A History in Three Acts
When the then-Venice Little Theatre mounted its first production in the 1950s, it did so in a borrowed building, had no paid staff, operated entirely with volunteers, and its only revenue came from sales of the $2 tickets.
Today, Venice Theatre is per capita, the largest community theatre in the United States with an operating budget of almost four million dollars, a professional staff and an honored place in the history of Venice, Florida.
That history is rich with the stories of the people who nurtured the theatre and made it what it is today. This is dedicated to them.
A large room at Venice Country Club with various mismatched chairs, some folding, others plush, peopled by 41 equally mismatched men and women in appropriate dressy casual 1950’s garb with a few neckties. Some are sitting, others standing. The grouping of people is clustered stage right around a simple table. There is another table stage left with four chairs.
SONIA TERRY (In a loud voice) Now that we have elected our first Board of Directors – let me see now, we have Francis Barkley, Mary Waite, Mrs. James Lambert, Dr. Isa Rips – thank you Dr. Rips for agreeing to help us – (DR. ISA RIPS rises slightly and acknowledges the approval nods of the group), and last but certainly not least, our good friend Harry Morell. Thank you for also selecting me to be on the board. And thanks to all our brand new Venice Little Theatre Board of Directors!
(SONIA TERRY encourages applause and joins Board of Directors at table. New board members gather in middle of stage right and obviously confer amiably with each other while murmuring, others murmur, SONIA TERRY calls for order)
SONIA TERRY Come now, please come to order. We have more business, VERY important business to discuss. We need officers for this exciting new enterprise. You all know the nominees. We are all friends here, after all. (scattered murmured approval)
SONIA TERRY I suggest we cast one vote in favor of the nominees and let them get right to work. Agreed? (More enthusiastic murmured approval from group)
SONIA TERRY Harry, will you please read the names of the nominees?
(HARRY MORELL rises, clears his throat, theatrically, waves his arms in warm up fashion)
MARY WAITE (smiling broadly) Oh, for Pete’s sake, Harry get on with it. We don’t even have a play to perform and you are already auditioning! (general laughter and approval)
HARRY MORELL Ok, ok, I was just getting ready. Please hold your applause until I finish. Will the following people rise and take their place. (gestures stage left at table)
HARRY MORELL (in stage voice) Mrs. Muriel Olds (eventually Olds-Dundas), President. (MURIEL OLDS rises and stands, HARRY MORELL impatiently gestures toward the table, she reacts and moves to the table and sits)
HARRY MORELL Mr. Louis Suter, Vice President; Mrs. Mundy will be our treasurer (aside) when we get some money! (laughter)
SONIA TERRY Harry!
HARRY MORELL And Don McCreary will record everything as our new Secretary! (theatrically) Ladies and Gentlemen. I present, the first officers of the first Board of Directors of Venice Little Theatre! (general applause from group that has now moved to cluster around officer table) (the officers sit and seriously confer, shaking heads and generally coming to quick agreement) (MURIEL OLDS stands and addresses group)
MURIEL OLDS As your new president, I have two very important announcements to make. (general murmurs and anticipation from group)
MURIEL OLDS First, Mr. Frank Raeburn, whom we all know is the esteemed Mayor of our fair city, has agreed to allow us to use an old army barracks at the Venice Army Air Base for our productions! (general enthusiastic approval and applause) (MURIEL OLDS gesturing for order and looking at the gathered officers, who all nod their assent. DON McCREARY gestures “get on with it”)
MURIEL OLDS It gives me great pleasure to announce that the very first production of Venice Little Theatre will be….
DON McCREARY Wait Muriel, drum roll please (drums on table)
MURIEL OLDS . . . The Torchbearers! Now, let’s get to work! (general applause and cheers from both groups, as lights go to dark)
With apologies to playwrights living and dead, this history will now continue as a narrative, not as a drama. But this was chosen as a fitting framework upon which to hang this tale of how a small town in Southwest Florida, population of around 700 souls, came to create the second largest community theatre in the United States, an important presence in the cultural landscape of its region, and a significant factor in the international theatre scene.
Nov. 23, 1950: The first organizational meeting of Venice Little Theatre.
It was organized by its two founders, Muriel Olds-Dundas and Sonia Terry, and publicized with a note in The Venice Gondolier that read, “Active memberships, which will cost $5 (compared to $48.50 in 2015), will be available to those who want to act, usher, take tickets, clean out the place or whatnot.” Responders were promised a picnic lunch.
After the meeting, Frank Berger wrote in the same “Gondolier”, “The gratifying turnout for the first Venice “Little” Theatre group meeting last week at the country club surprised everyone who went. They found friends and neighbors who apparently shared this secret vice – interest in the theatre – and they further startled each other by being dressed up fit for a dog show. Everybody wore shoes and some of the men even had neckties on.”
The newly organized volunteers of Venice Little Theatre moved onto their new home (rented at $1 a year), an abandoned barracks/warehouse at the former Venice Army Air Base and began the hard work of turning it into a place where the magic could happen.
Therefore a World War II Quonset Hut (essentially a half-round metal shed) would become the fledgling theatre’s first home.
A facility secured, a daunting task now lay ahead: turn an old rusty metal shed into their theatre. Turn it into a venue appropriate for an evening out. It became a community project. As reported at the time a crew of a dozen volunteers immediately set about constructing a stage. There was enormous pressure – the first production was set to open in thirty days!
Audiences need seats, so Farley Funeral Home offered its folding chairs on the condition that they be returned whenever there was an actual funeral. The Venice Garden Club donated some plantings to brighten the place up. The local Girl Scout troop painted the inside paneling. Volunteers from the Venice Country Club got down and dirty and pulled weeds. It was reported that the weeks long undertaking resembled nothing so much as an old-fashioned Sunday ‘Building Bee.’ There was even food provided by the wives.
In the brief time available to them, those volunteers gutted the building, built a stage, masked the ends to provide wing space, made frames to cover the metal walls (and probably to improve acoustics), and installed footlights.
Local businesses pitched in, with contractor Bob Feinsod overseeing construction. Needed supplies were donated by Venice Lumber and Johnson Lumber. Clyde Higel donated the footlights and other equipment. And local decorator Tom Holland donated the paint, not just for the building but for the stage scenery as well.
That first building had no heat and certainly no air conditioning. Salvaged parachute material covered the ceiling. There was a single toilet for cast, crew, and the audience – outside.
A cast of 12 aspiring thespians were almost invisible in all the frantic preparations as they were rehearsing, racing to learn lines and follow the instructions of the show’s Director, Mrs. Fran Barclay, who called over and over for them to ‘take it from the top’.
Tickets were printed and put on sale – for $2 – at the Dick & Meadows Pharmacy on Venice Avenue. And just 30 days after that first organizational meeting, The Torchbearers was ready for its first audience. The choice of that particular show was obviously quite intentional – and appropriate.
The Torchbearers, written in 1923, is a satirical farce by actor, director, playwright George Kelly (Uncle of actress Grace Kelly). In the play, Kelly aims his sharp satire at the “Little Theatre” movement as being made up of narcissistic and undisciplined amateurs.
The lead character and leader of the theatre troupe, Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli, is depicted as a caricature of the self-indulgent dilettante. In the first act, the troupe shows themselves incapable of conducting a competent rehearsal; in the second, their public performance collapses in shambles. By the third act, the players are excoriated.
In spite of, or maybe because of, the satirical and appropriate nature of the play, the Venice production was a huge success. Frank Berger wrote in The Venice Gondolier:
“The opening production last night of The Torchbearers was one of the biggest and best things that ever happened to Venice. Think of it . . . a finished production, a damned good finished play in just thirty days from the first meeting to the final curtain . . . Summing it up – it was well done; don’t miss it.”
Flush with this first success, the theatre company went forward with two more productions the first season, Over 21 and Ever Since Eve.
Venice Little Theatre was on its way.
From the beginning, it was volunteers and their dedication, their talent and their time that made everything possible.
In 1952 it was a volunteer, DeDe Egglefield, who became VLT’s resident costumer. A year later, volunteers Alice and Squiffy Smith arrived and began a 30-year run on the VLT stage. Volunteer Chris McGee designed his first set and went on for 20 years as technical director, volunteer of course.
As the 1950s became the 1960s, more performances and bigger audiences meant physical changes were needed to accommodate the growth. A real lobby and two, much-appreciated restrooms were added to the original Quonset Hut.
Between 1963 and 1969, stage lighting and controls were added; 192 permanent (and more comfortable) seats replaced the folding chairs; a musical (the theatre’s first), Once Upon A Mattress, was produced and a children’s production, The Red Shoes, was added to the schedule.
In 1970, VLT ventured into more contemporary theatre with the launch of ‘Stage II’ productions.
The City also was thriving and going through changes of its own: increasing population and the new Intracoastal Waterway separating the East and West parts of the City required a new road; US 41 By-Pass was completed in 1966. And the character of the City was different – the Intracoastal Waterway made Venice an ‘island’ and it began to be called Venice Island. Three new bridges carried the increasing traffic.
As the final Seaboard Coastline Railroad concluded its service to Venice, and the last passenger train was leaving the station, another venerable institution said farewell.
In 1971, the Kentucky Military Institute closed its Venice campus, leaving behind a number of buildings including one on West Tampa Avenue.
And it is here that the history of KMI and the future of Venice Little Theatre are met.
Scene: A meeting room in Venice. A long, oblong table with chairs. In attendance is the newly-elected Board of Directors.
YVONNE PINKERTON This meeting of Venice Little Theatre Board of Directors will please come to order. Thank you all for coming to this important meeting. We all think, no, we all KNOW that our building at the airport is no longer for this world.
BILL WATSON You are right about that, Pinky. The damned roof leaks, the electrical system is out of date, the bathrooms are-
YVONNE PINKERTON (interrupting) Yes, Bill, we know your long list. But what I think we need to be thinking about is NOT fixing that old building. (general consternation)
BILL WATSON But, Pinky, what are we going to do? You’re president of this outfit. It’s your job to make some suggestions.
YVONNE PINKERTON Ok, Bill I will do just that (smiles sweetly at Bill). My suggestion is that we get a new building!
BILL WATSON Wow, that’s some suggestion! (others nod and murmur in excited agreement)
BILL WATSON But wait, Pinky, do you have a magic wand to find us this new building of yours? (more murmurs and nods)
YVONNE PINKERTON Yes Bill. I do! I know the very building we need. It’s available. But first we need another magic wand, one that can find us the money to buy the building.
BILL WATSON (with some sarcasm) And just who the hell do you think has this magic wand?
YVONNE PINKERTON (equally sarcastic) I know exactly who has it! And I’d like to nominate her now. I nominate Mrs. Gene Green – ahh – Fifi Green, as our new fund-raising chai. (general agreement murmurs)
YVONNE PINKERTON She’ll be charged with raising the money for a new home for us! (rushing right along) Hearing no objection, I call the vote. All those in favor, say Aye! Hearing no Nays, the motion carries. (general agreement and murmurs)
YVONNE PINKERTON (turns to FIFI GREEN) Well, Fifi, do you accept the challenge? And do you think there’s enough money out there to buy us our own building?
FIFI GREEN You bet I do! Start planning right now! And by the way, Bill. I’ll take YOUR check tonight. (more laughter and good-natured ribbing of BILL WATSON)
(lights fade to black)
And so in 1970s Venice, Fifi Green was appointed chair to the truly ambitious undertaking of VLT’s first Capital Campaign.
While money had always been found for costumes or props, and volunteers always stepped up to provide labor and a few dollars as needed, this would be on an entirely new scale.
As the Board began their search for a new home, the City of Venice stepped up and offered land for a building at the site of the present Blalock Park. But the site was unworkable, lacking adequate parking.
The search continued. And thanks to the sharp eye of Col. Jack Dundas, it quickly ended – at the corner of West Tampa Avenue, at the old KMI gymnasium. Everyone agreed that it would be an ideal location, with its downtown “on the Island” location and a municipal parking lot nearby. Now, Mrs. Green had a target for her fund-raising drive.
The 1926 building on West Tampa Avenue that was to become Venice Little Theatre’s new home had its own history, having housed a number of businesses in the years before the Kentucky Military Institute converted it to their gymnasium and student center.
In 1973, VLT acquired the building – officially 140 West Tampa Avenue – for $78,000.
Converting it into a theatre would cost another $225,000. So Green, Dundas and Dale Erhart went to work to secure and structure a $100,000 mortgage to complete the project. Noted architect Harold Naegele volunteered to draw up the plans and the work got underway. (Fun fact: The three held their meetings at Smitty’s restaurant on 41 – gone now.)
Volunteers gutted the building, only saving the basketball court to be re-laid as a stage floor. Rigging and lights went up – thanks to Ringling Museum’s Gene Vercheski. Real theatre seats, 286 of them, were installed.
Even as the renovation work was happening, casting and rehearsing for the new theatre’s first production, Li’l Abner, was underway at the old airport facility. Space was tight for this first musical, so dance rehearsals had to be held on the airport runways. The show had a large cast and called for 70 costumes. Volunteers brought their sewing machines and the costumes were built in the old theatre’s lobby. Back on West Tampa Avenue, the work was furious as the scheduled opening approached.
Finally, on November 8, 1973, Li’l Abner opened – to a full house. Ticket prices were now two-tiered and had gone up to $2.75 and $3.25! Season subscriptions were $12.50 and a record 1,400 subscriptions had been sold. Marking the event, local media named Venice Little Theatre “the little theatre that wouldn’t die.”
In the program for the premiere production in the new building, VLT President Yvonne Pinkerton wrote:
“We are very proud of our new Venice Little Theatre. It will bring new intellectual and aesthetic enjoyment to the public. It will offer training and experience to local talent. Architecturally, it will restore one of the original Mediterranean buildings so important in our early local history . . . Yes it does take courage and heart to build a new theatre. Together we have achieved that impossible dream. From small beginnings we have earned a place of stature in our community.”
As this exciting chapter was unfolding for the theatre, the City of Venice continued to attract new residents who promptly started filling the theatre’s 286 new seats.
The changes continued; it was time for more staff.
In 1974, Gerald Quimby from the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis was hired to professionally direct shows. Ruth Brothers and Skeez Roth organized a Theatre Guild to promote and support the theatre. Summer workshops were added for children and adults.
And finally, in 1975 the building was air-conditioned, a most welcome improvement.
It soon became obvious that the facility needed administrative management beyond Yvonne Pinkerton’s years of filling that role as a volunteer. So in 1976, she became the first paid Manager, albeit only part-time. She held the post until 1979 when Reta Thorner was hired to become a full-time Manager.
In 1976, VLT ventured beyond its own four walls and ‘toured’ a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, performing at what is now known as Brickyard Plaza but at the time was the community college campus. A portent of what was to come.
With 1980 came concrete evidence of the theatre’s success. In a joyous stage ceremony on November 9 of that year, just seven years and one day from the opening night for Li’l Abner, Board President Jack Taylor, Fifi Green and Muriel Dundas officially ‘burned the mortgage’. Of course, in the tradition of theatre, the burning was staged with some dramatic license – worthless paper stood in for the real thing, which was supposed to have been locked up but in fact was in a plastic bag in the possession of Yvonne Pinkerton, and there it stayed until she later framed it. Today, it hangs on the wall in the Presidents Club.
In 1984, more building renovations were underway when Steve Pagmarian was hired as the first technical director.
The biggest change was the addition of a fly loft opening up the possibility of productions previously not possible. Many years later, Pagmarian described the project to Yvonne Pinkerton. “It took eight tall, steel I-beams. They had to be hoisted into place. This was the final step in adding a raised stage area. Now we could lift the backdrops and scenery into the loft instead of having to roll them off the stage.”
The open air section along Nokomis Avenue was enclosed to provide space for props and general storage.
The period of 1987 to 1990 saw attendance rise from 14,000 to over 28,000. VLT now had a paid staff of three, with a huge cadre of volunteers still handling the scenery, costumes, theater operations and, of course, actors on the stage.
In 1992, VLT created a Department of Education and Outreach under the guidance of Yvonne Pinkerton. She formalized the summer camps as “TheatreFest” and added after school and Saturday classes for children and adults. With volunteers John McGuckin and Howard Crouch, Pinkerton formed the Silver Foxes, a senior performance troupe to tour throughout the South County area. Recognizing the need and benefit of exposing youngsters to live performance, Pinkerton created another touring group, Troupe In A Trunk, to bring live theatre to elementary schools.
The theatre undertook a huge outreach commitment when The Selby Foundation issued a challenge grant to create a partnership between VLT and Venice’s Loveland Center for adults with developmental disabilities. The partnership had been proposed by Board President Arthur Galway, Bob Perkins of Selby, and Carl Penxa, Director of Loveland. The community stepped up and met Selby’s challenge. The partnership was created.
The obvious choice to head up the program was Yvonne Pinkerton, who set to work setting up classes and curriculum, recruiting volunteers and then directing the first production of The Loveland Players, Reach for the Stars.
More people came and more space was needed. In 1993, the storage area fronting Nokomis Avenue was converted to a theatre, Stage II, a black box theatre dedicated to contemporary, experimental and original theatre productions. It also became the home of VLT’s three-show season, Theatre for Young People. Venice Little Theatre now produced three full season series – MainStage, Stage II and Theatre for Young People.
A black box theatre is a simple, unadorned performance space, with black walls, flat floor and moveable seating. The black box is considered a space where “pure” theatre can be explored with the most human and the least technical elements can be showcased. The flexibility enjoyed by black boxes allows theatres such as VLT to mount an extravagant production on its main stage, while presenting a smaller, more experimental production in the black box.
Now, Venice Little Theatre’s place in the Cultural Landscape of Sarasota County is secure and prominent. Its infrastructure is close to professional grade, its volunteers well organized to work with a small professional staff. Its productions, large and small, are well-received by patrons and its outreach and community activities lush with variety for young and old alike.
Venice Little Theatre was poised for the next step.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
ARTHUR GALLWAY…………………………………………………………Board President
YVONNE PINKERTON……………………………………………………Vice President
LORI CHASE……………………………………………………….His wife
HEATHER CROWLEY………………………………………………Teenaged daughter
At rise: The stage is divided into two units. Stage Right has a simple table with two chairs. Stage Left is a motel room. The board of directors are gathered around the table. JOAN LINO and GERI BECKER are seated. Motel room is darkened.
ARTHUR GALLWAY (addressing JOAN LINO and GERI BECKER) Well, this is it I guess. You’ve had the job of finding someone for us. It’s a big step but I think we’re agreed it’s what we need. This person has to have it all – artistic and management, all wrapped up in one person.
LEANNE HANSON An Executive Director alone isn’t enough anymore. We’ve learned that I guess.
YVONNE PINKERTON I agree. Now it’s about vision. We know we’re entering a new stage here, we’re not going to stop growing and neither is Venice. And if that’s what is happening, we need to plan it. There will be a lot of business and management challenges ahead – we need a professional.
ARTHUR GALLWAY Geri, Joan, I know you’ve been reviewing a lot of applicants and need time to discuss and narrow it down, so we’ll leave you to it. (Board of Directors exit Stage Right)
GERI BECKER I don’t know Joan (holds up stack of papers), we’ve talked now with six of these folks and brought four in for interviews. This isn’t easy but you heard the Board. They want a decision and they want it soon.
JOAN LINO Well, Norman Small in Winter Haven is a big fan of Murray Chase. Small knows him from AACT and has admired the work he did in Mississippi. What do you think? He’s still in town.
GERI BECKER (shuffling through papers) Here he is. (reading) Bachelor of Arts in Directing from Ole Miss; Masters of Fine Arts from Louisville; now Executive/Artistic Director at Corinth, Mississippi.
JOAN LINO Arthur toured Chase around and said he really has a good business head on him.
GERI BECKER Right. And Pinky had dinner with him and his family and was really impressed according to her notes right here. And let’s remember, (holds up resume) he has lots of experience as a grant writer!
JOAN LINO And that’s critical. We need that kind of experience. (pauses and thinks) Well if Pinky likes him and Arthur likes him and Norm Small likes him – I’d be happy with Chase. What do you think?
GERI BECKER I’m with you. Since they’re still here, how about we just go over to the motel and tell him. Let’s do it right now.
JOAN LINO Why not! (They walk across stage as lights come up on a motel room. MURRAY CHASE is opening the door. His daughter HEATHER and wife LORI can be seen behind him.)
MURRAY CHASE Hello! Come on in.
GERI BECKER Hi Murray. Well you all look tanned and rested. Been enjoying the beach?
HEATHER I love the beach!
JOAN LINO Well Heather, how would you like to stay? (turns to MURRAY) I think you know why we’re here. We’d like you to join us Murray.
MURRAY CHASE (chuckling, turns toward family) Well, that’s just-
GERI BECKER (cuts him off) Now here’s what we’re thinking . . . (audio, lights fade, GERI BECKER and JOAN LINO exit. Lights come back up on Chase family)
HEATHER (jumping up and down on bed) Yippee! I love this place!
MURRAY CHASE Slow down Heather! (looking at LORI CHASE) We agree. We like the town, I like these people, the theatre has a good solid budget . . . I’d say this is the right thing for us for the next two or three years.
24 years later, the 2019 audience dissolves in laughter.
The decision to bring in a single person to serve as both Artistic Director and Executive Director was immediately validated. Already garnering recognition for its level of artistry, VLT was now a demanding business entity, needing a firm hand if it was to maximize its potential.
Chase developed a five-year plan for the theatre, and immediately recognized that a popular theatre in a rapidly-growing area needed more and better audience space. Grants were applied for (and received). MainStage seating was increased from 286 to 358. Technical equipment began to be upgraded and expanded.
Venice Little Theatre continued to grow. By 1997 MainStage attendance exceeded 43,000 for the season. The summer camps were expanded to three, full TheatreFests with 108 students. The year-round class enrollment was another 100 students with five classes per semester. Contract artistic staff was brought in to cope with this growth and Jo Snyder was hired as the first musical director for the Silver Foxes, an energetic group of senior actors, singers and dancers, who performed out in the community.
Chase’s plate was getting fuller every day with a growing theatre but a minimal staff: there was costumer Joan Dillon who’d been at VLT since 1980, a single employee in the Box Office and Tim O’Donnell, the theatre’s first full-time professional Technical Director, hired by Chase in 1996.
More were needed, but first Chase needed an assistant. At his request, the Board approved a new staff position; they would seek someone with administrative, editorial and graphic skills to add a professional dimension to grants, playbills and promotional materials. In 1997, Maureen Holland joined Chase’s staff, becoming the fifth full time member of the staff.
When the box office job came open shortly thereafter, Allan Kollar was hired and tasked to upgrade all systems, install computers, and develop strategies to grow subscription sales. He later became Producing Director.
In 1998, an independent study revealed that Venice Little Theatre was the second most attended theatre in Sarasota County, second only to the venerated Asolo Theatre (this in a metropolitan area known nationwide for its cultural activities).
As the theatre grew, so did the demands for more classes. It was time to professionalize that area education and outreach programming. In 1998 with a three year start-up grant from the Venice Foundation, VLT was able to bring Sandra Davisson to Venice as full time Director of Education and Outreach.
Under her direction the theatre quickly became the third community theatre in the country to establish a technical theatre apprenticeship program. Certified by the Florida Department of Education and recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor for high school and college students. The TTAP (Technical Theatre Apprenticeship Program) thrived, offering career-track training in technical production including lighting, sound and stage management. It continues to launch graduates into professional theatre careers.
Davisson also expanded the impact of Troupe in a Trunk. Already reaching 10,000 elementary school students with performances, it would now become a teaching tool with the theatre proving teaching materials for teachers and students.
Forgotten now was 1973’s “little theatre that wouldn’t die.” In 1999 a Capital Campaign got underway. It was, fittingly, chaired by Scott Pinkerton, who grew up in the theatre and brought his mother’s drive and commitment to the effort.
$850,000 in grants from the State of Florida and the Venice Foundation were supplemented by the generous support of individual donors. And that year, a $2 million renovation began. One that would bring significant changes not just to the building on Tampa Avenue, but to the City of Venice and the surrounding area.
A second floor added nearly 14,000 feet of rehearsal, classroom and office space. A MainStage balcony, a reception room with a catering kitchen, and a mezzanine art gallery looked down on the expanded lobby. On the ground floor, there was now a greatly expanded box office, a new costume shop, more office space and storage, and a backstage for Stage II. MainStage seating was expanded to 432. A large state-of-the-art booth was built behind the balcony. II got its first professional booth and its own lobby. (That theatre was soon to be christened the Yvonne T. Pinkerton Theatre.) Restroom facilities were tripled and a lobby bar opened for business.
The newly expanded opened up possibilities not dreamed of at that first meeting 65 years earlier. As its artistic reputation grew beyond southwest Florida, new opportunities presented. The theatre’s production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly became part of Stephen Spielberg’s U.S. Project Tolerance.
That reputation for excellence was evidenced by a flurry of awards and honors for the theatre and its people.
In 2001, the American Association of Community Theatres (AACT) honored Yvonne Pinkerton with its National Spotlight Award for her 30 years of outstanding contributions to community theatre. In this same year, Sarasota County honored Pinkerton with its Leadership Award in Arts Education. In 2010, VLT’s longest serving volunteer, Geri Becker, received the AACT National Spotlight Award for 50 years of volunteer service to community theatre.
In 2001, as the theatre settled into its newly expanded facility, attendance reached nearly 70,000. The Stage II series, in its eighth season, saw a dramatic increase when annual subscriptions jumped from 245 to 405.
By 2002, VLT was now the third largest community theatre in the United States, and the largest per capita.
The awards kept coming as the theatre continued to grow. In 2004, with $750,000 in grants from the City of Venice and the Venice Foundation, the theatre purchased a large abandoned commercial building adjoining the theatre’s property. It quickly became a much -needed scenery shop and property storage area. Shortly thereafter, VLT was able to acquire the parking lot behind the theatre as well. No longer just a building, VLT was now a ‘campus’.
By 2006, the stages mounted 400 performances of over 40 unique productions and attendance reached an audience of 85,000. The theatre could now count 1200 volunteers – the same number as the City’s population when the theatre was formed in 1950.
The Education and Outreach Department continued its rapid growth with hundreds of students year round. Staff grew. A Summer Stock program was begun in 2007, adding to an already full menu of classes and programs: in-house classes for K-adult, summer camps for K-9th grade, Summer Stock, Berea College Internships, the Technical Theatre Apprenticeship Program, and teaching partnerships with area schools, the Boys and Girls Club and the Loveland Partnership. Troupe in A Trunk and The Silver Foxes continued to tour the county.
It was inevitable. In 2008 the community, the volunteers and ultimately the Board of Directors spoke with one voice. On a clear Florida morning, the sign on the building came down, making way for a new one. Venice Little Theatre was no longer “little”. From now on, this vibrant, respected and honored center of performing arts for much of southwest Florida would be known as Venice Theatre.