ST. PETERSBURG — The air conditioning system is ancient, and the recently patched roof may not last much longer. But a wall backstage at the St. Petersburg City Theatre is still very much alive, bearing the signatures of all those involved in the countless productions since the 92-year-old stage company moved into the building in the 1950s.
Ongoing financial struggles are forcing the theater on 31st Street S to shut its doors after its final mainstage production in May, and halt its summer programs and fall mainstage season.
"It was a pretty heart-breaking decision for many of us on the board who are very passionate about the theater," said Mardi Bessolo, a member of the theater's board. "It's been a gem in our community fulfilling a need."
Though it's unclear what the future may look like for City Theatre, Sharon Cook, president of the board, said the organization is exploring options to continue its legacy, including liquidating its assets to create scholarships for arts education.
Cook came to the theater in the 1970s when she joined the production of Ten Little Indians. She was new to the city, not knowing anyone, and the theatre provided a sense of family, she said.
"No matter what race or gender or nationality, it's been a place for people to come to express their creative talents, whether in acting or singing or painting the sets and creating props and costumes," Cook said. "It's been a very welcoming and warm and loving environment."
The company started in 1925 as the Sunshine Players. In the late '20s they became the Players Club and then St. Petersburg Little Theatre. In 2011, they were renamed the St. Petersburg City Theatre.
Over the years, the theater has been a haven for everyone from World War II soldiers to kids interested in drama. Angela Bassett and Rhonda Shear were among those who performed there, cutting their teeth in the acting world.
"For some it's a pastime," said Jessica Burchfield, education coordinator for the theater. "For some it's an escape from reality, to get away from their home life or school life."
Burchfield, who first got involved in a production of Steel Magnolias 11 years ago, recently directed a teen production of Little Shop of Horrors. The theater began offering children's and teen education in addition to its regular mainstage programs, which cast a range of actors, ages 7 to 70.
Bessolo, whose 8-year-old daughter was involved with the children's program, joined the theater's board last year during a rough time. The theater, faced with unpaid bills and debts, had ousted its executive director. Before the start of the 2016-17 season, the board considered slashing summer programs and the mainstage season as well.
"When I first got here I thought, 'Wow, this thing is a diamond in the rough,'" Bessolo said. "Many of us on the board were so passionate. We were like, 'We can make this work.'"
The theatre started a fundraising campaign and turned its staff to volunteers. But many of them are aging and facing health issues, and putting in 50 to 60 hours a week didn't seem feasible.
"We made enough net income to be paying off debts accrued — not quite enough to pay for staffing we'd need to continue on in a long-term basis," Bessolo said.
It costs about $7,000 to $8,000 a month to keep the theater running, she said, not including the costs of staff or maintaining the deteriorating building. Bessolo said consistent donors, similar to those who support the Straz Center or Ruth Eckerd Hall, would be the best hope to keep the theater going in the long run.
"Maybe I'm a Pollyanna, but I actually believe this could happen," Bessolo said. "I believe the theater could have some hope, but it would take a concerted effort from the whole community and city."
John Collins, director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, has been talking with the board about exploring options for the theater, said the closing is a sign of changing times.
"In general, Millennials and Gen Xers are not going to spring for a year's commitment of tickets," he said. "And as less people attend theater, dance and music performances, donors and sponsors don't see a reason to support those institutions. … Running a non-profit organization with all the federal, state and local regulations and paperwork these days needs full-time professional support, and community volunteers simply cannot provide what's needed."
David Middleton, marketing director for the theater who has directed several productions there over the past 20 years, said theater today must compete with everything from Netflix to hot sauce fairs.
"You have a connection with the audience many times that movies or TV doesn't give you," he said. "There's a bond between the audience and the performers. I hate to see that go away. But, quite frankly, times are changing. It's a sad thing to see an institution fade away, basically."
Burchfield said the wall behind the stage is testament to the theater's spirit, which will live on.
"The legacy that was created here, it can't die," she said. "The building may crumble. But the family and tribe we've created, this bond will live on."
Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.