By Paul Roat
January has historically been a month of grand openings for Sarasota. Two of the area’s premiere performing arts venues opened to the public just after the first of the year.
On Jan. 5, 1970, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall opened to critical acclaim with a production of “Fiddler On the Roof.”
And on Jan. 10, 1953, the transplanted Asolo Theatre opened with a presentation of “The Abduction From the Seralgio,” performed by the New York City Center Opera Company.
Both institutions still amaze and delight patrons to this day. And both have some interesting historical notes.
Van Wezel wows
Sarasota’s Bayfront theater was named after major benefactors Lewis and Eugenia Van Wezel. He was born in the Netherlands and was active in the diamond industry in New York before his retirement to Sarasota in 1934. She was born in Russia and was trained in theater.
Both led quiet lives in Sarasota until the 1960s, when they established a charitable foundation consisting of their considerable estates. The couple agreed to contribute $400,000 toward a $1.35 million performing arts hall on the city’s Bayfront, and it was named in their honor.
The hall was designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. William Wesley Peters was the architect, who took into account its Bayfront setting in its design.
The hall was renovated in 2001 thanks in part to a $1 million contribution by Bob and Diane Roskamp. The structure was kept intact, as were the 1,736 seats, but the backstage and lobby areas were greatly expanded to accommodate larger shows. Renovation cost totaled $20 million.
As to the seashell shape and purple color of the facility, both were based on a seashell Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, found on a beach near the Sea of Japan. The shell is on display in the hall’s lobby.
The Asolo Theatre has seen a lot of miles through a lot of incarnations.
As Brad Wallace wrote in his authoritative book, “Sarasota’s Asolo: A History of the State Theatre of Florida,” its Italian heritage eventually became a perfect blend with the up-and-growing John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
“Asolo, Italy, is about an hour’s drive north of Venice,” Wallace wrote. “The Asolo Theatre was originally constructed there in the audience hall of a fifteenth-century castle and completed in 1798. In 1933, this beautiful Baroque theatre was carefully dismantled, crated, and sold to an antique dealer in Venice — not the entire building, of course, but the exquisite parts decorating the horseshoe-shaped interior.
“The Asolo was purchased by the State of Florida [for $8,000, which included shipping] in 1950 and, in 1957, was reconstructed in a new wing on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art.
The driving force behind the Asolo’s incarnation as the state’s official theatre was A. Everette “Chick” Austin. Formerly director of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Conn., the country’s oldest public art museum, Austin was named the first director of the Ringling Museum in 1946. He convinced the State of Florida to buy the Asolo.
Outbid in the process to acquire the Asolo for Florida was actor Vincent Price, who wanted the theatre at his home in California.
Ringling and its Bayfront grounds were also courting the acting program at Florida State University. Students began a Sarasota Arts Seminar locally in spring of 1948. The seminar was transformed into a symposium and arguably the first actual performance by FSU was Moliere’s “The School For Husbands” April 15, 1950, on the museum grounds under the stars.
It was the birth of what is today’s Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory For Actor Training.
Asolo Rep is one of a handful of repertory, or repeating, theaters in the United States. During the busy winter season as many as five productions on three stages may be held at any given time.
There is the Historic Asolo Theatre on the Ringling grounds, a transplant of the original Venetian facility, which reopened in October 2006.
The Mertz Theatre is the main stage, made possible in part and named after Harold E. and Esther Mertz.
The Cook Theatre is primarily used by Conservatory students and was named after Jane Bancroft Cook.
Unheralded is a new addition to the Asolo, the 48,000-square-foot Koski Production Center on Tallevast Road, where myriad sets are built for both the Asolo as well as other venues. The Koski Center also holds rehearsal halls, offices, and storerooms for costumes and sets.
The Center was made possible through major contributions by Robert and Beverly Koski, Joan Amour Mendell, and Ted and Jean Weller, and others.
As Austin described the Asolo: “It has come across the sea to become one of the most important exhibits in a Museum noted for its dramatic and spectacular collection of Baroque paintings, and to serve as a brilliant setting for plays, concerts, lectures, and motion picture programs that are part of the cultural advantages the Ringling Museum offers to students of the fine arts, and to the public.”