Wednesday, September 8, 2010

DramaWork's Move Serendipitous

Palm Beach DramaWorks is planning on opening their new home in November 2011.  And that date is serendipity itself; because it will mark exactly 30 years since the former Florida Theater was first renovated into a live performance venue.

The Stage Company, founded by Ruth and Everrit Ward, opened its inaugural production, Ah, Wilderness! on November 4, 1981.

The theater at 201 Clematis Street was originally built by the Florida State Theater chain as a movie house, and it opened on December 17, 1949, with The Heiress, starring Olivia deHaviland.

The conversion of the space was minimal by today's standards; the original 1949 air conditioning system was left in place, and while a stage was erected  over a chunk of the theater's 871 seats (bringing the total to 350),  no actual proscenium built; instead, a divide was built of fabric-covered flats.  It hid actors and scenery from view, but the front row knew it if an actor tripped in the wings.

Rigging was a kind word for the pipes hung a few inches below the ceiling from chains punched through to wrap around the steel truss above.  As a "dead-hung" house, no scenery could be flown in or out.  It either traveled side to side like your living room drapes, or rolled on and off on wagons.  Sound and lights were run from the former projection booths.  No intercom was ever installed, so cues were called via the most advanced walkie-talkies the company could afford at Radio Shack.

After what some reports describe as "a bloody coup," The Stage Company shut down and The Florida Repertory Theatre promptly appeared in its place.  The Rep, formed by former Stage Company staffers, may have been doomed by a gesture of goodwill to the defunct company's subscribers; their tickets to the lapsed company were honored at full value, creating a $500,000 deficit that the Rep never was able to get off the books.  It succumbed to its debt following The Pajama Game in January 1991, blaming a drop in donations to their theatre on the fund-raising efforts of the Kravis Center, which was under construction at that time.  It managed one more production, the critically acclaimed Moon for the Misbegotten, before closing its doors.

The building languished for several years, with a brief stint as a concert hall, until the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training came looking for a new home in 1996.  Once again, inadequate funding doomed the project, but it now had an interior designed for live performance instead a make shift conversion.  Or at least the sight lines were better; patrons complained loudly about the steep rake in the new 377 seat house.

Shortly after that, it became the Cuillo Center for the Arts, a presenting theatre instead of a production house.

DramaWorks intends to renovate the interior once again, reducing the seating down to a more practical 200, and presumably will address some of the issues with access for older patrons.  A dream of a place to present wonderful plays will be renewed for another generation


  1. While much of the information in this story is correct, and as I was present during the years you speak of, there are a few inaccuracies that I feel should be cleared up. First of all, it was Ruth and Ward Everitt who opened the Stage Company, but the production was not "Lovers" but rather "Ah, Wilderness" directed by the late Jose Quintero. It's at 201 Clematis Street and, in reality, the beginning of the Florida Rep was not at all a "bloody coup". The Everett's simply walked away from the theatre during the matinee of "The Dresser" and never returned. The "coup" you may be referring to might have involved the Stage Company's production of "Patience" which won the Carbonell for best musical that year. The Everitt's attempted to accept the award at the event, but were usurped by the director of the production who refused to give up the trophy. And, thank God, we didn't close with "The Pajama Game" but rather with a stunning, albeit minimalist production of "A Moon for the Misbegotten", which was actually in May of 1990. It took another year to handle the bankruptcy, which is probably where you got 1991 from. BRITT wasn't looking for a new home, they were lured from their cozy digs in Tequesta by the City of WPB who was anxious to renovate the derelict building and, in their rush to do so, left the struggling company to fund itself forcing its demise in less than six months from the opening. The theatre has had a long and, in my opinion, sad history though I still have great pride in the work done by the Florida Rep and its artistic director, Keith Baker, during our 8-year tenure on Clematis Street. While the end was sad indeed,the memories of the work we did there and the careers we launched are ones of which I am extremely proud today. Missy McArdle

  2. Missy, thank you for your corrections. An article announcing the opening had had LOVERS as the opening production, but that was back when the Everrits had just taken over the building.

    I remember the production of MOON; but I couldn't remember its exact relationship to the end. I recall people saying it was the best thing ever done there.

    Jack Zink described the transition as a "coup" back in 1991, but of course, he'd have had memories of the Carbonell debacle and not the actual closing of Stage Company.

    While the city did offer an attractive package to bring in the Institute, it was losing the former hardware store in Tequesta. As I recall, the official story was that the landlord was redeveloping the site, although I'd heard they were probably behind in the rent. They would have had to move even if the theatre on Clematis wasn't there.

    Stage Company is before my time, but its existence still echoes through the region in ways that aren't always clear.

    Jose Quintero, brought down by the Everrits, cast David Haller in LION IN WINTER, having directed him the national tour of THAT WINSLOW BOY. Haller stayed in Florida, later casting two South Florida newcomers in a show he was directing; ALL MY SONS. I was cast as George, brother of Ann, played by Nancy Barnett.

    24 years later, I write The Scene, and Nan Barnett is GM at Florida Stage.