Shine like a disco ball in GaYbor

A night out with GaYbor royalty MarkandCarrie.

click to enlarge IT'S NOT WATER: Mark Bias explains his trademark teacup at Streetcar Charlie's while Carrie West looks on. - Larry Biddle
Larry Biddle
IT'S NOT WATER: Mark Bias explains his trademark teacup at Streetcar Charlie's while Carrie West looks on.

If you've attended any event remotely connected to GaYbor, you've seen them: the man with the long golden locks and sequined cowboy hat and his ebullient, teacup-carrying consort, the unofficial Kings and Queens of GaYbor: Mark Bias and Carrie West. Since co-founding the GaYbor Coalition in 2007, MarkandCarrie (say their name as one word, everyone else does) have built a network of gay and gay-friendly businesses that have played a big role in the latest Ybor renaissance.

But one question has remained, for me at least: These guys are in their 50s, they run their own successful shop (MC Filmfest), they're forever sending out e-newsletters and leading meetings and going to events. So how do they do all that and still hit the clubs with such apparent fervor?

And what's in that teacup, anyway?

I decided to risk liver and sleep and see for myself. As it happened, I coincidentally chose to follow them around on the same evening as Bradley Nelson, who won a Night Out with Mark and Carrie in CL's Holiday Auction. Brad, a former bartender, is a friend of the couple, so he'd already had some first-hand experience with the circuit. But as another member of our party points out, it's not easy to keep up: "I've never been able to make it to more than two bars," says Mike Olds. "Then I call it a night."

Tonight, along with several friends, we're about to see if we can go the distance.

6:30 p.m.: Streetcar Charlie's

The party's already started when my partner Larry and I arrive. MarkandCarrie and company are chowing down on appetizers, and Carrie invites us to dive in, too. He's wearing a silvery gold lame jacket and his trademark white hat; Mark's in a sparkly purple tuxedo, ruffled white shirt and a rakish black chapeau, with English Rose china teacup in his hand per usual. It's time to get the most pressing question out of the way.

"Ice water, officer, I'll swear to that," he responds to my query. I'm actually prepared to believe him (I've never actually seen him drunk on one of his nights out, just cheery). Then I do a taste test: there's ice in there, all right, but it's floating in straight vodka. My admiration soars.

MarkandCarrie have been part of the Tampa Bay gay community since moving here from Minneapolis in 1980 after deciding they wanted to go back to school. They flipped a coin — California or Florida — and wound up going to USF, Carrie in mass communications, Mark in architecture. They turned their video-collecting hobby into a home mail-order business in 1989 just as queer cinema was about to break, then opened a store at the old Suncoast Resort before moving to their present location in 2007 opposite Charlie's at 15th St. and 8th Avenue.

Mark has always been a flamboyant dresser, though he doesn't do his trademark stiltwalking anymore: "When I turned 50, Carrie said, 'Cut that shit out.'" (He's now 55; Carrie is 58.) Carrie's no slouch in the haberdashery department either: "We have one whole bedroom that's strictly a closet," he tells me. "Racks and racks of costumes." (The collection includes three identical sequined cowboy hats — he's wearing "the best one" tonight.) They're blithely indifferent to catcalls and stares, and if their outfits bother anyone of the straighter persuasion, Mark almost always disarms doubters with his forthright charm. "That's GaYbor hospitality," says Mark. "You say hi to anybody."

They're full of juicy Ybor lore; there's the legend about the TV star getting gangbanged on a now-defunct bar's pool table, and the rumors about a notoriously arson-prone club owner. But we can't stay and gossip. We've got (ulp) 10 more stops to make. The evening's young.

7 p.m.: Teatro on Seventh

The foyer in the gorgeously restored second-floor restaurant is a sea of grey suits and fuchshia gowns — we've apparently stumbled into a wedding party. Mark, true to form, compliments the little flower girl on her white dress — "You're beautiful tonight!" — but our table's not ready yet. We move on.

7:10 p.m.: Tribeca Color Salon

It's a Saturday night, so there are only a few haircuts in progress at this gleaming Centro Ybor salon. But that allows more time for apprentice Ashley Stolle and manager Tanya Fujiki-Hastings to give a tour of the surprisingly spacious quarters and the adjacent (very pink) Becky Beauty Shop. And what choice do they have once the force of nature that is Mark blows in? I think he could have wangled himself a free manicure while he was at it.

7:20 p.m.: Gameworks

In a place that's all about sensory overload, our entourage hardly bears notice. ("Nice jacket," says one gamer admiringly.)