The Francis Wilson Playhouse, 302 Seminole Street, is celebrating its 75th Diamond Anniversary Season. Organized in 1930 as the Little Theatre of Clearwater, the playhouse has a rich history with the city. FWP is one of the oldest, continually operating community theatres in the Southeast.
Who was Francis Wilson? He was born in Philadelphia in 1854, and at the age of ten he was singing and dancing for Union soldiers. His early career ran the gamut from minstrel shows to the circus to vaudeville to stock company. In 1880, Wilson decided to try the New York stage where comic opera and operettas were in vogue. His success as a "creative player" soon enabled him to form his own company.
One hundred twelve actors met in Manhattan in 1913 to found the Actors Equity Association. The union was designed to protect actors from severe mistreatment in the industry at that time. Wilson was asked to serve as President and held office from 1913-1920. Today, Equity has 39,000 members.
Wilson was a winter visitor to Clearwater from 1905 to 1935 and lived in the two-story house that still stands at 400 Osceola Avenue. Here, the Broadway celebrity spent time writing plays and the biographies of famous actors of his day.
The Little Theatre's first cornerstone was laid in1935. However, the grandiose plans were much too costly and were redrawn for a more modest building on a site further west on Seminole Street. A 99-yr. lease was negotiated on the city-owned property. Theatre members raised the needed funds through a variety of activities and did much of the interior finishing.
Wilson had a keen interest in the theatre troupe and was an advisor on the construction of the playhouse. The veteran actor offered to dedicate the new theatre by starring in the first production. Unfortunately, he died in New York in 1935 before opening night at the Francis Wilson Little Theatre on January 7, 1937.
FWP is a not for profit organization supported by annual memberships and ticket sales. The 2004/05 Season consists of 5 plays and 3 musicals - a larger offering than any community theatre in Pinellas County. Approximately 18,000 people annually attend the performances staged by talented volunteers in the 182-seat playhouse.
Ray Kenney, Board of Directors President and General Manager, said, "The old building is expensive to maintain, and the costs of productions, scripts and royalties are rising. Hurricane damage strained the budget this summer. But, we are making every effort to keep ticket prices at a reasonable amount and still break even."
The bluff at the top of Seminole Street is prime waterfront property and has attracted upscale developers. Clearwater Bay Marina, LLC, adjacent to the playhouse, is set to construct two 100-ft. condo towers. South of the marina, Bay View Condominiums is ready for occupancy. Further south on Osceola Avenue, Island View has been approved for condos at a height of over 150-ft.
For many years, Alcoholics Anonymous leased from the city across the street from FWP. In 2003, the organization was cited for failing to upkeep and repair the building and forced to move. The city reclaimed the property. A similar fate may await the playhouse.
Though the lease has a remainder of 30 years, the city has notified the theatre that the area would be used for future redevelopment. The lease could be a deterrent if the city declares the property surplus and opens it to bids by interested buyers. With acquisition of the playhouse lot, the city may choose to market the bluff and the Seminole Street boat ramp. A better choice, for boat owners, would be the refurbishing of the ramp and additional parking.
Kenney said, "The Board of Directors has asked to buy the property from the city. Legally, we feel we have an ironclad lease. In the meantime, we hope to raise funds to purchase a new site as an investment or for the construction of a modern theatre with expanded seating."
Every Equity and non-Equity actor knows the old theatre adage, "The show must go on!" Faced with difficult challenges, Francis Wilson Playhouse intends to keep it "going" for the residents of Clearwater, who support, enjoy and love their theatre.
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