LWRWC Gets VIP Treatment at Opera House
On Monday, Dec. 17, 2018, forty-four members from the Lakewood Ranch Women’s Club took a memorable Backstage Guided Tour of the world-famous Sarasota Opera House located at 61 North Pineapple Avenue.
Courtesy of the very knowledgeable and personable tour guide, Lana Mullen, the Women’s Club Members learned about the fascinating history of this beautiful landmark that ranks as one of Sarasota’s most popular attractions with both tourists and local residents alike.
At the conclusion of the tour, the ladies were afforded the opportunity to go behind the scenes of the Sarasota Opera House for a look at the workings backstage; view the myriad of ropes, pulleys and flys for creating scenery and special effects, the movable orchestra pit, hydraulic lifts and the all the lights. The tour included an up-close look at the impressive stage, allowing the ladies to experience being “on stage” at the Sarasota Opera House, one of Sarasota’s cultural crown jewels. ”
In keeping with their motto of “fun, friendship and community service”, the ladies culminated their day with a gourmet lunch at Bijou Café in downtown Sarasota. The outing was planned by LWRWC Program Co-Chairs Cathy Reinitz and Claudia Dombrow, the final event in the 2018 off-the-ranch series.
History and Tidbits
As the ladies admired the Grand Atrium on the first floor, Lana, told them that the Sarasota Opera House that was originally the Edwards Theatre) was the vision of a local resident, A. B. Edwards, who was the first mayor of Sarasota. The building was designed by Roy A. Benjamin in the Mediterranean Revival Style Architecture. The theatre originally opened on April 10, 1926, with an elaborate three-story entrance containing eight shops on the ground floor, twelve offices on the second floor, twelve furnished apartments on the third floor, and an orchestral pipe organ in the theatre’s auditorium. As noted on the Sarasota Opera’s website, the Sarasota Herald Tribune hailed Edwards for “having admitted Sarasota into a fairyland of costly decoration, rich furnishings and never to be forgotten artistry”. Lana explained that In the 1920s, the theatre quickly became a popular entertainment venue that attracted major performers of the day, including Will Rogers (in 1927), the Ziegfeld Follies (1928), and Elvis Presley (1956). It also became n impressive movie theatre when it presented the world premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (that had been filmed in Sarasota). The premiere was attended by the stars of the movie, Charlton Heston and Dorothy Lamour.
Throughout the years, managements changed as did the name of the theatre and most of the original Art Deco was removed during various attempts to modernize the venue. The theatre was also rumored to have served as an upscale brothel and did not become a pristine cultural gem until the 1980’s.
In December 1936, it became The Florida Theatre and a hurricane damaged the Robert-Morton pipe organ in the same year. It next became a full-time movie theater, but, finally, in 1973, the theatre closed. Fortunately, in the 1970’s opera was beginning to be presented in Sarasota by a non-profit organization, the Asolo Opera Guild, that that began to produce their own operas in 1974. Since the Asolo theatre only seats 320, in 1979, the Guild bought the old Edwards Theatre for $150,000 to use as an Opera House. The Association began major renovations in 1982 to restore the theatre and configure it to accommodate the demands of opera. As a result, the new Sarasota Opera House appeared on the National Register of Historic Places in March, 1984.
Further renovations between the end of the 2007 season and the opening of the 2008 season led to a significantly-enhanced opera theatre. The building has recently undergone a $20-million rehabilitation to restore the beauty of the 1920’s theater, while creating an up-to-date opera house for the 21st century. The renovations included gutting the auditorium, which resulted in a newly configured seating plan, expansion of the public areas and Opera Club on the second level, the opening up of the 3-story atrium to expose a newly installed skylight system which had existed in the 1926 building, but which had been covered by a ceiling and a chandelier used in the film, Gone with the Wind. Today, Sarasota Opera owns and performs in the magnificently renovated historic Sarasota Opera House that now seats 1,119.
After the initial overview on the first floor, Lana invited the LWRWC ladies to relax in the prestigious McCorkle Donor Lounge on the 3rd floor of the Opera House, reserved for VIP ”Co-Producer” level donors who donate a minimum of $ 6000. The VIPs are treated to tantalizing drinks, fine Champagne and delectable appetizers and scrumptious pastries. The lounge proved to be the perfect area to hear more about the Opera’s patrons and volunteers, as well as the Sarasota Youth Opera Program.
Next the ladies were divided into two groups that alternated between the theatre auditorium and the costume area. While one group sat in the theatre to learn more about the Opera’s that are performed on the wonderful stage, the other half of the ladies toured the costume room learning about the challenges of providing large casts with dazzling costumes. We also learned fascinating stories of dedicated volunteers who come to help rain or shine and amazing “wardrobe malfunctions” including the amusing incident of an opera singer who performed her entire scene (including a murder) with the back of her dress ripped apart and managed to back out as she exited the stage so that the audience was “in the dark” about her exposed backside. As they say, “the show must go on”.