Historic Bradenton theatre makes way for new facility

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BRADENTON - A dream some people called impossible is about to come true. When the Manatee Players began building its new theatre complex in 2006, they declared it would be pay as we go. They'd build it piece by piece as they raised the money. Some feared it would never be finished, but construction will be complete by the end of this month.

When the Manatee Players opened in the old Riverfront Theatre, Dwight Eisenhower was president, the Korean War was just winding down, and next door where Bradenton City Hall now stands was just an orange grove.

It has served its purpose well, but the time has come to say goodbye to the old and hello to the new.

The Riverfront Theatre was built in 1953, and 60 years ago the first play, “I Remember Mama", took the stage. "And back then there was no heat, no central air, they had jalousie glass doors and windows, and if it got hot, you cranked open the jalousie glass and hoped for a breeze, and if it was cold you wore a coat," says Denny Miller, marketing manager at Manatee Players.

An actor was once shot there. “We had rented the theatre to an acting company, and they were using what they thought was a prop gun in their show, but it turned out it was a real gun, and it was loaded. And they fired and nicked the gentlemen's ear," says Miller.

And back when you could still smoke there, there was a fire. "Someone accidentally dropped a cigarette down between the floorboards in the scene shop, and there was a little fire under the floor backstage."

The building holds a lot of memories for Miller. "I've been performing at this building since 1982. I've done over 60 shows here at the Riverfront Theatre."

But reminders of the old memories will be preserved. "A lot of the old photographs will be reset, rehung, reframed. Even some of the old scripts, even pieces of the building, the actual concrete itself. Behind stage people loved to sign the wall, so portions of back wall will be coming over here on display," says executive director Janene Witham.

And the advantages of the new theatre are enormous. There's room for larger sets and larger casts. "Currently it's very crowded over at the Riverfront, if you get more than 30 people on stage. And here, wonderful opportunity for 50 and 60 members in one cast," says Witham.

The new facility will house two theatres; one seats 343, the other 80…so two productions can run at once. And there's room for large events and educational programs.

The final show in the old building, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, ends with a matinee on March 17th. That evening, some 30 veteran performers from the Manatee Players return for a goodbye tribute called "What We Did For Love". And when the curtain comes down for a final time, there will be a ceremonial retiring of the grand drape.