Ruth Eckerd. Carol Morsani. Nancy and David Bilheimer.
You don’t have to know much about the personal lives of these Tampa Bay philanthropists to know their names, which adorn the marquees of some of the area’s most popular performing arts theaters.
David Straz, who died Monday, joined that list a decade ago, following a historic donation to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which was then renamed in his honor.
Since then, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has hosted presidents, pop stars and Oscar winners; The Daily Show, The Book of Mormon and Hamilton. All of it happened below the name of one of the most significant arts philanthropists Tampa’s ever known.
“Some people just think he owns the building,” said Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz Center. “It’s hard sometimes to have your name up there like that. But I think he saw it as an opportunity for other people to say, You can transform a community. Especially a community where you were fortunate enough to live and perhaps make your wealth in."
Straz was one of the first people Lisi met when she moved here in 1992 to take over the performing arts center. But she already knew his name. Straz was also a donor and director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and regular attendee at events in Tampa. When Lisi co-founded Opera Tampa in 1996, Straz and his wife Catherine “became very important to us,” she said.
They held season passes to everything, attending as many shows as possible, especially opera and Broadway. David Straz and Lisi met annually to discuss the center’s growth, and how he could help. In 2009, that conversation steered them toward the gift that would put Straz’s name on the building.
Per Straz’s wishes, the size of the gift was never disclosed. Estimates at the time pegged it at $25 million, which Lisi said was “close enough.”
“It was probably the largest single gift in Tampa at the time,” she said.
Straz earmarked the gift for the center’s endowment fund, which was $25 million then and stands at $60 million today. That fund, Lisi said, helps subsidize arts programming that isn’t as profitable as Broadway tours or other one-night events — outreach programs in underserved communities, or affordable access to shows that stand little chance of turning a profit.
“His generosity has without question helped Jobsite remain the resident theater company there,” said David Jenkins, artistic director of Jobsite Theatre. “Philanthropic gifts like that help alleviate the pressure on more artistic, mission-based endeavors to have to generate a lot of revenue. Without funding like that, the center might not be able to work with us in the way they do.”
In the decade since their gift, the Strazes largely let the performing arts center pursue its own missions, with Straz offering Lisi his opinions here and there, although “he was not the kind that would put heavy pressure if he wanted one thing or didn’t want one thing,” she said.
Instead, they attended shows as often as they could. They were especially looking forward to Opera Tampa’s 25th season in the spring.
“He loved opera. That was by far his favorite,” Lisi said. “I would love when he would say, ‘This production was better than the one at the Met.’ I would love when he would say something like that. That would make me feel great.”