Sunset Celebration

History of Sunset Celebration

"See you at Sunset" has a special significance in Key West, Florida. It's an invitation to partake in a spontaneous celebration as jugglers, tourists, clowns, fishermen, psychics, island musicians, artists, food vendors, and friends gather each night to celebrate the close of another day in Paradise.

Mallory Square has a long history as being a center of activity in Key West. Once the chosen anchorage of pirates, it later became the base for anti-pirate campaigns orchestrated by Commodore Porter in the 1800's. Mallory Square has also been the center of the wrecking industry and the assembling point of American forces for four wars.

Many noted figures have enjoyed the view of sunset from Mallory Square over the years. Audubon wrote glowingly of the glorious Key West sunsets while visiting in the early 1800's, and legend has it that Tennessee Williams initiated the ritual of applauding the sunset at Mallory Square, gin and tonic firmly in hand.

The contemporary incarnation of Sunset Celebration really took off in the late 1960's as groups of carefree gypsies descended upon Key West and Mallory Pier in search of paradise. The way that the sunset ceremony got started is that all the "freaks" as drug users were called in the sixties, used to go down every evening high on LSD to watch Atlantis arising mythically out of the cloud formations at sunset. There wereabout 30-40 regulars many of whom lived in Fogarty house which at that time was full of hippies.

The late 1970's and early 1980's were a pivotal time in the history of the festival. At that time, vending on the dock was risky as there were signs up saying "no peddling on the pier" yet as word got out more and more people starting showing up to set up shop with their wares. It was turning into a flea market type environment. To make matters worse the dock was being renovated to accommodate cruise ships so the fate of Sunset was hanging in the balance. Merchants adjacent to Mallory Square began complaining about the unsupervised nature of the event. The City of Key West had to address the issue. Meanwhile, Sunset participants, realizing the levity of the situation began getting organized to preserve the tradition. Richard Bertocci (a retired art teacher who was arrested for selling art at Sunset) and his wife Karen, Will Soto (a performer), Featherman Louie (a jewelry vendor), Marylyn Kellner (the Cookie Lady), Love 22, and Sister along with a large group of participants formed a legal entity known as the Key West Cultural Preservation Society, Inc. (a not for profit corporation) in 1984. The organization drafted guidelines for participation and negotiated a lease with the City of Key West with the understanding that CPS would manage Sunset and ensure its artistic integrity. The rest is history, as they say.

Sunset Celebration continues to be an internationally known attraction that supports a cottage industry in Key West. It has become an incubator for the arts, and a launching point for many visual and performing artists. Sunset can be credited with attracting and inspiring the development of a generation of talent known throughout the world.


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Cultural Preservation Society, P.O. Box 4837, Key West, FL 33041
305-292-7700

sunmail@sunsetcelebration.org