It would seem that at the moment, Sarasota is grappling with its cultural identity. Two camps have arisen and are at constant odds with one another: those wanting to expand and improve upon what Sarasota has to offer, and those who want to preserve as much of the existing culture and infrastructure as possible.

This debate is not unique to our city, nor is it historically unusual. In fact, many of the iconic buildings and organizations that seem inseparable from Sarasota’s identity were once controversial. Of the many examples that never seem to stop making headlines, the Van Wezel likely stands apart.

As the beloved building nears its 50th Anniversary on January 5, 2020, it is both revered for its importance in local history and critiqued for its downfalls in the modern entertainment industry. If the adage is true that history does indeed repeat itself, it would seem beneficial to look closer at how our beloved Purple Cow came to be in the first place.

The plans for our 1,741-seat theater were approved by the City Commission in 1968 to accommodate the explosion in residential population over the first half of the 20th century. Between 1910 and 1970 when the Hall opened, Sarasota’s official residency grew over 4,600%. In the 1910s, entertainment was mostly hosted in bayfront tents at the end of Main Street. By 1930, demand had grown enough to justify building the Edwards Theater, known today as the Sarasota Opera House.

Other venues continued popping up to serve Sarasota’s growing arts community, like the Municipal Auditorium and the Asolo Repertory Theatre. But by the late 1960s, the community and City Commissioners acknowledged a need for a larger, Broadway-style theater. This decision was probably where the consensus ended, however. 

Despite its reputable architect – William Wesley Peters, who went on to chair the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation – there were many disagreements over the design of the Hall. Even the decision to paint the building purple was once highly controversial.

The lavender hue, inspired by two seashells gathered from the Sea of Japan, was chastised as “funereal” and even as an “artistic abuse” in local newspapers. But over a short period of time, the color controversy faded from conversation. In fact, the first managing director of the Van Wezel, Curtis Huag, once said that the distinctive color made the building stand out on Tamiami Trail and that no one would “take a second glance if it was red brick.”

The Hall opened on January 5, 1970, with a sold-out production of Fiddler on the Roof. As attendees mingled in their tuxes and gowns, Sarasota’s Mayor Overton crowned the Van Wezel the “latest gem in the tiara of the city.” Herald Tribune writer Dick Bloom stated that “early comments of derision at its lavender hue” turned into “superlatives of splendor.”

Sarasota can celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall – a huge achievement – while still entertaining the possibility of building a new performing arts facility in the future. We can revere our forebearers for their accomplishments and enjoy the fruits of their labor while acknowledging that with time, change is inevitable.

If our fair city knows anything, it is the concept of “neo-nostalgia.” We are adept at enjoying and respecting our history, as well as incorporating classic themes into new ventures. Details that at first seem jarring and inconsistent with Sarasota’s values can actually end up being enduring landmarks in our collective identity.

In essence, what may be hotly debated now could become a beloved treasure for future generations. The Van Wezel has always been dedicated to providing extraordinary experiences and making memories that can last a lifetime. It is in that spirit that we say “Cheers to the next 50 years!”

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is celebrating its 50th Anniversary Season with a star-studded lineup of performers, returning favorites, world-class classical programs and several Broadway musicals, many of which are Sarasota premieres!

For a full listing of upcoming events including holiday programming, please visit: www.vanwezel.org.

This article was written by Olivia Savage for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Historical research, figures and quotes are courtesy of Compass Rose History Experiences.