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The Fun Also Rises

Hemingway look-alike contestants engage in all kinds of ballyhoo, in a manly way, of course.

July 29, 1998|JOSH MEYER | Times Staff Writer

KEY WEST, Fla. — The man who looks exactly like Ernest Hemingway is well into a night of beer drinking and is proceeding with gusto--like the great Papa would have, of course--as he sizes up those around him at Sloppy Joe's bar in the heart of this tropical oddball colony and tourist trap.

The cavernous watering hole is packed. And at least one in 20 of its inhabitants appears to look and dress more like Hemingway than the famous writer and bon vivant himself.

"Some of them are very good this year," the man, Bob Orlin, says matter-of-factly.

The 18th annual Papa Hemingway Look-Alike Contest--part of an annual 10-day salute to one of Key West's most famous ghosts--is about to start in earnest. As Orlin scans the crowd, his words are lost in a din that grows by the minute, what with the live band, the hundreds of drunken revelers, and all of the overly exuberant Hemingways.

The Hemingways swagger about the establishment, greeting one another loudly and heartily like the old friends they are, with manly hand locks and bear-like backslaps. Hugs, though, are verboten: Hemingway would have tolerated nothing of that sort.

Some Hemingways are tall, others short. Fat ones, thin ones and ones with bowling-ball paunches. With their trademark bushy Hemingway beards and thick crops of snowy hair, though, they are almost interchangeable from where Orlin stands, save for their outfits.

Over there, flirting with a woman half his age, is a khaki-clad Hemingway, looking as if he'd just cabled home his latest dispatch from the Spanish Civil War. Nearby, jostling for some breathing room, are Hemingway the marlin fisherman in fly-fishing vest and long-billed cap, Hemingway the big-game hunter, and Hemingway the participant in the running of the bulls, complete with black beret, white trousers and shirt and bright red sash.

And then there are the old "lion in winter" Hemingways, who seem to be everywhere. They stand in stoic silence, all of them roasting in the trademark white cable-knit turtleneck sweater that Papa wore in his later years while scowling his way through the Idaho countryside, just before he blew his head off with a shotgun at age 61, less than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature.

Only this isn't Idaho. It is the southernmost city in the continental United States in the dog days of summer. The heat, humidity and Klieg lights have combined to make the room feel like the inside of a steam cooker, even at 8 p.m.

But as the sweat beads up on the Hemingways' foreheads and pours down their ruddy cheeks and onto their beards, none of them so much as flinches.

They can't. The judges may be watching.

Nobody wants to show an iota of discomfort. Better to suffer stoically, silently and in a manly way, just as Hemingway would have. Not that he'd have worn winter clothing in a crowded bar when the mercury is well above 90 degrees.

*

T he week is almost over, and this rambunctious army of nearly 100 Hemingway look-alikes--this plethora of Papas, if you will--has been careening through the tourist-clogged streets of Key West at all hours of the day and night.

Some drink heavily, carouse and generally engage in a very public attempt to out-macho one another in a constant display of Hemingway-like joie de vivre, aping his search for meaningful adventure.

Others, like Orlin, have come with their wives and families and act, well, not the way the Hemingway of exaggerated legend would have. They behave themselves, posing patiently to have their photos taken with every tourist who wants one. And it seems as if everybody does.

Mechanics and brain surgeons alike, the Hemingways have come from cities across the United States. In past years, they've come from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

Technically, they're here for the Hemingway Days Festival, a mishmash of activities sponsored mostly by boosterish local merchants to honor the author as a literary icon and to celebrate the, uh, boisterous lifestyle he enjoyed during his eight years in Key West starting in 1931.

There is a writing workshop and short-story competition overseen by Hemingway's granddaughter Lorian. There are storytelling competitions, parties, walking tours of Papa's haunts, a Caribbean street fair, golfing and fishing tournaments and even a 5K road race. In all, 88 sponsors--especially Sloppy Joe's, the bar where Hemingway is said to have met his third of four wives--have gotten a piece of the action.

But the men have really come to compete in the look-alike contest, to be local heroes for 10 days in Key West and then forevermore in their hometowns. That's why everyone else is here too--to see them. There are so many people here that the Hemingways must line up outside a special entrance to Sloppy Joe's so they can make it to the stage when the live deejay calls out their names.

This is the sixth look-alike contest for Orlin, a 51-year-old artist from St. Cloud, Fla., and the buzz at Sloppy Joe's is that this could finally be his year.

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