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Fantasy Fest founder Frank Romano dies at age 88

Frank Romano, a Key West stalwart who was a founder of Fantasy Fest and who founded the company Key West Aloe, died at 7:30 Thursday morning at age 88.

"He was just a very generous, generous man," said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce and a Romano friend dating back to the 1970s.

In addition to his work with Fantasy Fest and Key West Aloe (founded in the 1970s as the Key West Fragrance and Cosmetics Factory), Romano was a mainstay with the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys and AIDS Help (a seven-year board member and past secretary).

He helped established the Tourist Development Council when it was a Key West-specific board, and served with the Florida Keys Land and Sea Trust and was active in the Nature Conservancy.

Panico said he also gave generously to the children's burn unit at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, not out of personal tragedy but just because. He had also been one of the biggest supporters of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, earning its Hall of Fame Award for 20 years of chamber support.

He also was a past recipient of the Florence Spottswood Humanitarian of the Year Award, given annually by the American Red Cross of Miami and the Keys.

But Fantasy Fest, the 10-day party in October that culminates in a Duval Street parade that draws upward or 70,000 people each year, is perhaps his biggest legacy. He and his life partner Joe Liszka, along with Fast Bucky Freddie's owner Tony Falcone and Bill Conkle, were driving forces behind it. Here's how it came to be, he wrote on the festival's Web site:

"In 1978, on Halloween Day, Joe Liszka asked me to accompany him to the intersection of Front and Duval Streets. He asked me to look up Duval Street and tell him what I saw. What was I supposed to see? No cars moving, no people walking, lots of storefronts boarded up because the retailers take their vacation in this slow season.

" 'How is the weather,' he asked. 'Well, it is a typical beautiful day in Paradise, warm with bright sunshine.' 'That's what's wrong,' he told me. 'Here it is the most beautiful weather day of the season and the town is deserted. Workers are laid off. Business owners have a tough time paying their expenses. It is a disaster season for the Key West economy.'

" 'I understand,' I replied, 'but what can we do about it?' 'We need a fest, a carnival, a celebration, something that will entice people to change our moribund season to one of great fun; a party that will bring many people to understand that this season is one of our best,' he replied.

"Liszka's creative inspiration was the birth of Fantasy Fest. Now, Halloween is the busiest day of the year with thousands of people visiting our town. Fantasy Fest week produces the most revenue of any week in the year. A moribund season has become our best."