The Italian Years
The Sarasota Symphony, Opera, Ballet and the Asolo Rep. Most of them began life in a small, jewel box of a theater whose own life began more than 200 years ago in a small town in Italy. The theater was originally designed and built in 1798 in honor of Queen Caterina Cornaro, the widow of the King of Cyprus, who ruled over Asolo, a small town near Venice, from 1489 until her death in 1510.
Asolo, like Sarasota, was a place that enchanted its visitors, among them the French novelist George Sand and the English poet, Robert Browning. Though the court theater was small, it attracted the great actors of Europe who played there when they toured.
Reconstructed in 1857, the theater – U-shaped with three tiers of boxes, with an architectural plan and scale of construction common in 18th century court theaters – remained in its original setting in the castle until 1930, when it was dismantled and removed, its ornamental panels and decorative elements kept in storage for the next two decades. In its place, a movie theater was built and named for the great star of the age, actress Eleonora Duse, who first performed there in 1885, retired to the town and was later buried there.
A. Everett “Chick” Austin, one of America’s leading experts in the field of Baroque art, had been director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford from 1927 until 1944. There, he had developed a reputation for doing some of the country’s most innovative and visionary work. He had always been interested in theater and when a new wing was planned for the Atheneum he insisted it include a theater; it was on that stage that he appeared in the title role of Hamlet.
When he became the Ringling Museum’s first Director in 1947, he told a Sarasota newspaper: “The function of a museum is more than merely showing pictures… The museum is the place to integrate the arts and bring them alive.” And so he brought the first performing artists to the Ringling, beginning with a organ recital at Ca’ d’Zan and a production of Molière’s School for Husbands in the Museum of Art Courtyard.
Bringing the Historic Asolo Theater to The Ringling
Long aware of the Asolo, Austin was able to purchase the theater’s decorative interior in 1949 from his friend, Venetian art dealer Adolph Loewi. However, Austin’s hope for a new wing to house the theater wasn’t financially feasible at the time so it was installed in the Museum’s auditorium.
It proved an immediate sensation. The opening night black-tie audience saw two short operas by Mozart and Pergolesi. The event drew national attention and praise. Over the next few years, The Historic Asolo Theater presented a great range of programs, from concerts and plays to motion pictures and lectures.
In 1954, plans were made for a separate building that was constructed off the west end of the north wing of Museum of Art. The Theater was installed during 1955 and 56 and completed in 1957.
Sadly, just weeks before the theaters opening in January of 1958, Chick Austin died of cancer. Overseeing the opening fell to his successor, Kenneth Donahue.
He was up to the task. The most coveted publication in America then was LIFE Magazine and Donahue convinced LIFE to cover the event. The post-performance celebration took place at Ca’ d’Zan, and was a spectacular event that had attendees in costume and fireworks exploding from a barge over Sarasota Bay. It was, as one participant observed, an event John Ringling would have loved. From this auspicious opening emerged the city’s most renowned performing arts venue.
A Home for the Performing Arts
Like Austin, Donahue believed that the Museum should be more than a home to the Old Masters collected by John Ringling. Their vision was to make it a center for both the visual and performing arts. By 1963 the Opera was drawing 13,000 people from 32 states and 15 foreign countries.
In 1959, a performance of Clifford Odet’s The Country Girl began to take the theater program that had begun with student productions to a new level and by 1966 the professional Asolo Theater Company was born.
In addition to the winter season of opera and summer season of theater, The Historic Asolo Theater was the stage for a CBS orchestra concert of sacred music in 1965 and films from all over the world were presented there. Even film star Vincent Price turned lecturer for an Historic Asolo Theater appearance.
Time Takes Its Toll
Indeed, while John Ringling’s dream of Sarasota as a major cultural center seemed to be coming true there were problems. The Theater was becoming a victim of its own success. In 1979, the Asolo Opera Company purchased the old Edwards Theater in downtown Sarasota and after extensive renovation opened there in 1983 as the Sarasota Opera. In 1989, the FSU Center for the Performing Arts opened just a few yards away, providing a new home to the Asolo Theater Company, The FSU/Asolo Conservatory and the FSU Film School. After thirty seasons, the tradition of The Historic Asolo Theater as home to resident theater and opera companies was at an end.
Underused and underfunded, the theater required a much-needed restoration and in 2001 safety issues forced it to close to the public.
But the Asolo would not remain in this condition for long. It had survived occupation by Napoleon and dismantlement by Mussolini and it would survive this, thanks largely to the combined efforts of The Ringling dedicated staff and donors who, along with Florida State University administrators, began planning an ambitious program for the renaissance of the entire Ringling estate. Both the state and the public responded generously and plans proceeded.
The dazzling beauty of the original theater was recaptured, the end result of the detailed in-painting, regilding and restoration work done by the conservation team. Now the restored theater, with state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, has taken up residence in its new home in the Visitor Pavilion behind the original Ca’ d’Zan gatehouse.
In 2006, under the leadership of Museum Director John Wetenhall, the curtain rose again and the beautiful palace playhouse was ready to begin its second act, serving, as Chick Austin had promised, “as a brilliant setting for plays, concerts, lectures and motion picture programs that are part of the cultural advantages the Ringling offers to students of the fine arts, and to the public.”