Like a triumphant character, Florida Studio Theatre has beat all odds with the grand opening of the New Gompertz Theatre.
The 39-year-old arts organization broke ground on the renovation and the new Hegner Theatre Wing in January and somehow completed its $6.8 million fundraising campaign for the project earlier this year depsite the Great Recession. Not only is the building debt free at opening, but they have money in reserves, too.
It seemed to happen so fast after years of work, Artistic Director Richard Hopkins said.
All that hard work under a tight deadline wasn't easy, Managing Director Rebecca Hopkins said.
"It turned out to be more a bit more of a challenge, but I wanted to let you know tonight that you are the first audience to use these handrails," Hopkins told a crowd during FST's Next Act Gala to help christen the theater.
Staff scurried around put all sorts of finishing touches on the theater, including framing and hanging archived photos from FST's past shows to display in the hallways, public relations director Jessica Schubick said.
Here's what's included in the 24,000 square-foot building:
• The Israeloff Lobby – expanded interior lobby space
• Georgia’s Johns – new, large restrooms
• The Green Room – a full service cafe and bar
• The Gerri Aaron Veranda featuring covered seating and street-level seating
• Fully renovated Gompertz theatre auditorium featuring an increase in seating capacity to 237, increased accessible seating for handicapped patrons, larger stage space and wing space
• The John C. Court Cabaret Theatre, seating 130 people on two levels
• The Bowne Lab Theatre, seating 100 people on two levels
• The Baisley Actors’ Loft featuring new dressing rooms, restrooms, green room, and additional facilities, plus a Rooftop Garden for actors and running crews
The Gompertz had a soft opening in August showing Perfect Wedding while it was still a construction job in progress. After the soft opening, a generous donation by Georgia Court helped speed up the completion of the cabaret theater, setting the John C. Court Cabaret scheduled to open Jan. 4, with the show Urban Cowboys.
The Best of Enemies will take the stage in the renovated Gompertz opening Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. with previews on Dec. 5 and 6. The Mark St. Germain play explores how a high-ranking Klu Klux Klan member and an African American Civil Rights activist overcome their differences during the desegregation of schools.
The final piece of the Hegner Wing will be the Brown Lab Theatre to open in January 2014. The Gompertz includes some accessory spaces that can be leased for retail, including a Sarasota Guitar Lessons shop pegged to open soon in one space.
Part of the success is that when staff and the Board of Directors studied renovation and expansion plans, they did their homework and found that theaters that expanded during the last 10-15 years expanded their stage and seating too much, unable to fill all the seats and making production costs unbearable, Richard Hopkins said. The Gompertz is just the right size for the job.
Former County Commissioner and longtime FST supporter Jon Thaxton marveled at the theater's accomplishments.
"I confronted Rebecca at the front gate this evening and she said, 'It's finally done.' I said, 'What do you mean it's finally done? You just finished a $6.8 million capital campaign in one of the most difficult economic times of my lifetime," said Thaxton, who is now director of community investments for Gulfcoast Community Foundation.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she is proud of the theater's completion, comparing the process to pregnancy.
"It's like I'm in the third trimester. I was here during the conception because the city has had to be," Atwell said. "…I think I've been through all of this with gestation. This is my third appearance here talking about this, and after having two large children, I can understand how beautiful this is. Look now, here at the birth, and look at what this has produced."
Richard Hopkins explained how the Gompertz was originally a silent movie house in the 1920s before going dark in 1929. The theater was purchased in 2002 and was opened in 2004, setting off a boom for FST, reaching 11,000 subscribers during last season, which stands as one of the largest subscribtion basis in the country for theaters.
Subscribers Bob and Bonny Israeloff, became involved underwriting shows since 2005 and significantly supported the theater since 1995. Their contributions, guidance and gift led to the couple receiving the Spelman Award, named in honor of founding artistic director Jon Spelman.
The award goes to an individual or corporate sponsor who "demonstrated extraordinarily leadership by providing FST with spiritual, financial, and/or in-kind support."
"FST is one of the reasons we reside here, which I consider the cultural leader of the whole southeastern United States," Bob Israeloff said. The couple first vacationed in Longboat Key and Sarasota in 1973 and became permanent residents here in 2000.
Gompertz Renovation Coverage:
- Gompertz to add Hegner Theatre Wing
- New Gompertz Theatre Construction Progressing
- Renovated Gompertz Prepares For Opening Night
- New FST Cabaret Theatre To Open A Year Earlier