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Some beloved St. Petersburg holiday events scrimp to make the stage

ST. PETERSBURG — The holidays are a casserole of things to suffer — big spending, strange figgy pudding, lots of family, pine needles in the carpet.

But thousands of people every year find a couple hours to slip away, to cement a family tradition, to turn off the brain for a while.

To take in a show.

St. Petersburg's custom of holiday performance is rich. But producers, actors and audience members are making tough choices in an era of tight purse strings and dramatic funding cuts for the arts.

This marks the first in six years without the Black Nativity, Langston Hughes' famous telling of the Christmas story. The beloved show was produced by non-profit Soulful Arts Dance Academy, drawing 800 people to each performance at the packed Palladium Theater.

The play was financed through city and state grants, donations and help from the Mahaffey Theater Foundation. The foundation couldn't help this year, and organizers didn't receive grants. The academy is also struggling in deep debt.

Leaders held out hope that they could save the Black Nativity. Recently, they chose to put it on hold for one year.

"People were definitely understanding and supportive of the idea of coming back next year," said artistic director Kandace Nunn. "When we do come back, we'll be strong and we'll be ready."

Soulful Arts instead is hosting a Holiday Jam on Dec. 19 at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N studio, a free event with food and master classes in Zumba, African jazz and hip-hop.

And its dancers will perform at First Night, the city's annual New Year's Eve celebration that showcases a slew of acts.

First Night is not exempt from the pinch.

"Certainly, we have felt the effects of the economy like most non-profits in the area with a reduction in corporate sponsorships," said Jennifer Sterling, executive director. "We're hoping to make up for that by encouraging people to buy the admission button if they come downtown to enjoy the festivities. If they do, it helps support First Night. It's a bargain for an evening of entertainment."

The buttons, required to get into many performances, range from $5 to $12, available online and at Starbucks stores and other locations throughout the city. First Night operates with a budget of $160,000, about 20 percent of that from city funds. The rest comes from button sales, corporate sponsorships (the St. Petersburg Times is one) and fundraising. Statewide and city budget cuts have cost First Night at least $20,000 since 2008.

"We probably have not been able to bring in as many acts as we have before, but we definitely did our best to maintain the quality, and feel like we've been able to do that."

Many are fighting to ensure that their traditions do the improbable — grow.

"Every organization is facing challenges today," said Rabbi Alter Korf from the Chabad Jewish Center. "We also face our challenges, but precisely because times are tough for so many and many families are struggling, it's important for us to step up to the plate."

Sunday, Chabad hosts the sixth annual free Chanukah Extravaganza in Straub Park. This year, festivities will include an 8-foot menorah carved from a 500-pound ice block, fire juggling, an olive oil press, face painting, crafts, music and doughnuts. The $4,000 event is paid for by sponsorships and donations — still needed, Korf said.

"People tend to count on us for it, and so we feel that we have to continue the traditions, continue the celebration," he said. "In essence, the whole idea of Hanukkah is to light a candle, to light it in the evening. In the darker times, you have to raise the candle of hope. Even more people are looking for that hope."

At St. Petersburg Little Theatre an 85-year-old institution suffering a $40,000 drop in grants this year, having a good holiday performance is essential — it attracts new theatergoers who might come back.

Cast members are chipping in. One actor has donated $75 to buy dry ice for the production of What the Dickens? Another Christmas Carol, which runs through Dec. 20.

"We have a lot of people doing things like that who know times are tough," said executive director Deborah Kelley. "They're doing small things. We've had personal donations from people in the cast. It's their charity for the year."

Likewise, Florida West Ballet, a non-profit scholarship dance program in St. Petersburg that has seen grant money drop from $5,000 to $400, relies on costume donations from the mother of one of the ballet instructors.

"If we had to pay for costumes, it would be a whole different ball game," said Tammi Marvel, who sits on the Florida West board of directors.

Florida West dancers will perform selections from the Nutcracker at First Night. The holiday show isn't their big concern. For that, they don't have to shell out thousands for stage backdrops and video production.

They're looking ahead with worry to spring.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Some beloved St. Petersburg holiday events scrimp to make the stage 12/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2009 3:24pm]
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