Town Chronicle

VT continues to be “the little theater that wouldn’t die”




TOP: The front of the Venice Theatre and its tower, where it still stands today at 140 W. Tampa Ave. in downtown Venice. BOTTOM: A glimpse of the back of the main Jervey Theatre as it stands today, under construction but still exposed to all of the elements after Hurricane Ian caused catastrophic damage in 2022. MICHELLE KENNER / TOWN CHRONICLE

TOP: The front of the Venice Theatre and its tower, where it still stands today at 140 W. Tampa Ave. in downtown Venice. BOTTOM: A glimpse of the back of the main Jervey Theatre as it stands today, under construction but still exposed to all of the elements after Hurricane Ian caused catastrophic damage in 2022. MICHELLE KENNER / TOWN CHRONICLE

When you think of a building that stands out in the community of Venice as an icon, certainly the Venice Theatre’s prominent tower in the heart of downtown comes to mind. When traveling southbound on U.S. 41 at the bypass, heading over the bridge, you’d be hard-pressed to miss it.

When that facility opened in the 1970s, the local media — rather prophetically, in hindsight — christened the organization “the little theater that wouldn’t die.”

Venice Theatre is very much alive and active, but its resilience was tested after being bludgeoned by Hurricane Ian in September 2022. The storm left a gaping hole in the rear of the building that, while well under construction, is still open to the elements.

The storm couldn’t have happened at a worse — or perhaps better — time, depending on how you look at it.

Just as COVID was hitting in 2020, the theater members had already realized they were starting to feel growing pains and needed to expand. They started out on a capital campaign to acquire the surrounding properties. They had just completed one phase of that construction when the hurricane crossed paths and damaged the older buildings, leaving the new portions unharmed.

 

 

Leading that capital campaign was Camille Cline, recently promoted to director of advancement. Her new role is to help raise awareness and funds to renovate the three-building campus.

There is still much work to be done to fix the hole, rebuild the entire stage house and rehabilitate the Jervey Theatre, which is the main stage. But she is up to the challenge.

After all, Venice Theatre has stood the test of time for more than 70 years.

It started as a little theater production being run by volunteers, working out of a hot and humid hangar at Venice Airport in 1950. By the 1970s, it was clear that it was time for a change of venue.

When it opened for the first time in 1973 at its current location — 140 W. Tampa Ave. on the island of Venice — it was called the Venice Little Theatre. The new venue, able to seat 286 patrons, opened to a full house for its production of “Li’l Abner” — and sold a record 1,400 subscriptions that year.

Volunteers and staff members like Melissa Cripps, Donor Services Coordinator, have adapted and are used to being surrounded by the chaos that has come from the renovations after Hurricane Ian.

Volunteers and staff members like Melissa Cripps, Donor Services Coordinator, have adapted and are used to being surrounded by the chaos that has come from the renovations after Hurricane Ian.

To date, Venice Theatre is the second largest community theater in the United States. That means every person you see on stage — singing, dancing, acting, as well as the costume designers, organizers, ushers and set designers — are composed primarily of volunteers, many of whom have a regular “day jobs.” Venice Theatre’s volunteer base is more than 1,300 strong. They are there, some daily, to help with each and every production, motivated purely by their unwavering love of theater.

“Venice Theatre is the heart of the arts in our region.” Cline said. “It is a privilege to serve this venerated theater, and I am excited to build upon this substantial foundation heading into the next 75 years.”

With hundreds of classes, shows, black box performances, concerts, musicals still being performed, you can only imagine the chaos behind the scenes. Theater performers are inherently flexible and are finding ways to make the best of the situation. When you walk through the backstage areas now, you see that they are cramped into small spaces and how everything is compartmentalized.

Earlier this month, Venice Theatre held its production of Jimmy Buffet’s “Escape to Margaritaville” in the Carole Freeland Raymond Center, where the capacity is only 142 — a far cry from the Jervey Theatre’s 286. Yet, you’ll never hear them complain. In fact, even some of their youngest performers are still singing their praises.

“Venice Theatre has been a home for me since I was 5 years old,” said Van Dinverno, a teen actor who appeared recently in the productions of “The Addams Family” and “A Christmas Carol.” “I’ve literally grown up there participating in classes, after-school programs, summer camps and many shows. With every class or show that I have done, I’ve been taught by intelligent and interesting people that understand how to help you become the best person and performer you can be. During these programs, I’ve met other young teens and performers like me with whom I’ve formed strong bonds because Venice Theater is a real and positive community.”

The theater has a very small staff who are embracing the new routines and trying to find the silver lining after the storm. For one — thanks to quick responses from staff and volunteers — they were able to salvage many of the props, costumes and set pieces, which have been cleaned and now can be sorted and organized.

According to Production Manager John M. Andzulis, in the new technical arts center, they “are finding advantages to the disadvantages.”

“It makes moving ahead faster,” he explained. “We can assemble the scenery in the paint room exactly how it will be on stage, which allows the performers to practice in that space. And we can find any problems earlier.”

If the theater is the heart of downtown Venice, then the community is its heartbeat.

While much progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. There are many needs, some great and some small. From naming opportunities to equipment needs, Venice Theatre is asking the community if it is willing to help. If you are interested in following along with the construction or want to get involved, email Camille Cline at camille@venicetheatre.net or see www.venicetheatre.org.

For now, the tower is resilient and is still standing tall — just like the pride of those who call Venice Theatre home. While the hurricane tore buildings apart, it seems also to have brought an entire community together. The observation still rings true all these decades later: VT remains the theater that wouldn’t die.

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