Van Wezel: 40 years in the purple

Bradenton Herald – Sitting in its shell-like existence besides Sarasota Bay, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall strikes a purplish pose.

As the venue turns 40 this year, the color still manages to turns heads.

“To be purple is a really good thing,” said Mary Bensel, executive director.

At least according to the fashionistas, she joked.

While the Van Wezel has had a series of ups and downs in recent years, with money woes, the bad economy and critics, it has remained a thriving vision in purple.

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Van Wezel is throwing a party with the legendary Tony Bennett, who has frequented the purple hall about a dozen times. He has been known to sell out there, performing an assortment of iconic tunes that include “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “The Good Life.”

If the Van Wezel’s life span was featured on a soundtrack showcased by Bennett, the tracks would include “The Good Life,” “How Insensitive” and “The Best Is Yet To Come.”

Paving the way

The City of Sarasota-run hall, named after benefactors Lewis and Eugenia Van Wezel (pronounced way-zal), opened its doors in January 1970. The grand opening production? The epic “Fiddler on the Roof.”

After that show, an influx of culture followed, entertaining the masses with every sort of showbiz genre one can imagine: music, circus acts, magicians, touring Broadway productions, plays, concerts, panel discussions and dance troupes.

The list goes on and on. One thing for sure, the performances have attracted residents from Manatee, Sarasota and beyond.

One such patron has been Deet Jonker, a former executive producer with New York’s Radio City Music Hall. He enjoyed the venue so much after he moved to the area in 1995 that he served on its board for six years.

“I wanted to help in any way that I could,” he said.

He believes the hall is one of the greatest attractions in the area arts community.

“We have a wonderful arts community, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Van Wezel is the premiere venue in the city, in terms of general audiences,” he said.

It was through the efforts of various area arts organizations in the 1960s that the Van Wezel came to be. Former Sarasota city commissioner and mayor David Cohen championed the cause, according to the book “Performers At The Purple.” A more than $4 million bond referendum was passed in 1964 with money going toward a new city hall and a beach pavilion at Lido Key. The rest — $1.35 million — would be for the construction of a performing arts hall.

There were critics to the idea, though. Curtis W. Haug, who served as managing director during the hall’s early years, wrote in his book, “Performers At The Purple,” that the arts hall was the most controversial item on the referendum ticket — a ticket that passed by a margin of three to two.

“It was such a huge thing that the city got that built,” said Bensel, who has worked at the venue for two years. “(The) Tampa Bay (Performing Arts Center) wasn’t here then and a lot of the performing arts groups weren’t here. So it was a wonderful thing for the city to have done, to build this beautiful purple building on the bay.”

Speaking of that purple building, the venue’s design was actually based on a purple seashell found off the coast of Japan, Bensel said. The color scheme was selected by Olgivanna Wright, wife of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose foundation was associated with the Taliesin Associated Architects. The group who crafted the hall’s design.

Performers at the Hall

What has made the Van Wezel what it is today are the high-profile performers who have entertained here over the years.

Recently, they include actor and musician Kevin Bacon and singer/songwriter Jewel. But who can forget Ray Charles, Liberace, Robert Goulet, Duke Ellington and Steve Martin?

Or the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, Victor Borge, the Osmonds, The Beach Boys, David Copperfield and Stephen King?

Plus Lucille Ball. She’s graced the hall, too. In 1985 to be exact. And Cary Grant. He came in the early 1980s. In fact, he was the one who encouraged Ball to perform at the venue, according to Haug’s book.

Grant’s visit to the hall featured a Q&A with the audience, during which, as Haug records it, “one woman got up and said, ‘Mr. Grant, I used to live in Ridgewood, New Jersey. My husband was a dentist. You had some work done on your teeth in 1934 and you never paid your bill.’ Grant stood up and in true Hollywood-style said, ‘I always pay my bills, madam.’ ”

Area residents have always had sophisticated tastes in the performers they’d flock to see, said longtime Van Wezel patron and supporter Harvey Rothenberg.

The hall even hosted Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who used the venue for his only presidential campaign visit to southwest Florida. That was in 1980.

Bensel said many of the performers who came through fondly remember the hall because, well, it’s purple. And they love the local audiences, too.

They make celebrities such as songstress Linda Eder, who performed at the venue last month, feel at home.

“That makes me feel good,” Bensel said. “It’s a good place to stop on a tour. And we’re always trying to get more performers.”

Overall, the small hall has brought in its share of renowned national and international concerts, musicals and dancers.

It’s also been a home to local arts organizations such as the Sarasota Orchestra, and in the past, the Sarasota Ballet.

Lately, Bensel has been hoping to attract more young adults to a venue that often brings out older residents. That’s why Jewel, the Bacon Brothers and Boys II Men were invited this season.

Retrospect

Deet Jonker said people’s view of the Van Wezel is in constant flux. During its early days, the venue was nicknamed “the purple people-seater” and the unaffectionate “purple cow.”

Once it was refurbished a few years ago with additional seating and a larger stage, appreciation for the venue grew. But not everyone was happy. A few still complained about the limited seating.

The building wasn’t made to be expanded, Jonker said.

Rothenberg would like to see the love for the venue — which has bought so much into the community as far as culture — grow stronger in the future.

“I hope the people will appreciate it,” he said. “I hope the city will appreciate it. I’m not so sure that they really ever did, vis-a-vis education of schoolchildren as well as everything else.”

Meanwhile, Bensel is creating a better Van Wezel brand. A controversial misuse of city funds in 2006 under former executive director John Wilkes and the series of resignations that followed partly tarnished the venue’s image for some time.

In her efforts, Bensel has reduced the city’s subsidy by 65 percent in one year — from $1 million to $350,000. Ticket sales are up by 1,400 over this time last year, she said.

Also, she’s placed a new, purple digital sign on the premises — to attract more audiences.

“You’re only as good in this business as your last season,” Jonker laughed. “If you book it, will they come? So Mary has done extremely well in her booking and most, if not all the shows, are doing well.”

It’s hard for him to say how the venue will be in 10 years time, though, with the economy and such.

“I think it’s important that we maintain our audience levels,” he said. “And hopefully there are enough entertainment entities out there — be they individual talents or groups — that bring an audience in.”

With a star-studded list of performers during the Van Wezel’s first 40 years of life, maybe the trend will continue.

Maybe “The Best Is Yet To Come.”

published Jan. 3, 2010

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2 thoughts on “Van Wezel: 40 years in the purple”

  1. As New Yorkers shopping for a second home in Florida, the Van Wezel was the draw that put Sarasota over the top for us. We have enjoyed our first show there, hopefully many more to follow. This is a great venue, with great acts. Well done, Sarasota!

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