Players Centre says ‘So Long Dearie’ to longtime home

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

I have spent a lot of time at the Players Centre for Performing Arts over the last 35 years, probably more than at any of the other theaters I have covered since 1985. And I admit to shedding a tear or two last weekend during a farewell tour of the building.

I don’t usually get emotional over the closing of buildings, especially one as non-descript, drab and leaky as the Players.

The walls surrounding the stage at the Players Centre for Performing Arts are covered with painted posters from many of the shows the community theater has produced over the years. The Players closed its Sarasota location at the end of September and has moved to temporary quarters while it raises funds for a new multi-theater complex in Lakewood Ranch.

But whatever it lacked in design, it made up for through the vibrance and variety of the people and shows it featured. Like a cherished family home, it is filled with memories. Its backstage walls are decorated with painted logos of past shows and the signatures of those who were involved in them. Many are names that sent me back 30 years or more. 

For a few performances, I helped turn pages for a musical director, and I even helped  paint the dressing room. (I sure hope they have been repainted since then.)

The Players of Sarasota, as it will always be known to long-time residents despite its name change four years ago, is closing a door on the past by moving out of the building it has called home since 1974. The property was sold two years ago and will probably be turned into one more condominium tower on the busy stretch of U.S. 41 near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Sunset catches the outside of the Players Centre for Performing Arts Building, which has housed the 90-year-old community theater since 1974. The company is moving to temporary quarters in October while it raises money for a new theater complex in Lakewood Ranch.

The Players is trying to raise the money it needs – somewhere around $30 million – to build a new three-theater complex in the Waterside development in Lakewood Ranch. Groundbreaking is still a few years away.

In the meantime, while shows can’t be staged because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Players board decided to stop renting the aging building and move to smaller quarters where they can maintain offices and possibly present performances when it is safe.

Jeffery Kin, managing artistic director of the Players Centre for Performing Arts, talks about the next 90 years for the community theater during a farewell tour of the historic building. The company is planning to move to a new theater complex in Lakewood Ranch in a few years.

Before coronavirus, Managing Artistic Director Jeffery Kin had planned a final show next April to celebrate the company’s first 90 years before moving. That show, “A Few of Our Favorite Things,” will now be presented virtually and streamed online at 7:30 p.m. Friday. It will feature video recorded songs from the past, testimonials and a few surprises. Tickets are $20. (941-365-2494; theplayers.org)

As a warm up for the show, the theater has been selling off many of the old costumes, props and furnishings it won't keep to raise some funds. Some actors have discovered costumes they wore years ago.

Over the last few weeks, the staff also conducted a series of sold-out “So Long Dearie” tours, which gave a limited number of volunteer actors and crew members, and a few longtime fans, a chance to say goodbye to a place where they spent so much time entertaining audiences. 

I shared a tour with some cast members from “Head Over Heels,” which turned out to be the final show before coronavirus shut the theater in March. Their exuberance and joy at being reunited and seeing little things they may have taken for granted backstage or in the lobby, was exciting to share.

I thought back to my first night at the Players in 1985 when I was assigned to review the play “Light up the Sky.” I was working as an assistant city editor at the newspaper, hoping to some day become a theater critic. I had moved just a few months earlier from Washington, D.C., where the community theaters I had been to operated in recreation centers or church basements. They didn’t have dedicated theater buildings, sort-of cushioned seats and real sets and lighting. They also didn’t have the kind of talent I would discover over the years was plentiful here. I would come to know many of them personally, mostly from my seat in the audience.

Racks of costumes that will be moved into storage rest on the stage of the Players Centre for Performing Arts, which will close at the end of September. The company is raising money to build a new multi-theater complex in Lakewood Ranch.

Stepping past the stage area and the costume shop, I stared for a moment at the office where Peter Strader ran the theater during his long tenure as artistic director. He used to regale me with stories about theater history during our frequent interviews. His involvement with the theater stretched back to his childhood, almost to the start of the Players itself. To me, he was the heart and soul of the theater even after he “retired” in 1993.

Scanning the painted show posters (which Kin said will be preserved on canvas with photo transfers in the new building), I saw my early years as the newspaper’s theater critic flash by as I read the names of actors long retired or no longer with us, like Sandi Jones, Steve Creduer and Allan Kollar.

I found the name of the late Anya Flesh, a choreographer and director who became one of my dearest friends and a surrogate mother. If theater buildings carry the ghosts of those who came before, I’d want hers hanging around in whatever is built on the site.

I was reminded of shows I had forgotten but now saw playing out once again on that stage.

Lexi Lowther, who appeared earlier this year in "Head Over Heels," the final production in the Players Centre for Performing Arts' current building, catches her reflection and recalls appearing in "Alice in Wonderland Junior" in 2015. She took part in one of several So Long Dearie farewell tours before the theater moves out of its current home.

I watched countless performers make their Sarasota debuts at the Players and then gain confidence with each subsequent production. Sharon Murphy comes to mind. She represents one of the joys I’ve had in reviewing community theater, where you can frequently discover previously unknown talent and watch it blossom. Sharon first appeared looking stiff and nervous as she sang beautifully in an old operetta. Before she moved from the area many years later, she had become the theater’s leading lady of the time, able to play almost any role.

This was the place I first saw Teresa Stanley, who exploded onto the stage as a nervous young teenager in a production of “Purlie” staged by Nate Jacobs. Now she’s a Broadway veteran helping young artists learn the craft. I remember the first time I saw Steve Dawson, one of many people who found love at the theater. He met his future wife, Dianne, in “A Little Night Music.”

Tahlia Chinault, of Bradenton, who began performing as a child, takes one last bow on the stage of the Players Centre for Performing Arts during a farewell tour.

The tour provided the visitors a chance to take one last bow on the stage. I felt awkward and undeserving, but I thrilled watching Caitlyn and Jason Ellis and Tahlia Chinault take theirs.

Before the staff members took the stage and sang “What I Did for Love,” we were reminded several times that a theater company is far more than a building. It is a family and a home for creativity, opportunity, friendship, provocation and entertainment. The Players doesn't die or fade away when they turn out the lights next month, and those who found something to enjoy there will take the memories with them.

I wish the Players had already raised the money and were moving to a newly finished building. I worry that the virus and the challenges every community theater faces in fundraising will make it difficult for the project to be completed. 

But recalling the vibrancy on stage in that winter production of “Head Over Heels” and hearing the enthusiasm in the words of Kin, board chair Donna DeFant and the staff members, I will hope for the best that this quiet ending is really just a beginning waiting to happen somewhere else.

Contact Jay Handelman at jay.handelman@heraldtribune.com. Keep up with entertainment coverage at heraldtribune.com/ticket. Follow me at facebook.com/jayhandelman, Twitter @jayhandelman and Instagram @jayhandelman