After working for a year on his elaborate Fantasy Fest costume — made with a Dollar Store serving tray, PVC pipes, a woman’s belt chain from the Salvation Army and 2,500 white ostrich feathers bought on eBay — Daniel Bitnar had one last task.
“I need to make it sparkle with Windex,” he said.
For Key West’s biggest celebration of the year, the usually mild-mannered manager of a Key West guesthouse will transform himself into a superhero. But not the usual comic book crime fighters Superman, Batman and Aquaman, “the kind of stuff I did as a kid.”
Bitnar, 54, will wear the one-of-a-kind creation to become a divine super hero, St. Michael the Archangel, who led God’s armies to victory over Satan in the war in heaven.
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And even with thousands of other revelers dressed for the annual 10-day festival — the theme this year is “Super Heroes, Villains… & Beyond” — St. Michael will be easy to spot on Duval Street. His wings, with all those ostrich feathers, will span 18 feet when opened. And the 5-foot-10 Bitnar will become a towering 6-foot-4 with his glittering platform boots.
“Anything Daniel does really, really rocks,” said Virginia Wark, who works with Bitnar at the Pilot House. “He’s so meticulous. He can sit and spend hours putting a strand of tinsel down the spine of each feather.”
At the urging of Wark, Bitnar entered Fantasy Fest’s premiere costume competition, Pretenders in Paradise, for the first time in 2010. He won the individual amateur division in a glitzy white number as “Solaris God of all Predators.” In 2011, he entered as “Poseidon God of the Seas” with a skirt that flared into the eight legs of an octopus and won again.
Last year, he transformed a beach ball with a five-foot diameter into the world as part of his Atlas costume. He had spent two days working on a soundtrack to go with his two-minute, onstage performance in his quest to win Pretenders in Paradise for a third straight time. A local ABC affiliate came to his house to interview him. But the outer bands of Hurricane Sandy brought high winds and rain that led to the contest’s cancellation.
As the week went on, the weather got better and he wore his head-turning Atlas costume during Fantasy Fest’s world-renowned main event, the Captain Morgan Parade, which draws crowds of 30,000 plus. Video of him as Atlas was incorporated into a TV commercial promoting Key West by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. And his picture with the world appeared in an airlines magazine that a flight attendant asked him to autograph.
This year, Pretenders in Paradise is canceled again, this time because the new owners of the Pier House did not want to continue its long-running sponsorship of the event, and because a replacement sponsor could not be found in time.
While Bitnar said he was extremely disappointed, it did nothing to dampen his spirits to make St. Michael the Archangel as spectacular as possible.
“It’s my therapy,” he said. “Some people sit in the bar and drink. Others play. I do costumes.”
Bitnar has always been creative. He got his masters degree in industrial designing at a school in Florence, Italy. For a project, he created a humongous street lamp that had movement, color and a heater to keep people warm in the winter.
For 17 years, he designed shoes, handbags, belts and jewelry for a shoe company in his hometown of Caracas. He also worked with Miss Venezuela pageant contestants, designing their clothes, doing their makeup and even teaching them how to blink for the best effect on the judges.
He left for the United States in 1998, the day Hugo Chavez took power. Bitnar’s father had fled communism in what was then Czechoslovakia; his mother had done the same in Hong Kong. “I wanted no part of what I knew was coming in Venezuela,” he said.
He first lived in Weston with his sister until meeting Michael Soddy, now his husband, and moving with him to Key West.
For Bitnar, creating costumes that others enjoy is his contribution to his adopted hometown: “It’s my grain of sand.”
Pegi Fitton, a spokeswoman for the 35-year-old festival, said: “Daniel’s costumes take Fantasy Fest to a different level of quality. He puts so much time and effort and thought into what he’s doing.”
Many people have asked Bitnar why he doesn’t turn his talent of making costumes into a business. “Then it would be no fun,” he said. The only costume he has sold is the Poseidon octopus, to a local man for $1,000.
Bitnar began researching ideas for his 2013 costume the day after the 2012 Fantasy Fest Parade (next year’s theme is posted on the last float).
He takes the first month to come up with a concept, and the second month to search for and purchase all the materials he thinks he will need. Then he begins to put the costume together, working on it from 30 minutes to 12 hours in a single day — in the living room of his shotgun house next to the library.
This year, Bitnar also created costumes for Soddy and a friend from Atlanta. Soddy will be Archangel Gabriel, the messenger, and their friend Gary Horn will be Archangel Raphael, the healer.
“Their costumes will be smaller, because they wanted to be more comfortable,” Bitnar said. “I’m used to all the gadgets.”
Most of the great Fantasy Fest costumes are bought, Wark said. “Daniel does his from scratch.”
She still is amazed that he took the time to stitch real pieces of hair together to create Poseidon’s long beard. “He also used a hot iron to curl each ringlet in the beard,” she said.
Bitnar admits he’s a perfectionist, albeit a frugal one. While his St. Michael costume looks expensive, he said he probably spent about $300 this year, and that included the two other Archangel costumes and his headdress for the Key West Headdress Ball on Tuesday at Southernmost on the Beach. The headdress has a fountain, with the water flowing out of a skeleton’s mouth.
Bitnar uses a lot of recycled products, including plastic closet lining for his armor. That Dollar Store serving tray he made into his shield. His wings are attached to his body with a knapsack he reinforced with plywood.
He used PVC and electrical piping that he bent with heat to help shape the wings. The wings glow using LED lights run with three AAA batteries.
“It’s fun to go to the stores, like hardware stores, and talk about what it is we’re doing,” Soddy said.
But when neither Home Depot or a local hardware store could help him with a mechanism to make his wings open, Bitnar came up with a solution using a long screw, hinge and wire that can be pulled on each side.
Bitnar originally thought he would wear his headdress with the St. Michael’s costume but decided it was “too over the top. I don’t want to look tacky.” So he’s going with simpler headwear, silver cyrkonia (which looks like diamonds) that are molded to his head like a helmet worn by a Trojan warrior. Small white feathers are on each side. He created a skirt out of rhinestone material he sewed by hand and wears only a silver banana hammock underneath it. He’ll complete the looks with silver lipstick, silver eyebrows, fake eyelashes with silver liners and piercing blue contact lenses.
He’ll wear that costume on Friday during the Masquerade March through Old Town and in Saturday night’s main parade down Duval Street.
On Sunday, he will completely dismantle the costumes and begin researching ideas to go with Fantasy Fest’s 2014 theme. “I’m already looking forward to next year,” he said.