And So Went Sarasota

By staff April 1, 2004

In 1979 Sarasota was still very much a circus town. True, the winter headquarters were now down in Venice but circus people were everywhere. You could still see retired Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz shopping at Publix. But as the century drew to a close, so did the circus's presence here.

That all began to change seven years ago when Dolly Jacobs and her fiance, Pedro Reis, created Circus Sarasota, a spectacular blend of local and international acts that wows the community during its winter season. And Dolly is the perfect Sarasotan to carry the circus banner. She's the daughter of famed clown Lou Jacobs-he invented the gag where all the clowns pile out of the tiny car-and has been performing since she was four, when she appeared as part of a dachshund. "I tripped and fell and the tail went off running in the other direction," she recalls. It didn't sour her on the Big Top, however, and she went on to become a world-famous aerialist known as "Queen of the Air" and spend 14 years traveling with Ringling Bros.

Today Dolly still performs, in addition to lecturing and teaching a new generation at Sailor Circus. And she is passionate about her hometown's unique heritage. "Without the circus, Sarasota would be just another West Palm Beach," she says.

When Paula Benshoff was a little girl, "the nearest woods were just down the street and the way to Myakka was a dirt road," as she wrote in her book, Myakka, in 2002. Growing up, she roamed the wild outdoors; and though she briefly worked as a dispatcher for the Sarasota police department, 25 years ago she followed her heart to become a ranger at Myakka River State Park. She and her husband, Richard, built a home in Old Miakka three miles from the park's north gate in 1978, and raised one son who also went on to be a park ranger.

Today the quiet 53-year-old does everything from training volunteers and creating interpretive exhibits to conducting controlled burns and monitoring feral hogs. "I learn new things every day," she says; and she still thrills at "seeing how everything in nature works together the way it's supposed to."

A quarter million people visit Myakka, the state's largest park, each year. As Sarasota develops, Myakka has become more precious, Benshoff says: "It's one of the few places in Sarasota or Manatee counties destined to be a natural area for all times."

Twenty-five years ago, 34-year-old Dave Pierce moved to Gainesville from Cedar Falls, Iowa, for a job in radio. Four years later, he came here as station manager of WAMR-AM and WCTQ-FM. "I was immediately smitten by the Gulf of Mexico and the beauty of small-town Venice," he remembers. He soon found himself extolling the virtues of the then-sleepy little town and promoting its businesses on his stations. In 1988, when Main Street Venice formed, he joined the board; two years later he left broadcasting for good to become its executive director.

Main Street Venice has helped create a popular series of concerts in the park, a Saturday morning farmers' market, fall arts festival and an aggressive marketing program that lures visitors downtown with its "Cross the Bridge to Yesteryear" slogan.

These days, as business development director of the chamber, Pierce continues to boost the town known as the Shark's Tooth Capital of the World. He beams with pride at his town's ever-increasing growth and prosperity, but he promises it won't lose its quiet, friendly charm. "There's a commitment by everybody to work together to preserve the well-being of Venice," says Pierce. "This is a close-knit community that really cares about its heritage and environmental quality."

Twenty-five years ago, Anne Folsom Smith was working at the old Saba's furniture store on U.S. 41, helping retired Midwesterners furnish their new Sarasota homes. There were more and more of those people arriving, and Smith proved so adept at working with them that she opened her own design firm in 1983, when she married architect Frank Folsom Smith, who had just renovated the U.S. Garage building where they shared an office. The hyper-efficient young designer with an eye for bold, handcrafted art and accessories was soon busy decorating new residences, especially condos on Longboat Key-"I counted them up recently and they came to nearly 300"- where she's probably done more to define the modern Sarasota vacation-home look than anyone else in town.

But she says her most rewarding achievement has been building relationships with her clients, who range from celebrities to retired snowbirds. Smith sang at one client's 80th birthday party and served as bridal registrar for another who wanted to be sure his wedding gifts would complement his new home. She's designed wedding cakes, dog beds, fountains, gardens and once helped a client find a car to match the color of his house. "When people trust you for so much of their lives," she says, "they think you can do everything."

In 1979, 22-year-old John Cannon collected his diploma from Michigan State, got into a beat-up car (purchase price: $100) and headed to Florida, just in time for the beginning of the state's luxury building boom. Today, he's one of the region's leading custom home builders, with 700 homes to his credit-101 in 2003 alone-and 67 full-time employees. This year, he's branching out to upscale communities in Tampa, Bradenton and Port Charlotte. It's a far cry from 1987, when he and his wife, Phillippa, sold their first model from an office in their garage. "Phillippa used to bring the baby in a fold-up playpen to our model homes, because we didn't have anybody else to staff them," he remembers.

These days, Cannon's mother keeps his model homes supplied with new photos of Phillippa and his other two children. "People tell us, 'I come visit your homes every year just so I can see how the kids have grown,'" he says.

Despite their success, the Cannons have lived in the same old house on Siesta Key for 10 years (there's never time to remodel) and "we're using the same silverware Phillippa had when she was single." Last year, they bought a ski condo, and while their kids mastered the bunny slopes, they went to K-Mart and bought new dishes. "It felt good," he says.

Twenty-five years ago Katherine Harris would have been considered an unlikely candidate to change the course of history. True, she was serving an internship with then Sen. Lawton Chiles, but her future seemed as predictable as that as any other woman in her enviable position as the pampered daughter of an old and wealthy Florida family.

For a time, her life played itself out as one would think. She studied abroad, then worked for IBM as a marketing executive. She came to Sarasota for a job selling commercial real estate for Michael Saunders. Then she became more and more involved in community affairs, starting with the Junior League and progressing to the board of the Ringling Museum. Inspired, she says, by the example Congressman Porter Goss, she made a run for the state senate in 1994.

She won, of course, and ascended up the political ladder to become Florida's last elected Secretary of State-and we all know how important that role became in the 2000 Presidential election. Today Harris spends three days a week in Washington and on weekends comes home to her constituents. "Every Saturday morning I'm at the Farmer's Market," she says. "It used to take me 15 minutes to shop there; now it takes two hours, because that's my town meeting."

Sarasota is famous for its philanthropy, but in 1998, Virginia Toulmin got the city's attention with her first major gift to the Florida West Coast Symphony-a half-million dollars to endow the concertmaster chair.

"I never started out to be a philanthropist," says Toulmin. In fact, she was a stewardess on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad when she met her husband, Harry. Harry had agreed to help a friend whose pharmaceutical company was failing; he, and after his death, Virginia, succeeded so well that when she sold the company decades later, she says, "My ship came in." Overwhelmed, she prayed "that I would use [the money] wisely and well."

She's done that, not only in Sarasota, where since she moved here 20 years ago, she's also supported the Asolo, Van Wezel, New College, Salvation Army and United Way, but with a $60-million trust fund she established in 1997 for the Georgetown University Medical Center.

But her greatest passion is the Fund for the Children of the Americas, which runs orphanages in Santo Domingo and Thailand. "I've visited both places and hugged the children and seen with my own eyes what this love means to them," she says. "If you have been blessed with funds, it is necessary to share them with the underprivileged. But even if you can't afford to give money, you can give love."

Today Michael Saunders is one of Sarasota's best-known success stories, head of a real estate firm with offices from Bradenton to Boca Grande, 472 sales associates and $2 billion in annual sales. But the woman that Florida Trend called one of the state's leading female entrepreneurs started out as a probation officer. Actually, she says, that job was great training for real estate: "I had to be a good communicator, a good motivator, a good change agent, and to love crazy people." Plus, when she founded Michael Saunders & Co. in 1976, she was shrewd enough to see that "Sarasota was a good old boy town and a woman had a better chance of being successful if you worked for yourself."

Though Saunders is now known for her elegant presence, she grew up as a tomboy on the north end of Longboat Key, swimming, sailing and running free ("I throw a cast net better than I dance"). Over the years, she's watched Sarasota property values skyrocket, women ascend to positions of power, and a wealthier, more cosmopolitan generation of buyers settle into the luxurious waterfront homes she markets. Also, "agencies are working together as they've never worked before and we're doing a better job of attracting and keeping our youth. I couldn't be more optimistic about the next 25 years."

Twenty-five years ago, Sarasota was in the grips of a conflict immortalized in the novels the late John D. Macdonald was writing then: environmentalists vs. greedy developers (and the politicians who were often in their pockets). In those days, business held the upper hand, and it would have been inconceivable for an environmentalist to be elected chair of the county commission. Jon Thaxton is living proof that times have changed. Thaxton, 46, grew up exploring the then-wild prairies of South Sarasota. After high school, he started selling real estate, but also taught himself biology, studied endangered scrub jays and helped bring more Sarasota land into public ownership.

When he ventured into politics, initially serving on the planning board, his reputation for environmental activism put some leaders off, but he soon won respect for his intelligence, integrity and ability to work with competing groups. Meanwhile, businesses, recognizing that Sarasota's environment is key to its economy, were turning greener themselves. Today, Thaxton has a broad-based constituency, and though he spends most spare time reading land-use law, he still gets outside to kayak and run 25 miles a week. In his office hangs a satellite map of Sarasota with a silver-dollar-sized green splatter. "That's 100,000 acres of open space that's preserved forever," he beams. "You can see that blob from the space shuttle, and we own it."

In an age that adulates pop stars and quarterbacks, our city has a real hero. In his Saturday column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Rich Brooks, 51, writes with quiet courage and buoyant good humor about living with his wife, two teen-age sons, and an inexorable disease called ALS (or Lou Gehrig's disease).

In 1979, Brooks was forging a career in photography and social journalism. Since 1995, his condition has robbed him of his legs, arms, and much of his voice. While many victims succumb within five years of respiratory failure, a recent tracheotomy and ventilator that enable Brooks to breathe have bought him more time.

The disease hasn't stolen his sense of humor, or the thoughts that wait until his wife or sons can type the columns he dictates (a process that can take days.) "I'll work until they pry my cold, dead fingers off the keyboard," jokes Brooks, who started at the paper in 1987.

He writes about serious topics, including the ban on stem cell research, which could abate ALS. But mainly, he weaves the daily battle of living with his disability into stories of family life-getting teens to do chores, holiday shopping in a mall. He accepts occasional speaking (or "slurring," as he calls it) engagements, and while he misses the newsroom, he maintains, "Not many people are as lucky as I am."

In 1979, when Nick Bollettieri was coaching some of the brightest future stars of tennis at his year-old, obscure little Bradenton academy, Martina Navratilova had probably never heard of the school or the city. Having escaped a fascist regime in her native Czechoslovakia just four years earlier, she was reigning over the world of women's tennis as its No. 1-ranked player.

Today Navratilova is one of the many tennis stars who, thanks both to the fame of Bollettieri's school, now IMG Academies, and the city's increasing international cachet, have discovered Sarasota. While most are young players who train and live here briefly, in 2003, Navratilova bought a home on Casey Key. Her candid, down-to-earth personality and joy in her sport have made her one of the game's most beloved legends. With her remarkable physicality and powerful serve, she racked up 167 tournament singles wins and more than $20 million in prize money during her career, becoming the all-time singles champion at Wimbledon. To the delight of fans, in 1999, she stormed out of retirement, playing-and winning-women's doubles at major tournaments. When she's not slugging it out at Grand Slams, Navratilova occasionally surfaces, with a friendly smile, at local hang-outs from Bath & Racquet to the Evalyn Sadlier YMCA.

Much of Sarasota's magic comes from the constant influx of newcomers, who bring their talents and leave their touch on a town known for its fluid, welcoming social structure. A recent arrival is Geoffrey Owens, 43, best known for playing Bill Cosby's hapless son-in-law, Elvin Tibideaux, on the TV series The Cosby Show from 1986-1992. Owens joined the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in 2003. Along with teaching first-year students, he recently directed the Conservatory's version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

Though his position officially will last just a year, Owens, his wife and their four-and-a-half-year-old son are enjoying their home in north Sarasota and would "like to stay as long as possible," he says. "I love Sarasota."

In 1979, Owens graduated from high school in Brooklyn and entered Yale, where he earned a degree in English literature and theater studies. Since then he has worked as an actor, director and teacher at theaters and schools around the country. A card-carrying member of Sarasota's Jungle Gardens ("My son loves Jungle Gardens," he says), Owens often relaxes by lounging behind Cà d'Zan on the bay, where visitors occasionally recognize him from the TV show. "Considering that I have a pretty full beard right now, that's surprising," he says. "Usually, it's the voice that gives me away."

For decades, Sarasota attracted quiet, retired Midwestern couples, who used their pensions and the profits from selling their businesses to buy pretty ranch homes and country club memberships. But in the last five years or so, some world-famous celebrities, from Jerry Springer to Jon Bon Jovi, have discovered the city's seaside seclusion. They may fly in for only a few weeks, but their Sarasota retreats are lavish and luxuriously equipped-like the Casey Key estate suspense author Stephen King purchased for $8.9 million in 2001.

Today the site of back-to-back waterfront mansions, Casey Key has changed enormously since 1979, when it still had a rustic, beachy tone. King's come a long way, too. In 1979, he had just followed up his first thriller, Carrie, with The Dead Zone, and the world was starting to realize there was a major new talent on the scene. Today, at 55, he's written some 90 short stories, 41 novels and 43 of his works have been adapted for film and TV.

Still suffering from injuries from a near-fatal automobile accident several years ago, King avoids fanfare and keeps a low local profile, though he's surfaced at movies and events like a Rodney Crowell concert. But Sarasota has already found its way into a story he wrote for Esquire, and fans hope to see more local color in future works.

Who could have dreamed 25 years ago that white-bread Sarasota would become a haven for immigrants from all over the Caribbean and Latin America? But it has; from 1990 to 2000, Hispanics in Sarasota County tripled, from 5,882 to 14,142-surpassing the number of African-Americans-and adding new energy and flavors to the city. Among those who have brought their dreams and determination is Alfredo Loza.

Loza, 38, was a teen-ager in Guadalajara, Mexico, 25 years ago. In 1984, seeking work, he came to the United States and In Newport Beach, Calif., saw a "help wanted" sign above a restaurant. He was hired on the spot, and under the tutelage of a grandmotherly Italian chef ("She would start pushing me, 'do this, do that'") began his education in cooking. Ten years later he moved to Aspen, Colo., where he met restaurateur Tommy Klauber. In 1997, he followed Klauber back to Sarasota to work at Pattigeorge's on Longboat Key. Loza says the abundance of fresh fish here inspires the daily menus he and Klauber brainstorm, and he loves experimenting with Asian flavors. He's just become a naturalized American citizen, and his second daughter was born in Sarasota.

"This is my home now," says Loza. He gestures around the restaurant and jokes: "This is my second home. I live here."-

If you've ever admired those icons of a seaside resort, sun-bronzed lifeguards perching high above the beach, be aware they're more than beach candy. Last year, 30 full-time lifeguards oversaw some 3.6 million people at Sarasota's six public beaches, making 126 swimming rescues in all.

Scott Montgomery, 44, has been guarding local lives since 1982, when, three years out of Central Michigan University, he fled freezing winters and the Rust Belt recession for Sarasota. A competitive swimmer most of his life, he still loves the job today.

"A lot of guys are making it a profession," says Montgomery. "Who wouldn't want to come to the beach every day and get paid for it?"

Still, this is not your typical summer job. To qualify for service in Sarasota County, applicants must complete a half-mile run in four minutes, a 500-meter swim in 10. Plus, additional lifesaving and CPR training are required. For their trouble, they receive $10.52 an hour working 9-5 shifts to staff beaches seven days a week, except from Memorial Day through Labor Day, when guards stay on until 7 p.m. Like Montgomery, most are mature, with an average age of 35 and an average of eight years on the job. And these days, says Montgomery, they get more respect: "The public attitude towards lifeguards has changed."

One thing Sarasota had never been was a college town; but in 1965, a small, liberal arts school stressing independent thinking and study opened on the bayfront. By 1981, when anthropologist Tony Andrews started teaching there, New College had become a center of intellectual-and counterculture-life, with its brainy, often barefooted students and top professors from around the country.

Andrews, now 54, arrived straight from grad school at the University of Arizona. He relishes the personal interaction New College's small classes permit; over the years he's taught everything from Andean Prehistory to Primate Evolution and Behavior and watched his students go on to business and academic distinction. An expert in Mayan archaeology, he's done extensive research in the Yucatan in Mexico, and says even when he's not there, he's often mentally living in the "very complex, ancient world" of the ancient Mayans.

Andrews' father was an archaeologist and he grew up partly in Mexico with his brother (also an archaeologist), while receiving his education in the states. The ancient Mayans have lessons for modern times, he says. "Here was a culture wiped out by too many people, not enough resources, and bad environmental management," he says.

In a town full of newcomers, it's becoming rare to find old-timers steeped in all the place's traditions. Luckily, we have Mayor Lou Ann Palmer. Since moving here as a child in 1948, she grew up swinging from the trapezes of the Sailor Circus, playing the French horn in the then part-amateur Florida West Coast Symphony, and treading the boards of the Players in an early production of Carousel.

Palmer spent a few years shivering in Ann Arbor, Mich., while attending college before returning to Sarasota, which she firmly says she never considered leaving again. A longtime social studies teacher at Sarasota High, she headed into community affairs at the urging of her students and the man she calls her mentor, the late Sarasota statesman David Cohen. She joined the planning board in 1973, and in 1982, launched her first run for the city commission, where she served nine years before stepping back to care for her ill mother. By 2001, she was back on the commission, where she's finishing up her third term as mayor.

At 65, she still can-and does-stand on her head, which she recently did for a charity auction. And she's not ruling out running again in 2005. "I have as much energy as when I was a kid," she says, "and I really love what I'm doing."

Sarasota is home to one of the largest Mennonite communities in the South; most discovered the city in the time-honored way, on vacation from Northern winters. But 25 years ago, Martin Lehman came to Sarasota from a post as pastor of a Tampa church to serve as general secretary of the Southeast Mennonite Conference. Lehman, 77, has always been eager to educate people about the Mennonite faith. "Most people don't know the complexity of relationships" between the different branches of the Mennonite faith, he says, and they frequently confuse it with the Amish religion as well. "They'll say, 'You're a Mennonite? Where's your beard?'" he says.

During his career, Lehman worked to spread the gospel in the Hispanic community and among African-Americans. ("The largest Mennonite congregation in Tampa right now is African-American," he says.) At last count there were 14 different Mennonite congregations in Sarasota alone, he adds, ranging from very conservative to more progressive.

Now living in retirement at Sunnyside Village, Lehman is writing a book about the history of Mennonites in the Southeast; he hopes to have it finished by his 80th birthday. He also sings in the choir at Bahia Vista Mennonite Church and entertains as part of Sunnyside's clown troupe, which visits nursing homes in the community. "I happen to be the hobo," he says.

Stylish Ana Molinari has clients booking far ahead for appointments at her salons on Longboat Key and Palm Avenue, but 25 years ago, she was an aspiring hairdresser from Peru, living in a tiny apartment on Siesta Key Beach with her husband and their four-year-old daughter. They shared a bicycle, washed their clothes at a laundromat, and ate a lot of fish, which was plentiful and free. She worked 12-hour workdays six days a week, cleaning houses, waiting tables and cutting hair, accumulating clients and money until she saved enough to buy a salon on Siesta Key.

The work paid off; as well as her salons, Molinari opened a bridal boutique in October 2002, and lives in a 1926 house on seven wooded lots close to the Ringling Museum where her brood, which includes three grandchildren, often gathers. But she still cleans the bathrooms, likes to shop thrift stores on Sundays and never leaves home with a bed unmade. America rewards that work ethic, she says. In Peru, her family, mostly doctors and chemists, discouraged her desire to do hair. She earned a teaching degree, but when she visited Washington, D.C., and decided to stay, she turned to her first love.

"Here, you do what you love to do," says Molinari. "My passion is beauty; I can see what a person needs just by looking at them."

Growing up in India, Kumar Mahadevan was excited by reading about Mote Marine Laboratory and its research in faraway Sarasota, so it was a dream come true when Mote hired him as a scientist in 1978, right after he earned his doctorate from Florida State University. By 1989, Mahadevan had risen to the rank of executive director, where he now supervises a staff of 144 employees and 1,500 volunteers.

Mahadevan explains that his parents wanted him to become a chemical engineer, but reading the books of Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau set him on another path-towards marine biology. During his 25 years with Mote, he's spearheaded research programs that have added to our knowledge of the world's vast oceans and their inhabitants-especially in the areas of shark and dolphin research and red tide-and he's proved adept at winning popular-and political-support for his institution.

Even while recuperating from recent bypass surgery, Mahadevan bubbled over with enthusiasm for the adopted hometown where his three sons were born, and the Mote staff members he has come to think of as family.

"Who would want to leave Sarasota?" he asked. "It's paradise."

Sarasota is no Silicon Valley, but it does have a growing population of high-tech innovators and entrepreneurs. Among the most successful: 44-year-old Norm Worthington. Sitting on the deck of his 106-foot yacht, Grand Cru, he looks every inch the self-assured, multi-millionaire entrepreneur.

But he modestly credits "luck, timing and a modicum of hard work and talent" for his success. Mainly, he says, he's a family man. Family is why he was a student at New College 25 years ago-his beloved grandfather had retired here-and family brought him back 11 years ago, when his wife, Susan, also a New College grad, became pregnant with their first child and they decided Sarasota should be home.

Worthington started his first technology company when he was in law school in Oregon. He went on to found several companies that developed some of the most successful software in the world, including Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and Chessmaster. Now, in addition to laying plans to spend three years sailing around the world with his wife and two children, Worthington acts as a "gentleman investor" on several projects and sits on the foundation board at New College. There's nothing, he says, like stepping off a plane into Sarasota: "You get hit by waves of heat and humidity. It smells different. The light is different. And it just feels like home."

Twenty-five years ago, James McManemon Jr., was pledging a fraternity at the University of Florida, working part-time at the Holiday Inn. By 1985, he was managing a resort in Naples. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel had just opened there-raising the international profile of Naples and helping to kick off the gold rush of visitors and newcomers that has transformed that city-and he started taking his staff there to observe operations. One day, a friend asked him: "if you're so fond of the place, why don't you join them?"

McManemon took up the challenge and interviewed with the general manager of that Ritz. He spent the next 15 years traveling around the world opening Ritz-Carlton hotels from Bali to Osaka. In December of last year, he joined the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota-which, like its Naples counterpart, signaled a new level of sophistication and prosperity for the city when it opened in 2001. Now, he's general manager of a domain that includes not just the 266-room hotel, but the Residences at Ritz-Carlton, the new Beach Club, spa, four dining outlets and the planned Ritz Carlton Golf Course.

"This is not just a first-rate hotel, but it's quickly becoming one of the most complex properties in the Ritz-Carlton system," says McManemon. And that's fine with him. "I came here to create excellence," he says.

When Gwendolyn Tosé-Rigell was growing up all over the country (her father was in the military) she never dreamed she'd be standing by the President of the United States on one of the most fateful days in American history. But the 10-year principal of Booker Elementary School watched the world change when President Bush, who was reading to her students to promote literacy, was informed that planes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York.

Everybody's favorite babysitter as a teen, Tosé-Rigell earned a degree in social work. But a year out of college, she filled in a card from a magazine soliciting people from sociology backgrounds to study education, and she switched careers. Her teaching career took her to Colorado and Virginia and included work in multi-cultural education and developing new programs for gifted students. When she was recruited to come to Sarasota, she balked, unsure about living in the South, but a drive over the Ringling Causeway and an introduction to the cultural offerings here changed all that. She says her front row seat to history on 9-11 changed her perspective.

"As beautiful as Sarasota is, it's still vulnerable," says Tosé-Rigell. "From day to day, moment to moment, celebrate all you have. Because once the moments are gone, you can never get them back."

Sarasota may be getting more glamorous every year, but the classic trailer-park lifestyle keeps going strong. Retired snowbirds still flock here at the first sign of Northern winters, settling into tidy parks where time-honored activities provide fellowship and fun. Just ask 90-year-old Katherine Hazard, who for two decades has spent her winters at Sun 'N' Fun RV Resort on Fruitville Road.

Hazard was born and raised in Michigan and still spends summers in her Muskegon home. Twenty-one years ago, her brother and his wife, who spent their winters in Sarasota, persuaded Hazard and her husband to come down. They fell in love with the place, bought a model at Sun 'N' Fun, and returned every winter. Hazard's husband died in 1988, but she continued coming. For the past two decades, she's served as secretary to the park's activities director.

Hazard leads an active life at Sun 'N' Fun, playing bingo every Tuesday and Thursday. "I use the fitness room occasionally, though not as much as I should," she says. She attends the barbecue dinners at the park twice a month, and heads down to the park dances on Saturday nights to pay the band and pick up the money from the ticket sales.

"It's a wonderful place to live," she says. "I don't think there's a more active park in the state of Florida."

Sarasota is known for its cultural institutions, and few are better-known or longer-running than the Asolo Theatre, now in its 45th season of productions. The same could be said for one of its most popular actors, Bradford Wallace, who performed his first full season of rotating repertory at the Asolo in 1967 and remains active today. The late 1970s were "halcyon days," he says, when the town really got behind the once-struggling theater, with the formation of the Asolo Angels and ticket sales at nearly 100 percent. "People think we've only done a conservative repertory here," he says, "but in the 1970s we were putting brand-new plays onstage," including John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, which boasted one of Wallace's all-time favorite roles as would-be songwriter Artie Shaughnessy. He points to the Asolo's Art as a "brilliant play" that kept the cast eager to come to the theater every night. Brad and his stage manager wife, Marian, have raised three children here, and he still loves the small-town feeling.

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