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Francis Wilson Playhouse looks to the past to mark its 75th anniversary

CLEARWATER — If the trees shading the Francis Wilson Playhouse could speak, they might whisper "deja vu."

On June 24, 1935, the Francis Wilson Playhouse's cornerstone dedication ceremony took place in the sultry summer heat. On Thursday, the theater's board members, volunteers, city officials and supporters celebrated the 75th anniversary of that day with a re-enactment of the event.

"We're very proud to celebrate the diamond anniversary of our cornerstone dedication on the same day and same hour that Francis Wilson did 75 years ago," said Sam McClelland, a theater volunteer who was given credit for re-creating the day. "We're so pleased with the community that has supported us all these years."

While the dedication began in the air-conditioned lobby, the group stepped into the sunshine for a special flag raising by the Marine Color Guard, Morris Dixon Chapter.

"We always enjoy doing a flag presentation," said Commander of the Marine Corps Color Guard Wayne Morgan of Largo, Military Order of the Devil Dogs. "We do a lot of memorial services, so it's really a treat to be able to participate in this dedication."

Board members donated the pole and U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis donated the flag, which was accepted by board member Babs Michael and her daughter, Julie Byrd.

Michael is the great-granddaughter and Byrd is the great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Bernard J. Cigrand, credited by many historians as the father of Flag Day.

"This is a great honor," said Byrd, 38, of Tampa. "This is my first flag-raising ceremony involving my grandfather. He did so much work and gave so much time to his country for people to recognize the importance of the symbol of our country."

In June 1886, Cigrand made his first public proposal for the annual observance of June 14 as Flag Day in a story in the old Chicago Argus newspaper. He continued his campaign as editor in chief of American Standard magazine in 1888 and later wrote hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles advocating for Flag Day.

He died in 1932, but President Harry Truman signed legislation in 1949 making June 14 Flag Day.

In addition to the flag, Francis Wilson Playhouse was in the spotlight Thursday. And Clearwater City Councilman George Cretekos acknowledged the importance of the facility in the city, calling it a gem.

"We're so proud of the work that is done," Cretekos said. "Not only for the residents who come to see the plays, but proud of the educational programs that get our youth involved with the theater and to appreciate history."

Back in the old days, Mary Bok's endowment of $5,000 completely built the playhouse.

In recognition of current times, theater officials plan to bury a time capsule with the most recent happenings of the theater. It will include pictures of Thursday's event, a Norman Rockwell drawing of Mary Bok, McClelland's Vietnam War medal and his father's World War II and Korean War medals. Also, St. Petersburg Times articles on the event and two copies of Tampa Bay Magazine listing the playhouse as the 2009 and 2010 pick for Tampa Bay's favorite community theater.

"We can't lay a new cornerstone, so this is the creative way to celebrate and share the day with the community," said Rand Smith of St. Petersburg, 45, the theater's new artistic director.

Another creative touch was having actor Rick Kistner dressed in the garb of 1935 walking around the lobby portraying Francis Wilson.

"The theater will serve two great purposes," Kistner said. "To give an opportunity to gifted people who think they are gifted and are and not-so gifted people who think they are and are not, to express themselves."

Even though the day honored and celebrated the theater's past, some in attendance stayed keenly focused on the theater's future.

Andy Rufo, the theater's newly elected president, spoke of renovations being made to the lobby. He talked of the lease being up in 2034 and instead of looking for a new home, bringing the building into the new century.

"We want to be thought of as Broadway south," Rufo said. "I think we're already at that point, but we want people to know we're here and we've been here for 75 years. Right here in Clearwater, just a little south of Broadway."

Francis Wilson Playhouse looks to the past to mark its 75th anniversary 06/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 7:35pm]
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