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Wednesday, Sep 03, 2014
Arts & Music

Straz center, Tampa's cultural crown jewel, turns 25

Special Correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 12:08 PM
TAMPA -

The most successful performing arts venue in Florida turns 25 this week.

The crown jewel of the Tampa area's cultural scene, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, opened on Sept. 12, 1987, as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, and since then more than 12 million patrons have walked through its doors.

Thousands of performers — actors, musicians, singers, dancers and comedians — have stood on its stages, and 60,000 students are served each year by its Patel Conservatory. And the venue anchors a growing downtown cultural stretch along the Hillsborough River that includes the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children's Museum, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

"It's wonderful to think what has happened with culture here over the past 25 years because this was such a new project for Tampa when it started and no one knew what it would become," Straz President Judith Lisi says as the Straz begins a star-filled celebratory season.

It will include Broadway hits such as "Wicked" and "Flashdance: The Musical," comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the classic opera "La Bohème" and the musical group The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Straz also will salute its history with events such as a Dec. 1 "Anniversary Gala" party featuring a dinner, a live auction and entertainment by Broadway star Idina Menzel, who won a Tony Award for her performance in "Wicked."

The stats on the Straz are impressive: an annual $110 million economic impact, more than 2,200 events per year and 600,000 patrons each year.

Lisi has been president of the Straz since 1992. She says there have been many highlights in the center's history, including the success of the cabaret Jaeb Theater and the development of Opera Tampa and the Patel Conservatory, but she is most proud of the original productions.

In 2001, the center produced "Sacco & Vaneztti," an opera by composer Anton Coppola, the uncle of Francis Ford Coppola. It was about Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in 1927 following a sensational and controversial trial.

Lisi also points to a more recent original as a highlight: "Wonderland: Alice's New Musical Adventure," the 2010 musical inspired by author Lewis Carrol's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass."

Even though the play, which originated out of the Straz center's Broadway Genesis Project, closed shortly after it opened on Broadway, it was an educational experience that "everyone got behind and supported, and we learned so much from it," Lisi says.

"And we can be proud that we've run the center in the black for 20 years," she adds. During the early years, the facility struggled to stay out of debt and was $3.5 million in the red when Lisi became president. "We made it a priority to wipe that out, and we did it quickly," she says. "And we have stayed in the black even through the recent downturn in the economy."

"It was slow getting started, but it's become a major cultural asset for Tampa," says former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, who laid the groundwork for the center when he was Tampa mayor from 1979 to 1986.

In 1982, a penny sales tax with the slogan "A Penny For the Good Life" was proposed. If approved, it would have generated $37.5 million to build the performing arts center, as well as money for other facilities.

Voters, however, didn't think the "good life" was worth a penny, and the proposal was crushed at the ballot box — 104,930 to 41,157.

After the defeat, Martinez and the city of Tampa pledged to issue $36 million in revenue bonds if the center could raise $10 million on its own. It raised more than $20 million.

"I campaigned on building a performing arts center," he recalls. "I didn't want a city-run facility. I wanted a nonprofit board to oversee it, and that has worked out."

"It was a $70 million investment that was well spent because the center is still state of the art," says Lisi. "It was the first in the state of Florida with multiple venues — we now have five stages. Miami and Orlando have been working on similar projects since the 1980s, and Orlando hasn't opened one yet. Miami just opened three years ago, and it cost half a billion dollars."

"Cities and counties put a lot of money into parks, recreation facilities and ball fields, but there are hundreds of kids that don't play sports, and I wanted to provide some fine art opportunities," says Martinez, who resigned in 1986 to make a successful run for governor. Tampa's next mayor, Sandy Freedman, continued the support for the center, which opened the following year.

The Straz has a large and loyal base of patrons and season ticket hold-ers.

"We bought our season tickets before they broke ground, and we've been coming back ever since," says Tampa resident and Broadway fan Sylvia Katz. She recalls taking friends who were "die-hard New Yorkers" to the center, and "they left saying 'this is better than theaters in New York.' "

As part of the anniversary celebration, the Straz is collecting favorite memories from its supporters, such as David Glickman, who moved to Tampa in 1995 and says "attending performances at the Straz Center has been one of the greatest joys of living here."

His favorite memory is from 2008, when he and three siblings took his 82-year-old father to see "Jersey Boys."

"We all grew up in New Jersey," he says. "We surprised him by flying in his younger (76-year-old) brother from New Jersey and having great seats for a great show. My father passed away last year, but we still talk about that night as one of the most wonderful evenings of our life."

Another Straz fan, Christine Bray, says she took her daughter to see "The Lion King" and "Wicked."

"What a wonderful way to share a Broadway show with her here in Tampa. The look on her face when the 'animals' came down the aisles during 'The Lion King'was priceless," Bray says. Her son, Jake, who was involved for years with the Patel Conservatory Youth Symphony and the Tampa Bay Youth Symphony, is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University and first chair viola in the orchestra there.

"I know his involvement with the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center helped him evolve into the player he is today," Bray says.

John Bailey, 75, of St. Petersburg, recalls singing with Master Chorale at the center's gala opening in 1987.

"We were on stage for the final dress rehearsal and we started singing, and our conductor, Dr. Robert Summer, stopped as our voices echoed in the great hall," Bailey recalls. "I will never forget. It was awe-inspiring when Dr. Summer said, 'What a memory — the first voices heard at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Hall!' "

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