Saying goodbye is never easy. For theater lovers, saying goodbye to a longtime setting where you’ve watched—or performed in—dozens and dozens of shows is an emotional experience that brings back a flood of memories.
For the Players Centre for Performing Arts, the time has come to close the doors to the building that has been its home at 838 N. Tamiami Trail since the 1970s. Prior to the construction of that building, the community theater also performed for years on a “log cabin” edifice on the site of today’s parking lot. And, overall, the company has been around for 90-plus years.
I’ve seen countless shows there over four decades—filled with highlights and occasionally, not-so-highlights—but nothing quite like the performance I witnessed last night, on one of the theater’s “So Long, Dearie” farewell tours. The tours provide a small-scale, socially distanced and masked stroll down Memory Lane in these times of Covid, with Players staffers welcoming you in the lobby, where the bar is open and there’s even a singer or two belting out Broadway show tunes (Live! In person! From a distance!) as you have the chance to browse lots of memorabilia for sale.
Producing artistic director Jeffery Kin says they found lots of stuff upstairs in the old building, dating from 1974—costumes, props, vinyl records, musical scores, scripts—plus there are even theater seats for sale. You can leave your potential purchases at the box office, as I did, while marketing director Amanda Heisey takes you through the side lobby (more items for sale, plus archival photos of past productions on the wall, including one of a 1960s Sound of Music production featuring a very young Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman) and then backstage.
There’s even more stuff for sale there (vintage lights for $15, anyone?). But probably the first thing to catch a tour goer’s eye is all the murals on the walls, created by cast members (and frequently signed by them) over the years. Kiss Me, Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Babes in Arms, The Will Rogers Follies, Oliver!, Applause, Sweeney Todd, Hello, Dolly!, Miss Saigon—you name it, there’s a mural commemorating the Players production. You can’t take the wall depictions home with you, but you can order an 8x10 print of one for $10.
The night I took the tour, most of my fellow guests were community theater actors and backstage crew members who have probably worked, combined, on dozens of shows at the Players. So there were a few tears to be shed once we ventured into the Backstage at the Players area, where more props, costumes and scrapbooks were on view, along with a video packed with still photos and musical scenes from productions including Urinetown, Sunset Boulevard and more.
So far on the tour, all had gone pretty much as I’d expected. What I didn’t count on: After we all signed the cast call sheet backstage, we each stepped (six feet apart) up to the curtain, where we could, as generations of actors have over the years, hear the sounds (recorded in this instance) of the audience abuzz with anticipation over the start of the show. Yep, you guessed it: We were all called to our designated places in the spotlight to take our bows to the applause of our fellow “castmates.”
Then, we took our seats for the last time, as five Players staffers—Kin, Heisey, Brian Finnerty and production manager Alyssa Goudy, led by box office manager Melissa Ingrisano—delivered a rendition of “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. A fitting end to the evening.
Not, of course, the end to the Players. As Kin noted during the evening, a theater is more than just bricks and mortar. He wants to be sure to “take the heart with us” as the Players moves on to temporary quarters, presenting more performances to make more memories. More news on that will come soon.
If you’d like to take part in a “So Long, Dearie” tour, they continue Sept. 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12 and 13, and tickets are just $10—plus all the souvenirs you can afford to take home. Call (941) 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org.