Sunny Cooter is not out over his skis • Photos of Sunny Cooter, Cooter Festival ephemera, and Cooter Pond Park by City of Inverness
There’s just something about a cooter.
That’s the bet that the Inverness City Council made back in the early-2000s when they decided to launch the annual Cooter Festival in the small Florida Gulf Coast town. And they’re wagering on it again with this year’s month-long Cootertober celebration.
With new folks at the helm, the month of over 20 events features a two-night Cooter Music Festival headlined by early-2000s homeskillets Howie Day and Vertical Horizon. The month also has a carnival, a creepy Zombie-themed weekend, a full weekend of elaborate Haunted adventures, and the big finale: Cooterween!
Speaking of the early-Aughts, that’s where the Inverness Cooter fest first emerged.
It all began in 2004. Many folks assume then-City Manager Frank DiGiovanni had the idea for Cooter Festival. But according to a video interview with the Citrus County Chronicle from 2013, he and the city clerk at the time were in a staff session brainstorming a “quirky” nature fall festival for the city.
The clerk piped up and asked, “Why don’t we just do a cooter festival?” After all, Inverness, the county seat of Citrus County, Florida, is home to Cooter Pond Park, which abuts the Withlacoochee State Trail. That settled it: The group landed on a theme.
If it were a cooter, it would’ve bit ’em.
The Tale of Two+ Cooters
There’s no getting around it. The word “Cooter” has a certain… charm, a je ne sais quoi, an unmistakable air to it. Exactly what you’d expect from a word with at least two entendres.
Before it even had a chance to launch, the event enjoyed some accidental infamy thanks to its wink-nudge name: The festival caught the attention of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.
After the tongue-in-cheek segment featuring Daily Show correspondent Ed Helms ran, that cooter was out of the bag.
That’s not Ed Helms (L) but that is Frank DiGiovanni (R)
Video screenshot by City of Iverness via Facebook
The Daily Show caught wind of the Cooter Festival in the first place due to a dust-up after big-city Tampa Bay Times ran a cheeky, lighthearted article entitled, “Local Turtle or Euphemism? Love the Cooter, Inverness.”
Boy, did tongues begin to wag. The manufactured Cooter outrage that followed set the city manager off, and he cancelled the fest.
In a follow-up piece in the Times, Cooter Clash Is Nothing but a Senseless Name Game, the paper reported that the city council reversed DiGiovanni’s decision. The article suggested that the outcome may have been his split-the-baby-turtle intention all along.
Tsk, tsk. All of this over a bit of slang that means (drumroll, please):
• A vagina…
• A type of river turtle (Genus: Pseudemys, aka cooters, from the African word kuta)…
• Oh! And of course, that character in the 70s TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard, who, by the way, was invited as the honored guest of an early Inverness Cooter Festival.
What’s in a (Provacative) Name?
With massive national media attention setting the bar, the Cooter crew produced a successful first festival. According to DiGiovanni, The Daily Show segment put Inverness on the map, with media and visitor queries coming in from all across the U.S. and Canada.
While the inaugural event itself was modest, it was a hit, and the legend of the Cooter Festival took off “like a rocket,” said DiGiovanni. The fact that there was already a Cooter Fest happening in Allendale, South Carolina since 1984 didn’t seem to matter.
The titillating name didn’t hurt the Florida event, either. If anything, it helped land the Cooter on many a “Weird” list, including a nod in 2018 from the state tourism arm, Visit Florida, as one of the top-nine bizarre festivals in the Sunshine State.
Cooter in a Jam
As the Inverness Cooter Festival settled into its growth, it banked on notoriety for the next few years while trying new things – Cooter Races, a Cooter Queen, music festivals, Cooterlicious Farmers Market, and even Cooterween (insert Beavis & Butt-Head chortle here) – all the fixin’s of a fun small town Fall Festival.
The event brought new visitors to the area and specifically, in recent years, to the new Depot District. The district is part of the city’s lakefront revitalization, fitting nicely into the Inverness motto: “Small Town Done Right.”
As with any annual event – tried-&-true or new-&-improved – promoters can count on one thing: unpredictable outcomes in any given year. It’s just the nature of the beast.
Changing hands in festival infrastructure and changing trends are just two challenges. Many other factors (can you say, “Global Pandemic?”) made the struggle to keep the Cooter’s appeal real.
In 2022, the city council made the decision to shake things up and replace the post-COVID Cooter Festival with a pricier Nashville-style country music fest. The recent lakefront upgrades could certainly accommodate something a bit grander than previous years.
While the fun of having big music names like Sawyer Brown and Lorrie Morgan coming to town thrilled some, there were concerns and hesitations expressed at the outset. Local retired reporter Mike Wright lamented the potential loss of the Cooter Festival’s ambiguous charm in his off-the-cuff and often humorous blog, proclaiming that “Cooter was Seinfeld – a festival about nothing.”
In the final analysis, the Inverness Country Jam was not without problems.
The gated and ticketed country music festival sparked mixed reactions from locals as it was happening. Some folks supported the idea of nostalgic marquee musicians appearing in their hometown park. Others took to social media, dissatisfied with ticket prices, lack of local focus, parking hassles, and the installation of a security barrier making the city’s public Liberty Park inaccessible to non-ticket holders for the weekend.
Once the receipts of the disappointing ticket sales were tallied, and after the Country Jam promoter presented a larger budget to produce again in 2023, the Inverness City Council pulled the plug.
One Twistid Cooter
Time for a wake-up call. If Inverness wanted to live up to its “Small Town Done Right” promise and produce a successful fall festival, it would require attracting not only travelers, visitors, and “heads in beds,” but also locals, too.
Enter Danny and Elisha Belden of the Twistid Arts Initiative.
For the 2023 iteration of the Cooter Festival, the City is working with this new team of hometown artists to program and produce the odd little celebration. Cootertober offers a full month of affordable events, appealing to residents and tourists alike.
Elisha and Danny are a married couple, artists, and members of the creative class who live, work, and play in Inverness, Florida. They own a tattoo business, Twistid Ink Studio and an arts advocacy nonprofit, Twistid Arts Initiative. Their origin stories – how they met and how they came to produce this year’s festival – are artsy, sweet, and about as Hallmark hometown as you can get.
“We met in high school, and dated on and off,” said Danny. Then life took them on different yet similar paths. Danny worked for a tattoo shop and developed pro skills as a gifted tattoo artist. Elisha wrote for Tattoo.com and worked on- and off-stage in the performing and visual arts.
“We got married to other people, had families with other people, and…” he said with an impish grin, “Our lives wound up bringing us back together.” They are a blended family of six, with two kids still at home.
Neither Danny nor Elisha fit any of the flip-flop, Trop Rock stereotypes one might conjure when imagining a pair of Gulf Coast event producers. In fact, either could easily fill casting calls for any number of Twilight trilogy, Daria, My So-Called Life, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboots.
But as it turns out, they were headed for an entirely different sort of casting call.
Art Takes Initiative
In the way that life and shared interests brought Elisha and Danny back together, a similar rekindling guided them to another major change. Their love for their hometown and its high school drama department led to the next big step in their lives: a nonprofit arts initiative.
“The local high school drama teacher, Kristen Neander, was my drama teacher in my senior year,” said Elisha. “I’m very attached to that department.”
Apparently back in Elisha’s high school days, the school board tried to cut the department. And you bet she was one of the kids out in the schoolyard picketing to keep the program alive.
These days, her own son is involved in drama classes, and she has a fresh perspective on the same old song & dance – lack of budget and lack of district support. While the kids are coming home with awards from various out-of-town drama competitions, no one’s hearing about these triumphs or the quality of their work. There are no reports of these academic wins, and the status quo of inadequate funding remains in place.
The Belden family and the crew at Twistid Ink Studio decided to step it up and financially support the teacher and students’ work in the department. “If she needed props, we bought them. If she needed sets, costumes, lighting, we would cover the cost,” said Elisha. Fortunately for the students, the Twistid staff “has experience in all of these avenues – pure luck!”
As it turned out, Twistid Ink’s spotlight on the beleaguered drama department spurred other Inverness folks and establishments to get in on the act.
Many conversations started – not just with the kids but also with their parents. The studio began to hear from families about how few opportunities there were for art-inclined young folks outside of school – no events, no local competitions, nothing for these students of the arts.
“If you didn’t play sports,” Elisha asserted, “there was nothing.”
Twistid Ink began planning a big event with a sidewalk chalk art competition “for the art kids,” and the Walk of Arts was born. The community loved how youngsters came out to participate and appreciated the studio’s holistic approach of involving the high school students every step of the way.
“We brought our industry friends, a couple of guys from Ink Master to come in, work with the kids, and give them pep talks,” said Elisha. “They learned firsthand that you can work as a professional artist and make a living. The Beldens also invited musicians to work with the chorus kids who were given not only insider insight but also the opportunity to open for a national headliner, late-90s hit-maker Jennifer Paige.”
Like those early years of the Cooter Festival, Twistid Ink Studio tapped into something the area had been missing, and they had a hit on their hands.
The Citrus High arts community had been facing the same issues that so many others across the country have with educational institutions: There’s always plenty of support and money for sports, but zip for the arts. To compound the problem, the myth of the “starving artist” still dominates, implying that arts training and learning are worthless in the job market.
Elisha and Danny aren’t having it.
The success of the first Walk of Arts was so impactful, that parents, businesses, and other supporters wanted to know what was next and how could they help. Clearly, there would be more events. To formalize the process, Danny and Elisha created the Twistid Arts Initiative nonprofit.
Hey Cooters! Let’s Put on a Show!
Danny Belden has been to pretty much every Cooter Festival.
“Last year’s festival,” he said, felt “high-end and kind of cut out a lot of the community.” He’d like for the festival to be “inclusive, with more community involvement, small businesses, and people from all walks of life.”
Elisha is excited to offer “low-cost and free events to open it up to [locals] while also enticing others to come.” When it’s affordable, she continued, “visitors have more money to spend on hotels, Airbnbs, restaurants, and vendors.”
But don’t mistake it: “Affordable” and “low-cost” don’t mean low quality.
Carley Butzgy has worked with Twistid Arts Initiative through a variety of events she’s coordinated at nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. She can’t say enough about them.
“Elisha and Danny are professional to a T. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with. The numbers they pull are impressive!” she said. Homosassa continues to work with Twistid Arts. The park has a booth at the next Walk of Arts this November and regularly hosts a Paint & Sip produced by the team. The next is the Bob ’n Brew, a Bob Ross-themed Paint & Sip, also in November, to coincide with International Men’s Day.
The Twistid Arts Initiative has been keeping true to its mission of lifting visual and performing arts in Citrus County, Florida through a variety of… well, initiatives. Their presence at local happenings has become a given.
Earlier this year, they headed up the Community Color chalk art event at Crystal River’s Centennial among other events, and even won “Best in Show” for their float in the annual Chamber Christmas Parade. Their reputation for creativity precedes them.
Earlier in 2023, current Inverness City Manager Eric Williams proposed expanding Cooter Festival beyond one weekend. His hope was for the city to host numerous free events across the entire month of October. Twistid Arts Initiative stepped up to the challenge.
Hands-on sweat equity counts for something.
Is this what’s meant by “Small Town Done Right”?
Just a Smalltown CooteR
What does “Small Town Done Right” mean to a couple of upstart artists tasked with producing a legacy fest?
Elisha namechecked “silly little Hallmark movies,” confessing her’s to be a “cheesy” sentiment. But she and Danny agree: “Small Town Done Right” is where a “whole town is together doing things. Everybody’s chipping in.”
“It’s like Cheers, where everybody knows your name,” Danny added, “That’s why it works so well in Inverness. And maybe one of the reasons why the City came to us to help with these events: They know our name. They’ve seen what we do out in the community.”
“Right now the phrase ‘Small Town’ is kind of a trigger spot for some,” Elisha reflected, diplomatically addressing the hoopla around a certain country singer and song up for interpretation. “But to me, ‘Small Town’ means not excluding anyone. It means including everyone. Everybody should be welcome, everybody should be comfortable, and everyone should feel at home.”
Ultimately, what seems most important to the Beldens is that Small Town is Done Together.
Cootertober Is Here!
The turtle shell potato sacks are prepped, and Inverness is ready to welcome visitors to Cootertober. Yes, this year, the Cooter Races will be human-fueled so that the turtles can take a well-deserved rest.
“The first few years the festival actually did live turtle races,” said Danny.
“It was in such a closed-in area,” he continued, “Everybody wanted to see what was going on, but no one could really see what was going on!” This year, kids will be cheered on, racing in a large area, instead of folks crowded around a small, 10′ x 10′ box of scurrying turtles.
“Folks will be able to see,” he said, and “the whole family, the whole community can be involved.”
Involvement is key.
“There are 40 different small businesses involved in just the carnival.” said Danny. “These businesses coming out and getting to know the community is a great example of ‘Small Town Done Right.’” And that’s just the carnival volunteers. That’s not counting the over two dozen other events in Cootertober (see full calendar with links below) powered by community.
Elisha added that for the music festival, “A local RV dealer is lending RVs to be used as dressing rooms.”
She noted a lot of generous local public safety and chamber of commerce involvement. Even the Historic Old Courthouse, a landmark in the center of downtown is doing their part – maybe even going a bit above and beyond (… the grave!).
The courthouse will be the location of the exciting Historic Haunt, produced by Twistid Arts and populated by ghost-host scare actors, including a slew from local high schools. The students and other community members have undergone extensive training and scare acting class. (Yes, that’s a thing, scare acting class.)
The courthouse staff love the idea of being included in Cootertober and ended up cutting some planned programming in the gallery one week early to accommodate the crew.
“They’re just completely opening the doors to us,” Elisha said, excitedly. “They’re taking everything out, and giving us full access to the building and even items in the basement!”
The excitement for Cootertober is building. And we bet the pre-show jitters, anticipation, and euphoria before the big event are all a lot easier to handle with a city full of helpful friends.
The old truism, while still true, is due for an update:
Slow and steady – and a whole lot of collaborators – win the race. 🌊
Full Cootertastic Cootertober Cooter Calendar
October 1-8 – Cootertober Kicks Off
Sun., Oct. 1 – Cooter King & Queen Pageant
Tue., Oct. 3 – CCSO National Night Out
Fri.-Sat., Oct. 6-7 – Humourween Radio Show Live
Sat.-Sun, Oct. 7-8 – Cooter Music Festival
Sat., Oct. 7 – ROCCS Regatta
Sat., Oct. 7 – Market at the Depot
Sun., Oct. 8 – Cooter Carnival
Sun., Oct. 8 – Cycle Lacoochee Annual Bike Ride
October 12-15 – Casino, Comedy & Concerts
Thu., Oct. 12 – Teens Night Out
Thu., Oct. 12 – Fire Up Citrus! Chamber event
Fri., Oct. 13 – Magic with Cesar Domino
Sat., Oct. 14 – Cooter Comedy
Sat., Oct. 14 – ROCCS Casino Night
Sat., Oct. 14 – Rocktober Cooter Concert w/ ZOSO
Sun., Oct. 15 – Cooter Concert w/ Frontmen of Country
October 20-22 – Cooterpocalypse Zombie Weekend
Fri., Oct. 20 – Third Friday Car Show
Fri., Oct. 20 – Cooterpocalypse Zombie Prom
Sat., Oct. 21 – Market at the Depot
Sat., Oct. 21 – Cooterpocalypse Zombie Run
Sat., Oct. 21 – Cooterpocalypse Zombie Pub Crawl
Sun., Oct. 22 – Cooterpocalypse Scavenger Hunt
Tue., Oct. 24 – Citrus Chronicle Luminary for Hope
October 27-29 – Cooterspooktacular Weekend
Fri., Oct. 27 – Ghostbusters: Afterlife Movie in the Park
Fri.-Sat., Oct. 27-28- War of the Worlds Radio Show Live
Fri.-Sat., Oct. 27-28 – Historic Haunt at the Courthouse
Fri.-Sat., Oct. 27-28 – Haunting on Pine
Sat., Oct. 28 – Ghostbusters Meet & Greet
Sat., Oct. 28 – Citrus Fusion Halloween Spiketacular
Sun., Oct. 29 – Historic Haunt: Neurodivergent Version
October 31 – CooterWeen!
Tue., October 31 – Cooterween
OK, Cooter boos, what are you waiting for? It’s time to book your trip to Inverness and get this party startled! 🌊