The only way the gathering at Richey Suncoast Theatre last Sunday could have been any better was if Charlie Skelton could have been there to be part of it.
Charlie died on July 4 while on vacation in Las Vegas with his wife of 34 years, Marie. Sunday's gathering was a celebration of his life that expanded to be a celebration of the lives that Charlie changed for the better.
More than 600 people (that's just counting the ones who signed the guest book) gathered at the theater to remember and honor the man many believe saved the theater from going under, and I'm one of those believers.
And it was exactly the kind of crowd he would have loved — theater buffs in every one of the 323 seats, the aisles packed (SRO, standing room only, in theater parlance) — the vestibule full, the lobby overflowing and the street in front of the theater full of people who came for one single reason: They loved Charlie. And they love Marie.
We're all still in denial and disbelief that he is gone. I called the theater box office this morning, and his voice is still on the message machine, that distinctive Philadelphia-by-way-of-New Jersey accent that sounds as though he's right on the verge of telling a good/bad joke or bursting into laughter.
Because that was Charlie — always smiling, bustling around the box office, repairing a water leak in the concession stand, mopping up a spill in the lobby, grabbing the telephone while selling one more ticket to someone at the ticket counter, making last-minute adjustments to a set — in short, doing whatever it took to make the theater work.
The afternoon started with tributes by county and city officials, who reminded us it wasn't just the theater Charlie touted; it was the city, the schools, the county, the state — anyone and any entity that could bolster the arts and the kids who love the arts.
The formal part was relatively short. Then, people of all ages began trickling down the aisles to tell what Charlie had meant to them: The young man who had lost his job, was flat broke, literally had no food in his house, and was taken to Costco by Charlie, who bought him $300 of groceries. Then there was the young girl who tried out for a role in a play and didn't get one, so Charlie suggested she learn how to work the soundboard, which has led her to a career as a professional sound tech for HSN and Disney World, among other places.
The stories came from everywhere, including a video shot in the balcony of Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, where one of Charlie's favorite proteges, Justin Sargent, has the lead role in Rock of Ages on the stage below; from Jesslyn Kostopoulos, who had flown in from a singing gig in Alaska; from Jim Poe, who wowed audiences when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and went on to take his acting seriously, with Charlie's full support.
Several in the audience had been around long enough to remember the theater's first glory days, followed by the dark period that started in the mid '90s, when the theater became shabby and good actors and crew members were summarily banned (along with this theater critic), the audiences grew sparse and the box office till nearly empty.
And they remember the arrival of Charlie and Marie Skelton in 1998 and how things began to turn around: the tacky upside-down Christmas tree hanging from the lobby ceiling replaced by an elegant crystal chandelier that Charlie sweet-talked Progress Energy into donating; the flaking green dome on the roof that Charlie had covered to look like costly gold leaf; the sub-balconies Charlie designed for sound equipment and honored guests; the exterior paint job; the new, art deco signs inside and out; the sumptuous fabric paneled walls; the stylish lights; the refurbished seats; the exquisite grand curtain with the Richey Suncoast Theatre logo prominently displayed; the remodeled restrooms; the quiet heating and cooling system that replaced the monstrous, booming air handler in the corner of the auditorium — the improvements go on and on.
Then there's Charlie signature contribution: the zany, quirky Christmas show, starring the cranky Mrs. Artiluke and the notorious homeowners association, Citizens Against Virtually Everything, aka CAVE-dwellers, a show that welcomed everyone who tried out and launched many a theatrical career and at least one political career, that of County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who was once so shy he couldn't speak in public, but, at Charlie's urging, became confident enough to give the opening speech for a show — after vaulting onto the chest-high stage from the theater floor when he couldn't locate the stairs.
I think all of us are wondering and worrying what will happen to Richey Suncoast Theatre now that Charlie is gone. But he is not gone. His work and dedication are in and on every inch of the theater, from the roof right down to the orchestra pit. He had brought in and trained enough people to keep Richey Suncoast Theatre going, and, with Marie's help, I'm pretty sure it will keep going and going and going.
There will never, ever be another Charlie Skelton. He's a once-in-a-lifetime person. We were blessed to have him for the time we did.