’re Carol Channing, you might just leap at the opportunity to take the lead role in “A Christmas Carol” if it brings you back to the stage, and does it in one of the world’s great tourism Mecca’s: Orlando. So when Channing learns that Ashton Kutcher had to drop out of the lead playing Scrooge, you zip down to Orlando in record time.

There’s just one problem. Standing on stage before a full house at the Footlight Theatre on Orange Blossom Trail, Channing gets a bit confused, and finally has to ask: “So this isn’t Epcot? And we’re not doing the Candlelight Processional?”

Not even close. Channing flew down to Orlando to perform in “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol: A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle!” at none other than the Parliament House, the gay resort where drag shows, campy humor and muscular, half naked bartenders reign supreme. Channing’s career may never be the same.

Michael Wanzie's gift to the holidays is his new comedical production, "Wanzie's Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol."

Tis the season for holiday productions, and it’s amazing to see how durable Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge has been since it was first published in 1843. There are no fewer than 11 different versions of “A Christmas Carol” being produced across Central Florida theaters right now, and in a fine testament to Mr. Dickens, the productions are remarkably diverse.

Theatre Downtown offers a very faithful version of the tale featuring a large cast, while “Dickens by Candlelight: A Christmas Carol” at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts reduces it to a cast of three, and the Southern Winds Theatre presents David A. McElroy playing every role in “A One-Man Christmas Carol” at the Starlight Video & Coffee shop in Winter Park. Two Lake County theaters – The Bay Street Players in Eustis and the Moonlight Players in Clermont – offer competing versions of the comedy “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” has got to be one of the most unique, because it reinvents the Dickens tale in a variety of ways: gay campy humor, burlesque show, drag performances, and, most entertainingly, as a hilarious send up of Hollywood and Broadway celebs. Conceived by the Parliament House’s resident theatrical genius, Michael Wanzie, this is “A Christmas Carol” performed by the biggest names in gay-friendly entertainment – Liza Minnelli, Cher, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand, etc. – and begs the question: if Wanzie really could line them all up for a star-studded performance of “A Christmas Carol,” could they play it straight and leave the ham for Christmas day supper?

The answer, not surprisingly, is: don’t count on it.

Wanzie, who is as funny an actor as he is a writer, happily grants himself a lead role in this show, playing himself as the narrator of “A Christmas Carol”; he also becomes a sort of referee to the lineup of spotlight-hogging stars. Stung by the disappointment of losing Kutcher as his lead, Wanzie nevertheless is happy to accept Channing as a substitute, although the two are soon clashing over stage direction and character development. But neither one seems quite prepared for just how zany this version of Scrooge is about to get when the casting includes Marlee Matlin as Bob Cratchit and Liza Minnelli as Tiny Tim.  Honestly now, how many earlier productions of “A Christmas Carol” have given you Bob Cratchit swearing in sign language or Tiny Tim lamenting all those failed marriages to gay men?

Part of this production’s charm is Wanzie’s increasingly angry reactions to his hammy performers, who glide off book every chance they get, and to the terrific ensemble work being done here. It’s amazing to think of how good the Footlight Theatre’s regular performers are, including Miss Sammy, who does some spot-on imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball, Streisand and Joan Crawford, lip syncing to some of their well known hits.

Carol Lee, also known as the official guest hostess of the Footlight Players Show, is a riot as Carol Channing, looking alternately thrilled to be on stage and befuddled at how increasingly bizarre this production gets – although, in the true spirit of “The show must go on,” Channing rolls with every bit of craziness tossed at her.

Gidget Galore grabs some big laughs as Liza, but it would be hard to top Doug Ba’aser, who is side-splittingly funny in the near silent role of Marlee Matlin. Just his expressions alone brought on so much laughter from the audience that it would be hard to imagine this show without him.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” is a typical Wanzie grab-bag of successful elements – music, dancing, wild humor, impersonations, truly tasteless gags – all done at a speed that keeps you glued to that stage through every second of Scrooge’s …. er, Carol Channing’s …. deliriously wacky adventures. It’s sort of a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” soundtrack for the Parliament House’s ongoing entertainment efforts, ideal for those who say Bah! Humbug to taking the holidays too seriously.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, the final performance. The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail at the Parliament House. Tickets are $12 in advance (by logging on to www.wanzie.com) or $14 at the door, and $10 in advance or $12 at the door for the Dec. 20 industry night show.

With holiday fare underway, Celebration attracts unwanted national publicity for two violent deaths.

CELEBRATION – Just as this community was gearing up to celebrate the holidays with snow, tree lightings and carriage rides, media coverage of Celebration’s 12th Annual Now Snowing event got shunted aside by ongoing reports about two violent deaths in a community known, until this month, for never having experienced a murder before.

On Nov. 27, Celebration kicked off the community’s annual holiday events with a special tree lighting ceremony that featured live music, an appearance by Santa Claus, and manufactured snow falling on Market Street.

The town of Celebration hopes to attract people to its Now Snowing Nightly monthlong holiday event, but that got overshadowed by two violent deaths.

Just a few days later, though, the community was back in the spotlight, this time nationally, and not for the holiday fare.

Earlier this week, Osceola County Sheriff’s detectives released the name of the Celebration murder victim, 58-year-old Matteo P. Giovanditto.  Two days earlier, Osceola deputies had responded to a call from a neighbor who told them she went to check on Giovanditto and found him dead in his Water Street condo.

Not much information has been released about the case. The investigation is on-going, with detectives calling the death “suspicious.” This is believed to be the first homicide in the community.

It wasn’t the only death to make the news in Celebration this week.

On Dec. 3 at 2:20 a.m., deputies finally got into a Yew Court home after hours of negotiations. A Celebration man had barricaded himself inside the house, but when deputies got in there, they found him dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was later identified as Craig Foushee, 52. The previous day, deputies had spent more than 14 hours negotiating with Foushee, even sending tear gas into the house in an effort to get inside.

It started after Foushee, who was alone inside the house, indicated he might harm himself, the sheriff’s office said. As a precaution, several local streets were closed and residents in the vicinity of the house got evacuated.  Schools were put on lockdown, and deputies worked with school officials to ensure students could leave at the regular time.

Twis Lizasuain, public information officer for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, noted that this was done because Foushee shot at deputies several times earlier in the evening when SWAT team members tried a forced entry through his front door, and later during ongoing negotiations. Although no deputies were injured, Lizasuain noted that deputies didn’t return fire because they couldn’t focus on a target.

After more than two hours without any communication, deputies used a robot to locate Foushee, just before a SWAT team entered the house.

The sheriff’s office noted that this case isn’t related to the Celebration homicide investigation, and Foushee’s death was turned over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for further investigation.

The two cases attracted plenty of local media coverage from Orlando area television stations, but also ended up making the national news as well. CNN Headline News covered the two incidents on Friday, with a special mention of Celebration being a town originally sponsored by Walt Disney World.

The incidents happened just as the Osceola County community was hoping for solid attendance for Town Center’s annual holiday events.

Now Snowing, as the ongoing holiday event is called, features the manufactured snow along with an ice rink, a remodeled Celebration Express Train and a “Winter Wonderland Spectacular” featuring strolling Charles Dickens carolers, photos with Santa, and horse drawn carriage rides. The snow falls nightly in Town Center at 6, 7, 8 and 9 p.m.

The month long holiday event includes a special Radio Disney Holiday concert on Saturday, Dec. 11 featuring All-Star Weekend and the winner of this year’s nationwide NBT contest on Radio Disney. The event ends with a New Year’s Eve Celebration including live entertainment starting at 6 p.m. and fireworks at midnight on Dec. 31. There will also be community performances in Celebration on Jan. 1-2.

To learn more about Celebration’s holiday activities, log on to www.celebrationtowncenter.com or call 407-566-4007.

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