Let Them Eat Cupcakes!
Two important things began on December 31, 1995 – the founding of the Town of Fort Myers Beach, and the “Cupcake Ladies” passed out the tasty pastry in Times Square for the first time. With all due apologies to Marie Antoinette, the ladies have been saying “let them eat cupcakes” every New Year’s Eve since, although Town Council considered moving the dessert destination this year to the Bay Oak Recreation Center as part of an expanded birthday celebration there.
“There were only about 500 people that first year,” recalls Betty Simpson, who is an original “Cupcake Lady.” “We served cake and ice cream, too, with plenty for everyone. Now we have at least 1,000 cupcakes that are gone in the first hour or so.”
Betty knows all about Southwest Florida tradition, as her time here began in 1954 when her then-father-in-law. Bob Davis, came here from South Dakota to found the legendary Pink Shell Beach Resort. “He owned Firestone Tire dealerships and had no experience with hotels, but wanted to diversify. He literally laid out a map, closed his eyes, and stuck it with a pin, landing on Fort Myers Beach, and that is how we ended up here, finally relocating fulltime in 1966.”
She says that ‘we golfed and played a lot of bridge, but I had too much free time so I became a realtor. By 1988, I began working for the Lahaina Inn Resort, and now have been trying to retire for years, but they won’t let me!”
Pardon Me & Bless Them
Betty became heavily involved with community volunteering, including serving on the Cultural & Environmental Learning Center Advisory Board (CELCAB) for years. “It was at the November CELCAB meeting I learned that the Town, to increase the Bay Oaks profile, planned a day-long birthday party there, including the cupcakes, because Bay Oaks is a great place for kids and there is plenty of free parking. As soon as I heard the plan, I thought, ‘Pardon me, but Times Square is home to the birthday cupcakes, and people who visit during the holidays look forward to them all year.’”
She and fellow cupcaker Johanna Campbell attended the December 5 Council meeting to voice their concern, representing the roughly 10 women who host the tradition for over two decades, telling its members that disappointed folks will not go to Bay Oaks.
“People love the cupcakes,” she told Town Council. “Tourists cannot believe the cupcakes are free. I am behind Bay Oaks 100% and favor a new celebration there, but it should be separate from the cupcakes.” Council determined by the end of that session that the cupcakes would remain in Times Square. “Bless them,” said Betty.
She explained that the cupcake tradition “began as a complement to the fireworks at Midnight. Billy Semmer did a wonderful job of organizing the show until turning it over to the Town several years ago. A group of us got-together and determined that ‘if we are going to have a birthday party, there should be cupcakes!’”
Originally most were home-made: “I begged every friend I had,” laughs Betty at the memory. “If they said they did not bake, I replied I didn’t either, so it was fine to purchase and donate a dozen or three. As New Year’s Eve approached, I received calls from all over the island to come over and pick up cupcakes. You found out quickly who were your real friends!”
As that first birthday approached, there were still hard feelings over the incorporation vote. “You have to remember,” Betty recollects, “the referendum barely won, with the Chamber against it, and I was a Board member. People asked what side I was on – which hat I wore – but I stayed above it by saying ‘I just want your cupcakes!’ Pretty soon, even those against incorporation were baking or donating them.”
Here We Go Again
Another aspect of the ritual is the commemorative t-shirt. “I still have the original one from 1995,” Betty says with a twinkle. “I had the first Council members sign it, and that became a tradition onto itself. The Town’s initial mayor was Anita Cereceda, and I have her signature; last year, when the Town celebrated its 20th birthday, Anita was mayor again, so I said to her, ‘OK, Anita – here we go again!’”
The Town informed the ladies several years back they could no longer distribute any homemade cupcakes; all required purchasing for safety concerns. “That was a surprise,” says Betty, “and sadly made us aware we were living in a different world, but you adjust. It did take a lot of the weight off our shoulders, however, as coming up with at least one thousand cupcakes was difficult. People now see me coming and no longer walk to the other side of the street to avoid me!”
2017 debuts a new tradition – in addition to the cupcakes, Beach Brew & Bakery will donate birthday cookies. “The owners, Kim and Greg Gillman, really stepped up,” says Sarah Mayher, Bay Oaks program coordinator. “Hopefully this will extend the time visitors can savor a cupcake or cookie.”
In addition to Betty, the “Cupcake Ladies” are Johanna Campbell, Judy Fitzsimons, Joan Hewitt, Gretchen Johnson, Barbara Keen, Dottie Pedone, Reggie Reynolds, Cherie Smith and Lorrie Wolf, with almost all participating from the start. While certainly not “ladies,” Betty raves about the contributions from Bill Semmer and former Town fire chief Jim Bradford: “They are great guys!”
With the cupcakes remaining at Times Square, there is one big change this year: “We always distributed them at 1 p.m.,” explains Betty. “For some reason, the Town changed that to Noon so don’t be late – if you show up at 1, they may all be gone.”
Betty calls the Town Birthday at Times Square, “an awesome event, not only because of the cupcakes, but the daylong music, beach ball at midnight, fantastic fireworks, as well for the camaraderie, friendship, and all those big happy smiles! There is no doubt why people look forward to it and the Birthday Cupcakes all year.”