HISTORIC ASOLO THEATER

A return to glory for Sarasota's grand jewel

Sarasota Herald Tribune, Last modified: June 25, 2006 12:00AM. By CHARLIE HUISKING


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Performances in the newly restored Historic Asolo Theater won't begin until October. But on Thursday, the theater itself will receive a standing ovation.

Hundreds of guests will gather on the Historic Asolo stage inside the theater's new home, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art visitors' pavilion. When the curtains part, they will be among the first to see the results of a two-year restoration and reinstallation.

For longtime residents in the audience, the view of the richly ornamented, horseshoe-shaped 18th-century Italian theater will be familiar.

For decades, the Historic Asolo, then located in a 1950s building elsewhere on the museum grounds, was the focal point of Sarasota's cultural life. The Asolo Theatre Company performed there for almost 30 years before moving in 1989 to its current home, the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.

The Sarasota Opera Company had its roots there, as did the La Musica chamber-music festival. And long before art-house films and foreign movies could be rented at the corner video store, they were screened in the theater's Monday-night movie series.

The Historic Asolo is often referred to as a jewel-box theater. But audiences have never seen it sparkle as it does now, in freshly painted colors of crimson, gold, silver and mint green.

During the restoration, years of grime were cleared from the proscenium arch that frames the stage, and from the 72 painted pine-wood panels that make up the curving interior of the three-tiered, 260-seat theater.

Hundreds of ornamental pieces that had deteriorated were recast. The ruby-like medallions, the carved smiling suns, wreaths and musical lyres, the vivid paintings of flowers springing out of their carved gold-leaf baskets -- all now clamor for the audience's attention.

"The theater is a work of art in itself," said Dwight Currie, curator of theater programming for the museum. "It deserved its own opening night. And it's best viewed from the stage. That's why we're having everyone gather there."

Constructed in a castle

The theater was constructed in 1798, inside a castle in Asolo, an Italian hill town near Venice.

The castle was once the home of Caterina Cornaro, an exiled queen of Cypress. Her portrait graces the front of what was the theater's royal box, flanked by decorative gold and silver ornaments. On the panels nearby are drawings of Italian writers and poets, including Dante and Petrarch.

The great actress Eleonora Duse performed in the Asolo in 1885, and the poet Robert Browning, an Asolo resident, was enchanted by the theater.

But eventually, it came to be viewed as an over-decorated relic of an earlier time. In 1930, the interior pieces were dismantled and sold to a Venetian antique dealer, Adolph Loewi.

The panels remained in storage for two decades, until A. Everett "Chick" Austin, the Ringling's first curator, purchased them for the museum in 1950 for $8,000.

A friend of Loewi's, Austin had learned of the theater's existence years earlier. "I yearned to own it, and never forgot how beautiful it was," Austin said.

A brilliant, charismatic man, Austin was regarded as one of America's foremost museum directors. He once told a Sarasota reporter that "The function of a museum is more ... than merely showing pictures ... The museum is the place to integrate the arts and bring them alive."

To that end, he opened the theater in 1952 in the museum's auditorium with a performance of two comic operas, "Bastien et Bastienne" and "La Serva Padrona."

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune called the evening "the most artistic, most interesting and most colorful gala night in the history of Florida, as well as Sarasota."

By the time the theater was reinstalled in its own building behind the museum in 1958, Austin had died. But the museum's new director, Kenneth Donahue, staged an opening night that would have delighted his predecessor.

Julius Rudel, conductor of the New York City Opera, came to Sarasota to conduct a performance of Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio," featuring the great tenor of the day, Robert Rounseville.

A post-performance celebration at Cą d'Zan, the Ringlings' mansion on the museum grounds, featured circus acts and fireworks over the bay. Life magazine covered the event in a multi-page photo spread.

Attending the performance that night was the widow of Josef Turnau, the founder of a New York chamber-opera company. Thanks to that connection, the Turnau Opera Company would perform in the Historic Asolo for 13 years, until the founding of the Asolo Opera Company, the forerunner of today's Sarasota Opera.

Florida State University's theater department presented student productions in the museum throughout the 1950s. In 1960, FSU founded a summertime theater program in the Historic Asolo. The year-round, professional Asolo Theatre Company was established in 1966.

Saving a treasure

After the Asolo Theatre Company moved to its new home in 1989, the Historic Asolo was used for lectures and other museum educational programs. The backstage area and part of the stage were converted into storage space for artwork, making further performances impossible.

The theater, and the building that housed it, continued to deteriorate. Citing safety concerns, the museum, which by that time was operated by FSU, closed the building in 2001.

But thanks in part to the interest of then-FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, who had attended many plays in the Historic Asolo, the restoration of the theater became one of the elements in a new museum master plan.

The process began with the cleaning and disassembly of the theater by Evergreene Painting Studios, a firm that worked on the restoration of Broadway's New Amsterdam Theatre.

Beginning in 2004, four panels at a time were delivered to the museum's conservation lab for restoration. Conservator Michelle Scalera and her assistants, David Piurek and Shay Sampson, spent the next two years working meticulously on the project.

Scalera feels particularly close to the Historic Asolo. Back in 1984, when a Ringling director raised questions about the authenticity of the theater pieces, Scalera investigated, and determined that most panels were indeed centuries old. In her report, Scalera urged that the theater be restored.

"Michelle's spirit and passion have been the glue that has held this project together," said Jack Whelan, manager and owner's representative for all of the construction projects at the Ringling museum. "I think her enthusiasm has been infectious; it's helped everyone work at their highest level."

"I love this theater," Scalera said, speaking over the noise of a construction crew in the orchestra level earlier this month.

"I'm thrilled with the integrity with which this project has been carried out. It needed to be a restoration of the highest quality, out of respect for Chick Austin and his vision.

"And I can't help but think how pleased John Ringling would have been to see this. It doesn't compete with the things he did, but it complements them."

Vintage theater, modern setting

Audiences will enter the restored theater from the main lobby of the visitors' pavilion, an $11 million, contemporary-style structure that opened earlier this year (the restoration of the theater itself cost $300,000, and an additional $200,000 was spent on equipment).

Museum visitors will be able to tour the theater beginning later this summer, but plans aren't definite yet.

A grand-opening gala performance will be held Oct. 6, featuring opera singers Susan Graham, Kristin Clayton and Jake Heggie.

Several local groups, including the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and the Artist Series of Sarasota, will be performing there during the fall and winter.

And fittingly, the Asolo Theatre Company will present a one-man show in the theater. Even the Monday movie series is coming back.

The theater won't look exactly the way it did before. The seating in the three tiers that surround the orchestra is no longer partitioned into boxes. That may have been cozy, but some audience members had to look around posts to see the stage. "The sightlines will be much better now," Currie said.

The theater will have comfortable dressing rooms and a loading dock, two features it lacked before. While the building design and budget didn't allow for a so-called "fly system" to accommodate complicated sets, the stage itself is larger than before, and there's more room backstage too.

Marty Petlock, a former lighting director for the Asolo Theatre Company, was blown away during his recent visit to the restored theater.

"It's just breathtaking," said Petlock, now technical production manager for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

"I think back to those times (in the 1990s) when I saw the theater deteriorating, looking so sad and forlorn. To see it now -- well, it does my heart good. I just glow when I look at it."

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