Friday evening, November 10, 1950, the first official meeting of the Venice Little Theatre Guild was held at the Venice Country Club, on U.S. Highway Business 41 where Publix is now located. Forty-one people attended and elected a slate of officers. They voted to try to obtain use of a former U.S. Air Force Quonset hut as a permanent headquarters for their theatrical endeavor, on the grounds of the Venice Airport. Muriel Olds Dundas, Sonia Terry, Lotta Munday, Fran Barclay, Louis Suter, and James and Jane Lambert were all important backers of this initial effort. The City of Venice quickly granted permission for use of the Quonset hut. On November 23, 1950, the name of the group officially became known as Venice Little Theatre (VLT).
The first production was “The Torchbearers,” and a crew of a dozen volunteers began work constructing a stage. One of those volunteers was Bobby Feinsod, who 10 years later, helped build an addition to the theatre. Twenty-two years later, Bobby was the main building contractor at the site of the present theatre. Folding chairs from a local funeral home provided seating in the first theatre. The local garden club donated landscaping, Girl Scouts put panels on the inside, and building bees, similar to a barn raising, were held on Sundays, with women serving potluck suppers. Tickets for the first show went on sale for $2 at Dick and Meadows Drug Store, located where T.J. Carney’s Restaurant now stands at 231 West Venice Avenue.
Just one month after the organizational meeting, the first play opened, and the Venice Gondolier reported “the opening production last night of ‘The Torchbearers’ was one of the biggest and best things that ever happened to Venice.” The next show was “Over 21,” followed in March with “Ever Since Eve.” Mrs. Fran Barclay directed both shows, which played three performances each. The summer was spent building flats, creating dressing rooms, making a prop loft, and painting the outside of the building in order to be ready for the new theatre season.
In 1953, Alice and Seymour Smith moved to Venice and starred in “Angel Street.” Alice and Seymour were active, dedicated volunteers for more than 30 years. After their deaths, a memorial fund benefiting the theatre was established in their names. Chris Magee and his wife, Fran, also began volunteering with the theatre at this time.
After 10 successful years, in 1960, it was decided to begin looking for a larger building. It took until 1973 before the theatre finally found its present quarters at 140 West Tampa Avenue in Venice, which had started its life as the gymnasium of the Kentucky Military Institute. In the interim, many of the people responsible for the success of Venice Little Theatre included Bobbie and Johnny West, Joan Dillon, Geri Becker, Yvonne Pinkerton, Ruth Brothers, and many others who moved to Venice and became involved in the theatre’s life. Geri Becker and Yvonne Pinkerton are still volunteering regularly, and a theatre scholarship fund is named in memory of Ruth Brothers.
In November 1973, after major renovations, Venice Little Theatre moved into the new complex. The first show in the new theatre was “Li’l Abner.” Rehearsals were held over a three-month period at the old theatre and even on runways at the airport, while the new structure was being prepared. Costumes for “Li’l Abner” had a limited budget of $50 for 70 costumes, and they were made in the lobby of the old theatre, as well as in the home of the costume designer for that show, M.B. (Mac) Macfarlane.
Louis Sinclair wrote in the Venice Gondolier, “Venice Little Theatre could be labeled the theatre that refused to die.” In 1979, the mortgage was paid off while Jack Taylor was president of the board of directors. In 1984, a fly loft was built which meant a new mortgage. Between 1987 and 1989, VLT grew and hired its first artistic director. The theatre had a total attendance of 14,000.
In 1993, attendance topped 20,000, and the senior troupe, the Silver Foxes was formed. Stage II was built and dedicated to contemporary, experimental, and original works. In 1995, Stage II opened for its first full season with 25 subscribers. In 2000, the theatre completed a $2.4 million renovation and expansion that added balcony seating to the MainStage.
Presently, volunteers at Venice Theatre number more than 1,500 and at least 25 shows per year are presented in the two auditoriums that now exist: MainStage with seating for 432 has surpassed 3,500 subscriptions, and Stage II, which seats 90, has exceeded 500 subscriptions. A cabaret series that began in 2002 now presents four productions each season.
In 2008, the board at Venice Theatre unanimously chose to remove “little” from its name. According to Marketing Director Laurie Colton, Venice Theatre has been recognized as the third largest community theatre in the United States, and the largest per capita. Clearly, the name “little” does not describe the magnitude of what Venice Theatre has become. In 2010, Venice Theatre will host the International Amateur Theatre Festival, the first theatre in the southeast to have this opportunity.
The information for this article came from volunteers, some of which have worked with the Venice Theatre for more than 35 years. We understand many people were involved in the makings of this great theatre and wish we could mention all of the people who have worked so hard, and continue to do so … it is a work in progress! The staff of Venice Gulf Coast Living magazine wishes to thank all of you for helping to create theatre at its best!
1950: Venice Little Theatre (VLT) is formed by 40 volunteers. The theatre presents a three-show season in a converted hangar at Venice Airport.
1956-57: Total attendance for the four-production season is 1,440.
1972: The company has to leave the airport theatre.
VLT purchases one of Venice’s original 1926 buildings, the former gymnasium of Kentucky Military Institute.
The theatre seats 286, and the local media calls VLT “the little theatre that wouldn’t die.”
1975: VLT hires its first paid employee, a part-time manager.
1987-89: The theatre hires its first artistic director. Total attendance is 14,000.
1988: Education programs begin with a summer camp.
1993: Total attendance tops 20,000 for the first time. After-school classes begin with one class per week. The Silver Foxes, a seniors-only performance troupe, meets for the first time.
Further renovation results in the building of Stage II, dedicated to contemporary, experimental, and original works.
1995: Staff positions are realigned to include an Artistic/Managing Director. Partnership is formed with the Loveland Center.
Stage II opens its first full subscription season. There are 25 subscribers.
1996: Renovation continues. VLT expands and updates MainStage to seat 358.
1997: MainStage attendance exceeds 43,000. Summer camps expand to three full “TheatreFests”, with 108 students. Year-round class enrollment tops 100 for the first time, with five classes per semester.
1998: In an independent study, VLT is revealed as the second most-frequently-attended theatre in Sarasota County.
1999: VLT hires full-time Education/Outreach director, and becomes the third community theatre in U.S. to implement Technical Theatre Apprenticeship Program.
2000: VLT completes a $2 million-plus, four-phase renovation. Facility is now A.D.A. compliant, seats 432 in MainStage and 90 in Stage II. It contains multiple classrooms and rehearsal spaces.
VLT’s Theatre for Young People production of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” becomes part of Spielberg’s U.S. Project Tolerance, in conjunction with Jewish Community Center and Venice High School.
2001: VLT’s production of “Fool For Love” takes Best Production Honors at Florida Theatre Conference and and Southeastern Theatre Conference, and joins 10 other shows nationally at AACTFest in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
VLT brings home the first national award for a Southwest Florida theatre.
Total attendance exceeds 68,000.
2002: VLT’s production of “Tartuffe” takes Best Production Honors at the Florida Theatre Conference and Southeastern Theatre Conference.
VLT hires its first full-time Development/Advancement Director.
2002-2003: VLT’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” takes Best Production Honors at the Florida Theatre Conference and Southeastern Theatre Conference. This is the fourth consecutive year at FTC and the third consecutive at SETC. The show is recognized at AACTFest in Torrington, Connecticut with four awards.
Stage II, in its 8th season, sees dramatic increase in subscription sales, from 245 to 405. Total attendance nears 90%, with expanded performance runs.
VLT is officially commended by both the City of Venice and Sarasota County for “Outstanding Accomplishments and Contributions to the cultural richness of Sarasota County.”
VLT conducts a series of community workshops to gain input on current artistic needs and ideas for future VLT growth. More than 150 government officials, teachers, students, arts and civic leaders, business owners, and financial advisors participate.
2003-2004: With grants from local foundation and the City of Venice, VLT purchases adjacent building and parking lot. Immediate effect is that off-site storage becomes on-site.
MainStage subscriptions increase 11% to 3,199; Stage II subscriptions increase 12% to 455.
2008: Venice Little Theatre is selected to host the 2010 International Amateur Theatre Festival and officially changes its name – with unanimous board support – to Venice Theatre. We’re not “little” anymore!
For more information about upcoming performances, call Venice Theatre at 941-488-1115, visit www.VeniceStage.com.
Photographs Courtesy of Venice Theatre
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