SUN CITY CENTER — An actor who once appeared in daytime dramas.
An actress who once commanded audiences in her own show in Atlantic City.
A music teacher with a stellar soprano voice.
Transformed from a dance studio six years ago, the Rollins Theater draws sold-out audiences for shows such as the current production of Love on a Bench, but it's really a beacon for those who crave the chance to showcase their considerable talents.
"People of all ages come to the Rollins Theater from various walks of life in hopes of, in theater terms, an opportunity to tread the boards," says Lew Resseguie, founder and president of the Performing Arts Club of Sun City Center. "Many talented people have auditioned and been cast in our shows, but this year, we have discovered unique talent, and this play reflects it."
Resseguie, the one-time soap opera actor, wrote and directed Love on a Bench. He has over 30 years of acting experience on and off the Broadway stage, screen, and television.
He co-starred with Angela Lansbury in the musical hit Gypsy, was featured in the national Broadway tour of 42nd Street, acted in daytime television on The Edge of Night and As The World Turns.
Ellen Kleinschmidt is the music teacher — she teaches at Reddick Elementary and was once the Hillsborough County teacher of the year — as well as the club's artistic and musical director. She co-stars in the play and has starred in many productions at the Rollins Theater. She selected most of the music as Resseguie was in the process of rewriting the script.
"This is a wonderful place to hone your skills," Kleinschmidt said. "Our company is very particular about the actors and actresses. We work very hard to make it professional."
While Resseguie and Kleinschmidt are mainstays, the group continues to attract new talent like Eileen Valentino. She's the former Atlantic City star who is making her comeback after 10 years away from the theater.
Valentino was drawn by the theater's warmth and the talent of the actors.
"I saw the Rodgers production and it was just too good to resist, so I had to get involved," says Valentino. "There's no pressure. I'm performing purely for the fun of it with professionals every bit as good as anywhere I've ever worked. My juices are flowing here."
Valentino started out as a singing waitress at the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland in California. It helped pay her way through college and provided great training for a future as a performer. From there, she worked in summer stock, appearing in Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Opera productions, and then toured with dancing star Juliet Prowse. That gave her the confidence to start her own act. With four musicians and two backup singer-dancers, the Eileen Valentino Show toured the country and headed east to Atlantic City and New York.
In Love on a Bench, she plays a funny and loving Jewish mother.
"She had all the poise in the world, so you just know she was the right one for the part," said Kleinschmidt, who plays a devout Catholic mother.
Love on a Bench is a tenderhearted story of love between a young Catholic boy and a Jewish girl and two sets of parents fighting to hold on to their cultural and religious beliefs while their children challenge their values.
Resseguie developed the original script in the 1970s and then reworked it this summer into a light take on a serious situation.
The comedy is filled with hit Broadway show tunes, top 40 songs and one original song written by Resseguie, all befitting the emotions that each character experiences as the romance evolves. The Sun City Center community has found Love on a Bench hard to resist, selling out to a packed theater almost every night. About 25 percent of the audience comes from the surrounding Sun City Center area, which pleases the director.
"They are a choice audience: intelligent, well educated, responsive, and not afraid to tell you if they liked it," Resseguie says fondly.
The Rollins Theater will not break for the holidays. Wall To Wall Christmas, the Performing Arts Company's annual benefit Christmas concert, is scheduled for Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. It features Christmas favorites and stories and will benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Kleinschmidt will be back co-starring in a new musical comedy she has co-written, 14G, with timeless Broadway show tunes that will premiere in early January.