Arts center director ready for his next act

Patrick McDermott is retiring after more than a decade as director of the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel. “I’ve been looking forward to it, but it’s bittersweet,” he says.

MICHELE MILLER | Times

Patrick McDermott is retiring after more than a decade as director of the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel. “I’ve been looking forward to it, but it’s bittersweet,” he says.

WESLEY CHAPEL — Theater etiquette 101: Be respectful to your neighbors in the seats around you and to the theater building, too. But be sure to give special reverence to the performers coming on stage because soon the curtains will part and you won't want to miss a thing.

Now on with the show.

For 14 years, that was the gist of Patrick McDermott's welcoming spiel, a kind of mind-your-manners directive delivered from the side of the stage to settle antsy youngsters wriggling with anticipation in well-padded seats.

That vantage was likely the best perk for McDermott, 66, who recently retired as managing director of the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel, one of two theaters operated by the Pasco County school district.

"To see these kids coming in for the first time is really something else," McDermott said. "Their eyes are just wide and they all have these big grins on their faces."

McDermott caught the bug for entertainment and the arts when he was a kid living in Rutland, Vt. His mother, a concert pianist, taught him how to play. His grandparents owned a nightclub on Lake Bomoseen that brought the likes of Red Skelton and a trumpet player called Harry James who along with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker influenced McDermott's love for jazz.

The family moved to Florida and McDermott went on to study composition with renowned composers Larry Austin, James Lewis and John Boda, securing bachelor's and master's degrees in composition and instrumental music from Florida State University and the University of South Florida.

To date, he has more that 100 compositions under his belt — jazz, chamber music, orchestral works, popular music and a few instrumental ditties he co-wrote with fellow composer John Esak for the television series Sesame Street and the musical comedy Jabberwocky.

His career has included a variety of stints both in and out of the school system — music teacher, band director, composer, big band trumpeter and 14 years spent working all aspects of the retail business to support his small family. That collective experience ended up serving him well when he took the job as managing director when Wesley Chapel High was the new school in town and the adjacent theater was a construction site with a dirt floor. There he lent a few of his personal touches such as the enlarged album covers of his favorite jazz artists displayed in the theater lobby and the sound system retrofit he oversaw two years into the gig.

"I wanted it to have the same kind of feel as the Straz Center ... I wanted something that professional actors and musicians would be comfortable performing in," McDermott said. "I think we did a pretty good job. Teachers, students — anyone who walks into this place — they realize right away that this is not just a high school auditorium. It has a whole different ambiance."

The Jonas Brothers have played there. The Florida Orchestra, too, along with the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus, The Stinky Cheese Band, U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note aka the President's Jazz Orchestra and Arturo Sandoval, a famed trumpet player who defected from Cuba and joined Dizzy Gillespie's band. That performance came as a package deal that included an evening concert for the public and a daytime concert for students with a question and answer session with the living legend sharing his life's story while sitting on the edge of the stage. Add to that, working with teachers of the arts from surrounding schools to make sure lights and sound worked perfectly for the choral and band concerts, drama productions, film festivals and talent shows starring students from local schools.

Count them up and it averages to about 250 events a year.

Ask McDermott for his favorites and he easily rattles off a dozen or so from the educational series he holds dear, mostly because of how they resonated with students, bringing a broader scope to the classroom curriculum for the price of a $4 ticket.

Among them: A Dallas Children's Theatre presentation about the Holocaust called Then They Came For Me; another called Inca Son, featuring music of the Andes performed by Peruvian musicians; MatheMagic! featuring magician Bradley Fields, and a performance by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, a member of Steely Dan's touring lineup since 2003 who came to play with accomplished keyboard player Gary Versace.

"That was pretty darned cool," McDermott said.

"Patrick is a visionary," said Rebecca Musselman, the fine arts program coordinator of Pasco County schools. "He's very caring, very collaborative with working with our arts teachers. He did wonderful things for our outreach programs, leaving a lasting mark that we will always remember."

And, it turns out, he's hard to replace.

His position was recently advertised for the third time, said Musselman, who during McDermott's last week on the job was still interviewing potential candidates while he mingled with Wesley Chapel High drama students who presented him with an honorary video montage.

During his first week of retirement, McDermott was wrestling with mixed feelings about what comes next.

"I've been looking forward to it, but it's bittersweet," he said. "Fourteen years is a long time. I have a strong sense of proprietorship."

Retirement opens the door to picking up that trumpet and composing new music on the high-tech computer software he plans to invest in. And he'll have more leisure time with his wife, Caryn, a former Pasco school administrator.

Whatever he does, he's sure to carry with him the wonder captured on the faces of the thousands of students who sat in his theater.

Arts center director ready for his next act 03/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 7:00pm]

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