Tarpon Springs, Florida
The sea and men. Men who search the sea for treasure... But the treasure they seek is not gold or jewels....
So begins the amazing 1950s-vintage video in the Cinematic Theatre of Spongeorama. The Theatre may be just a room with benches and a flat-screen TV on the wall, but the video is filled with enchanting images of quaint fishing boats and craggy-faced men, scanning the horizon for rich sponging spots.
The Theatre is also the airlock between the 21st century and the world of Spongeorama.
Not even the plush-yet-pliable exoskeleton of a Florida sponge lasts forever. But we're grateful to the management of Spongeorama for keeping it as true to 1968 -- the year it opened -- as possible. In fact it's even better, since the admission to its Cinematic Theatre has steadily decreased over the years to the point where now it's free.
Reasons for the bargain become clear as the room darkens and the screen fills with an infomercial. For fifteen minutes, Neil, a former owner of the adjacent Sponge Factory gift shop, is your host. "Here we are in the Sponge Factory, and I might add that the Sponge Factory is Tarpon Springs' largest retailer of natural sponges."
Neil fondly lofts a specimen from the souvenir bins. "If a few of you were thinking about buying a sponge today, and I sure hope you are, there are a few things that we think are so important for you to understand about the natural sponge...."
We learn about where sponges grow, how they're harvested. The wool sponge is revealed to be the "Cadillac of Sponges." Neil gives an inspiring demo of the mysterious loofah -- a dried gourd with a rope through it -- then extols the laudable wiping properties of the chamois cloth. The audience sits, silently, soaking it all in.
Then the old film begins. Off to sea go the men. A dive. Sharks menace. A catch is made. Back to port. Sponges are cleaned and measured. Price haggling at the Sponge Exchange. The Epiphany arrives; Greek-American youths dive into the harbor to retrieve the Golden Cross. While the cheap and plentiful artificial sponge is never attacked -- outright -- the dangers and uncertainties of its use are nonetheless impressed upon the audience.
Our favorite part in the film is a delirious montage near the end, following the narrator's claim that "in the modern world, the natural sponge has more uses than ever." While a Greek chorus continuously chants, "Need it, need it," other voices call out:
Real sponges for babies,
Sponges for boat owners, for home owners,
Natural sponges, natural sponges,
Soft sponges, real sponges, natural sponges,
Hardware, paint, automotive, five and dime,
Natural sponges, drug stores,
Sponges for washing windows,
For business, for office, for banks, industry
Need it, need it, need it....
The film ends, and the audience exits through a door into the Sponge Diving Free Museum. It's small and smells of sponge, and it showcases dioramas depicting the history and lore of Tarpon Springs. Exhibits such as "Popular Greek Foods" and "How Spongers Are Paid" are often inscrutable behind glass fogged with age. Elaborate painted backdrops and custom full-size mannequins -- many with vintage Burt Reynolds mustaches -- are sometimes difficult to see through the hazy windows (which, to us, only add to the museum's appeal). The most memorable scene is about two-thirds of the way through, a tragic diorama that we've christened, "Sponge Diver's Nightmare."
Tarpon Springs began as a Greek community, drawn to the Florida gulf to harvest its rich sponge beds. Although artificial sponges have muscled into the market (disappointing consumers who haven't seen the Spongeorama movie) the town still proudly calls itself Sponge Capital of the World. The docks bustle with working sponge watercraft (and the Spongeorama Sponge Cruise boat); the harborside restaurants sell souvlakia and sour cheese pies; and places like the Sponge Factory hawk Greek statuary, sponge plant-holders, and rubber sharks and divers.
Tourism thrives -- and Spongeorama rules!