Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

‘The spark that Tampa needed’: How Judy Lisi’s Straz Center changed a city

Over 30 years, Tampa’s cultural landscape blossomed. The venue’s retiring CEO had a front-row seat.
Judy Lisi watches a performance of "Avenue Q" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on Sept. 14. After more than 30 years, Lisi's final day as CEO and president of the Straz Center is Sept. 30.
Judy Lisi watches a performance of "Avenue Q" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on Sept. 14. After more than 30 years, Lisi's final day as CEO and president of the Straz Center is Sept. 30. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 6|Updated Oct. 6

Sometime in 2025, long after she stopped running the place, Judy Lisi will come to a show at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and pause to take in the venue’s biggest expansion ever.

She might pop out to the Riverwalk extension that loops into the Hillsborough, past the crowds of joggers and bikers who, 30 years ago, never would have been there, and watch the sun set across the water. She might think about where this venue once was, and how far it and the city have come.

“It’s going to be so strange,” she said. “I can’t even imagine it.”

That would be a first. Because for 30 years, no one spent more time imagining the Straz Center’s future than Judy Lisi.

Lisi, 76, retired as CEO and president of the Straz Center on Sept. 30, ending her run as one of Tampa Bay’s longest-tenured and most transformative arts leaders. She arrived not long after the building opened, facing a budget deficit and scores of empty seats. She left with nearly 10,000 Broadway series subscribers, an endowment of close to $70 million and a coming $100 million expansion of the largest performing arts hall in the southeastern United States.

“Judy was the spark that Tampa needed to ignite our arts community,” former mayor Pam Iorio said. “She’s one of those once-in-a-generation leaders that comes along and changes the culture of a community.”

But when she visits the Straz in 2025, Lisi might not think about her role in changing Tampa. Instead, she might pause in the expansive new lobby, look around, and think of how in 30 years she’s changed, too.

Outgoing Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi chats with "Avenue Q" cast members Chelsea Hooker, left, and Liberty Mack before a show on Sept. 14 in Tampa.
Outgoing Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi chats with "Avenue Q" cast members Chelsea Hooker, left, and Liberty Mack before a show on Sept. 14 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

When downtown was dark

Talk of a downtown arts district has swirled since the $57 million Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened in 1987. A nearby convention center and Curtis Hixon Hall were soon to be demolished, the Tampa Museum of Art needed a facelift, and there was a lot of city-owned land around to work with.

The performing arts center was the first step. And out of the gate, it stumbled.

The center was “down the pecking order” for the top touring Broadway shows, said Tampa Theatre CEO John Bell. It made programming miscalculations, such as booking acclaimed but niche modern dance troupes in its 2,600-seat theater, giving it, the Tampa Tribune once wrote, “a bit of a snob image.”

At the time, Lisi was running the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut — that’s Shubert, as in Broadway’s famed Shubert family, which has owned and operated hundreds of theaters and produced musicals like “Cats” and “Dreamgirls.”

When she came to Tampa for an interview in 1992, she made two immediate suggestions: Put a brighter marquee on the building. And get better Broadway shows.

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Follow trends affecting the local economy

Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter

We’ll break down the latest business and consumer news and insights you need to know every Wednesday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Lisi had a great job two hours from Broadway, not far from where she grew up. But it was a good time for a change; the youngest of her two children was about to graduate high school. And in Tampa’s struggling venue, she saw a world of potential.

In 1997, five years after Judy Lisi came to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as president and CEO, the venue celebrated its 10th anniversay. She sat for a portrait on Sept. 5, 1997.
In 1997, five years after Judy Lisi came to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as president and CEO, the venue celebrated its 10th anniversay. She sat for a portrait on Sept. 5, 1997. [ Times (1997) ]

“You could see that it was meant to be there,” she said. “You could see how it could spawn or influence the growth of an arts district.”

Within a year, Lisi flipped the center’s budget from red to black, renegotiated unfavorable contracts with Broadway presenters and boosted attendance by 20%. “Phantom of the Opera” sold out via mail order, proving Tampa was a market that could thrive independent of outside presenters.

“She understood the asset and how to use it,” Bell said. “That sounds simple enough to figure out, but it’s not. It’s a very complex, fluid, dynamic business, and she quickly understood what the challenges were and turned it around.”

That gave Lisi the capital to do whatever she wanted. So she started an opera company. A Juilliard-trained soprano, she persuaded composer and conductor Anton Coppola, of Hollywood’s famed Coppola clan, to serve as music director. Within five years, Opera Tampa was staging the world premiere of Coppola’s opera “Sacco and Vanzetti,” attracting international curiosity.

Judy Lisi talks with actor Charles Dutton, center, and radio personality George Nix backstage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center before Dutton's show "From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage" in 2007.
Judy Lisi talks with actor Charles Dutton, center, and radio personality George Nix backstage at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center before Dutton's show "From Jail to Yale: Serving Time on Stage" in 2007. [ Times (2007) ]

Lisi’s vision grew. She expanded the venue from three stages to six, broke ground on a performing arts conservatory, and produced original plays, including one musical, “Wonderland,” that premiered in Tampa before bowing on Broadway. She worked her Broadway ties to invest the venue’s money in musicals like “The Producers” and “Hadestown,” ensuring exclusive market rights when they toured, and earning the venue a tidy return. She secured a donation from Tampa philanthropist David Straz, reportedly $25 million, that led to the building’s name change. She brought in Tito Puente and Liza Minnelli, David Bowie and Taylor Swift.

And all of that happened before 2010 — before the Riverwalk, before Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, before the new Tampa Museum of Art and Glazer Children’s Museum and Florida Museum of Photographic Arts.

“She realized and got it to a place where it was meeting its potential and exceeding its potential, both locally and nationally,” said Lorrin Shepard, chief operating officer at the Straz. “People think of Broadway when they think of the Straz Center, but I believe now they think of a lot more than that.”

Related: Stage Star: With business savvy and heart, Judy Lisi helps the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center soar

In Tampa, Lisi had transformed not only the Straz’s reputation, Bell said, but that of “cultural facilities in general.”

“I don’t think you could underestimate her role in the success of not just the Straz Center,” he said, “but of downtown.”

‘A force of personality’

There’s a chicken-or-the-egg element to Lisi’s 30 years at the Straz Center. Was it her stewardship of the venue that spurred all the arts and recreation development along Tampa’s riverfront? Or would that growth have happened anyway, with Lisi, whose tenure spanned five mayors, one of the few leaders left to get the credit?

She could have left. She’s had offers to go work on Broadway, where she’s “an icon that is respected on a national stage,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. Theaters across America have called.

Last year, according to Straz Center tax records, Lisi earned a salary of more than $687,552 — more than Tampa’s mayor, city council and fire chief combined. The Straz boasts an annual economic impact of $130 million, which is a lot — though it’s far below the estimated impacts of Tampa International Airport and Port Tampa Bay, and Lisi makes more than their CEOs, too.

Judy Lisi, left, chats with Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center food and beverage director Bernie Kloppenburg in 2007.
Judy Lisi, left, chats with Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center food and beverage director Bernie Kloppenburg in 2007. [ Times (2007) ]

To the city’s former mayor Iorio, Lisi was indispensable. It was during her administration that ground broke for Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Museum of Art, Glazer Children’s Museum and Patel Conservatory. These were years, she said, when Lisi became “an important sounding board ... someone who I could talk to not about the nitty-gritty of any one specific scenario, but rather what could unfold for our community in the long run, and what Tampa and its waterfront could look like one day.”

“She was always able to give me a broader picture of what she felt needed to be accomplished, which I agreed with,” she said. “Frankly, it helped shape policy for the city of Tampa.”

Lisi downplays her role in downtown’s broader evolution, though she acknowledged: “If the performing arts center had not been successful, I doubt those projects would have been able to make it work.”

Lisi is a “force of personality,” Iorio said — an engaging, effusive and “extraordinarily effective advocate,” whether soliciting public funding or favor, or gifts from well-heeled donors. She’s “a tough negotiator,” St. Martin said, “but she always did it with grace and style and charm.”

“It isn’t necessarily obstinance, but it’s a dogged determination to find a way to achieve the result,” Shepard said. “It might involve bringing different voices to the table, building consensus, developing long-lasting relations with those who can be influential, both from a philanthropic perspective as well as to serve an intended operational goal. She’s not one to give up. She might put something aside, but it’ll always come back up again.”

Take the Straz’s $100 million master plan, which will cover the upcoming expansion. The venue was studying future expansion needs as far back as 2008, well before the city’s other riverfront arts projects opened. For more than a decade, the Straz waited as they took precedence, finally launching its capital campaign in early 2020.

Lisi’s pitch to donors: For an institution like the Straz Center, $100 million is a bargain. A performing arts hall the size and quality of the Straz would today cost $700 million or $800 million. It’s literally irreplaceable.

“They replace stadiums,” she said, “but they’re not going to replace that building.”

This rendering shows a design for the upcoming expansion of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, the centerpiece of the venue's $100 million capital campaign.
This rendering shows a design for the upcoming expansion of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, the centerpiece of the venue's $100 million capital campaign. [ David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts ]

Since 2020, the Straz has received nearly $13 million in federal COVID-19 relief loans and grants, plus commitments of $25 million from the city, $2.5 million from the county and $5 million from the state. Not all of that is earmarked for the expansion, but when combined with private donations, the plan is about 70% funded.

So much of that, said former University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, is Lisi’s doing.

“People give to people,” said Genshaft, a Straz trustee. “They want to know that you’re there, you’ve got this optimism and innovation, and you’re willing to listen to others and partner with others. You want to know that your money is going to be cared for.”

Related: Straz Center names theater world veteran Greg Holland next CEO, president

Lisi is fine letting new CEO Greg Holland bring the master plan home. Back when she was a singer, she loved the rehearsal process — trying on songs, figuring them out, collaborating with others. By the second or third performance of a piece, she would start to get bored. The joy, she found, was getting it ready in the first place.

“When you’re a part of what it’s going to look like, how is it going to operate, all of that, that’s where the excitement is,” she said. “It’s been a long 12 years we’ve been working on this. It’s just ready to go now.”

Outgoing Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi, left, chats with incoming president and CEO Greg Holland, center, before a Sept. 14 performance of "Avenue Q."
Outgoing Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi, left, chats with incoming president and CEO Greg Holland, center, before a Sept. 14 performance of "Avenue Q." [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Opening the Straz to all

For a few years in the late 2000s, Lisi’s daughter Rachel worked as a box office supervisor. She’d hear stories about people who wanted tickets but couldn’t afford them, and relay them to her mother, asking if the venue had any way to help.

“She wanted to take care of the whole world,” Lisi said.

In November 2010, two days shy of her 40th birthday, Rachel suffered a fatal pulmonary embolism. Her mother found her body in bed in her apartment. Her funeral drew a crowd of hundreds, and prompted donations in her name from Lisi’s Broadway and theater friends around the country.

Related: Poet, lover of the arts Rachel Lisi departs as she predicted

A month later, Lisi was there for the unveiling of the center’s new marquee as the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Flanked by donors and board members, she called the sign “a beacon of bright future for the arts.”

Privately, she was still reeling.

“To this day, I don’t know how I got through that,” she said. “You just grit your teeth and you power through. It was so weird. It was this surreal experience of all of this brouhaha, and you’re dying on the inside.”

When Lisi reflects on how she’s changed in 30 years, that stretch in late 2010 is the period that stands out. The Straz was rebranding, “Wonderland” was heading to Broadway, and Tampa’s downtown riverside was on the cusp of a decade of transformation.

“When I started my career in what I do now, there were so few women, and I think for years, I had that pressure of proving myself — I just had that need to show what women could do,” she said. After Rachel died, “I realized that wasn’t what I should have been proving at all. It’s like, how can I as a leader help people do the best that they can? That’s what I should have been doing all those years. I learned it, but I wish I had learned it earlier.

“I realized, it was never about you to begin with. It was always about the people that you need to help support.”

When Rachel died, the Straz Center took all those donations in her name and created the Rachel Lisi Ticket Subsidy Fund, a way for box office workers to help those unable to afford a seat. Over the years, the fund has helped hundreds of needy patrons see shows, Lisi said. In retirement, she’d like to see it grow.

Lisi’s favorite part of the Straz Center’s expansion is the new lobby. It will face west to the river and be open to the public, accessible to all before shows. Even if they don’t have a ticket.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge