Seeing Purple: 50 years of the Van Wezel

One of my favorite places to go! You can’t miss the purple cow, right on the waterfront. From opera to touring theatre and serious celebrities, this is the place to experience them in Sarasota. As they celebrate 50 years of art and entertainment, future plans are also in the works.

-Beth

 

Seeing Purple: 50 years of the Van Wezel

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall marks the 50th anniversary of its grand opening on Jan. 5, 1970

SARASOTA — Aside from the construction of the Ringling Museum and Ca’ d’Zan, it’s likely that no building has transformed Sarasota as much as the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Beyond making purple both the most popular and the most hated color in this arts-focused community, the Van Wezel opened up a world of entertainment such as the Sarasota had never seen. Luciano Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Lucille Ball, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Arthur Rubinstein, Cary Grant, Liza Minnelli, Ringo Starr, Josh Groban, Liberace and Barry Manilow are among the major stars who have filled the hall since its glittery opening night on Jan. 5, 1970, with a touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Before the Van Wezel, the Sarasota Orchestra (then the Florida West Coast Symphony) performed its concerts in the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium. There were few concerts with big-name singers — yes, Elvis Presley performed at what is now the Sarasota Opera House — and no place for major orchestras. The only place to see live theater in Sarasota was at the Players Centre or Asolo Repertory Theatre.

It was the talk of the town during construction as its unique clam-shell like roof began to take shape and when its distinctive purple color covered the outer and inner walls, It was quickly dubbed the “Purple Cow” and the “Purple People-Seater.”

But audiences flocked to see the lineup of entertainers, symphony orchestras, singers, comedians and touring plays and musicals. For years, the Saturday in early September when season brochures were mailed became a local holiday as area residents rushed to the downtown Sarasota post office to be among the first to turn in their order forms.

Harold Bubil, the longtime Herald-Tribune architecture writer, once wrote: “If any single structure represents Sarasota’s cultural stature and architecture heritage, it is the Van Wezel, construction of which was funded by a bond issue in addition to a gift from Lewis and Eugenia Van Wezel.”

The hall elevated Sarasota to the ranks of much bigger cities.

“We had a performing arts hall before Tampa and St. Petersburg and Clearwater. We were on the cutting edge of architecture,” recalled Charlie Huisking, a former features reporter for the Herald-Tribune, who grew up in Sarasota. “There weren’t entertainment possibilities like the Van Wezel provided anywhere.”

Unforgettable opening

Huisking attended the second night performance of “Fiddler” with some friends and “thought it was dazzling. There was a lot of excitement about going in there for the first time.”

Peggy Wilhelm remembers the gala opening night, when she wore a gown as close to the building’s shade of purple as she could find.

“People were dressed in their fanciest attire,” she said. “It was a lovely evening. It was certainly special for this city, a new venture for the city and for the arts.”

Wilhelm wasn’t the only one wearing purple. William Wesley Peters, the main architect and son-in-law of Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen in a purple tux that night. Wright’s widow, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, is credited with suggesting the building’s distinctive color, which has made it memorable for many of the performers who appeared on its stage.

Some may have occasionally mistaken Sarasota for Saratoga in the midst of a national tour of performances, but “they never forgot the building. They remember the purple performing arts hall,” said Mary Bensel, the current executive director.

Bensel said she had hoped to book a tour of “Fiddler” to mark the 50th anniversary, but there wasn’t one available at the right time. And the celebration planned for Sunday will have to be delayed further. On Monday, the international singing quartet Il Divo canceled its planned concert after one of the singers suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, leaving him unable to walk. Doctors told him he couldn’t fly. Il Divo has been rebooked for Jan. 15, 2021.

Bensel tried for several days to find a replacement act for Sunday’s planned program. Instead, the hall will mark the 50th anniversary on opening night of the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away” on April 28. The evening will include a presentation of a key to the city, along with cake and champagne after the show.

It wasn’t the first illness or injury to upset plans at the hall. Just a few hours before the opening performance of “Fiddler,” flutist Anna Clare Epistola was called in to play with the traveling pit orchestra for the musical after one of the musicians became ill.

Epistola, who played with the Florida West Coast Symphony for 32 years and the Sarasota Concert Band for 31 years, was recommended by Merle Evans, the longtime Ringling Bros. Circus music director.

“It was a little unusual. I went in opening night. I had never played that music before,” she recalled. “I did a lot of musicals at the Players, but ‘Fiddler’ was not one of them. The music director said don’t worry about it. Just sit next to the accordion player. He knows everything that goes on and he will tell you what to do. I was so careful about everything. I even had to transpose some of the music during the show and I somehow got through it beautifully.”

She returned for the matinee the next day when curiosity got the best of her. “I started sneaking little peaks on the stage to see what was going on and I had several goofs in that performance,” she recalled.

In the years that followed, Epistola eventually performed many times on the Van Wezel stage with the symphony and the concert band.

Bensel and her predecessors set a welcoming tone at the hall. Curtis W. Haug, who was brought to Sarasota from the Chatauqua Institute shortly after the Van Wezel opened in 1970, scheduled performances for 17 years until his retirement in 1987. Most nights, he could be found greeting patrons with his wife, Fran, by his side. That was a tradition maintained during John Wilkes’ two tenures as director. Other directors included Alexandra Jupin and Bill Mitchell. Haug was the hall’s second managing director, following entrepreneur Harry Draper, who briefly led the facility.

The hall underwent a major renovation in 2000 (which some have said destroyed acoustics that violinist Isaac Stern once called “marvelous.”) Bensel said another $10 million was spent on renovations since then, including a new sound system, revised restrooms and a new orchestra lift.

Community impact

“The hall has been a key ingredient in the overall arts and cultural scene here,” said Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. “We are fortunate to have great locally based theaters and the orchestra, ballet and opera that do creative works. But there are a lot of people who like star power, which is what the Van Wezel brings us. It brings a really important connection to that part of the population that loves entertainment.”

Joseph McKenna, the president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, which uses the Van Wezel for its Masterworks concert series, credits the hall with “helping to change a community. We just really have to thank the people who had the vision to birth the Van Wezel. We see what it has done for the community.”

It certainly helped to transform the orchestra.

“The Van Wezel has been part of our adolescence and maturing period. In many respects, the Van Wezel has created a platform for the orchestra to grow and develop to the point where we’re aspiring to have our own permanent home,” he said.

The orchestra is seeking a site to build its own concert hall, in part to move away from the bayfront and the threat of rising sea level and to have more control over its schedule. Last season, for example, the orchestra had to revise its traditional schedule to accommodate the three-week run of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

The orchestra’s decision came early in the development process for the public-private partnership called The Bay Conservancy, which intends to remake dozens of acres that surround the Van Wezel and turn it into a public park. The site will also include a multi-venue performance as its centerpiece.

Building for the future

Even though current design plans for The Bay maintain the existing Van Wezel, it’s not likely to see another major milestone as a performance venue.

Bensel said a new hall is needed to accommodate a growing population and to meet the latest technological advances in the entertainment industry. The proposed new hall, which would be built on stilts, would include multiple performance venues, including a roughly 2,250-seat main theater, adding room for an additional 500 people over the current theater. More seats would allow Van Wezel to better compete for bookings with the larger Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. There also would be two flexible performance spaces that could accommodate 400 and 150 people.

The new hall is being spearheaded by the Van Wezel Foundation, which began as a support organization for the venue’s education programs and for improvements to the hall. Executive Director Cheryl Mendelson, who took over last year, was hired, in part, because of her experience in Chicago, where she was involved in the building and operation of the Harris Theatre in Millenium Park.

Mendelson said the original Van Wezel was “built to foster connections between the city, the community and the bay in the spirit of human creativity. That’s pretty inspiring.”

Operating under the theme of “The Future is Now,” the Foundation is working toward “an investment in the next generation. What our hopes and aspirations are, are to elevate what a 50-year-old building, from a structural standpoint, can’t provide anymore,” Mendelson said.

The Foundation has already raised $11 million toward the new hall, with additional funding expected to come from public/private partnerships and the creation of a tax increment financing, or TIF, district, which sets aside increased revenue from rising property values brought on by development improvements.

Having multiple performance spaces will allow the new venue to broaden the variety of programming.

“We want to be more than a community hall. We have so many different people and groups who use the theater, but we’re limited with only one space,” Bensel said. “Hopefully, we become more of a 365-day-a-year performing arts hall.”