Part One in a series.
Hey, kids, let’s put on a show! We can use my Dad’s barn! – Mickey and Judy, Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, 1939
Tonight, you will all be transformed from dead-eyed suburbanites into white-hot grease fires of pure entertainment! – Community theater director Llewellyn Sinclair (Jon Lovitz), giving his cast an opening night pep talk, The Simpsons: A Streetcar Named Marge, 1992
People get involved in community theater for all kinds of reasons, from an insatiable desire to perform to just having something to do on a lonely weekend evening. Some go for the social aspect, to make new friends and have a laugh or two with old ones. Still others see it as doing something for their community.
And some, in all probability, just enjoy putting on costumes.
When Linda Horrell retired and relocated to Madeira Beach from Chicago, she auditioned – on a whim – for the Gulfport Community Players.
“I was always interested in acting as an avocation, not something to do for real,” Horrell says. “I had taken a few classes. And when I moved to Florida I was flabbergasted at the amount of community theaters, and the opportunities to go flex that muscle.”
She performed in the Gulfport group’s summer one-acts in 2016, and has auditioned for – and been cast in – numerous full-scale productions since. “I wanted to act, and I wanted to meet people. It just seemed like a great little group to get in with.”
Horrell, in fact, is part of the cast of the 2019 Summer One-Acts, beginning this Thursday.
Although the members change as people come on board and drop out, those who travel in the Gulfport Community Players orbit consider it a kind of second family.
Every once in a while Eileen Navarro, who’s been president of the group for two decades, has to stop and remind herself that GCP, like most community theaters, is an all-volunteer organization. Even she doesn’t draw a salary or a stipend.
“People will tell me a year in advance, ‘Eileen, I can’t work this show,’ or ‘I’d love to help out backstage, but I’m doing this …’” she marvels. “They’re obviously not doing it for money. They’re doing it because there’s a sense of community and family here.”
St. Petersburg insurance man Gene Stott began Gulfport’s first amateur theater in 1963; the Pelican Playhouse in the Round, which put on plays in a roller skating rink, closed two years later.
The 1970s saw the arrival and departure of the Gulfport Beaches Little Theater.
In 1980, a five-member board headed by Boca Ciega High School teacher Catherine A. Hickman was incorporated as the Gulfport Community Players. One to four shows were presented annually, at local churches, the Scout Hall community building, the town recreation center, wherever they could find a spot. Tickets for the inaugural show, Dora the Beautiful Dishwasher, cost $1.50.
Marketing consultant Eileen Navarro left her Delaware hometown two days after Christmas, 1989, looking for warmth, sunshine and a new life. She headed to Florida in the middle of the state’s coldest winter on record.
“I thought it was heaven when I got here,” she recalls. “I went to the beach in Gulfport a couple days after arriving, and I thought ‘This is glorious – it’s not crowded, there’s nobody on the beach.’ I didn’t realize that everybody around me was freezing to death! I though 50 degrees was really nice.”
She was Eileen Lewis then, a good 20 years before she’d marry Ecuadorian American Gulfport resident Fausto Navarro. She bought her first house from Catherine Hickman Realty.
She was soon under the spell of the Gulfport Community Players, and landed a co-starring role in the suspense drama Angel Street. A year later the company called to see if she could step in for an actress who’d dropped out.
“Once I did those two plays I kind of got hooked,” says Navarro, “then I got on the board. I’ve held every position – I was the secretary, I was the treasurer … I was the only one who had any knowledge of computers or data entry back then. So I put together a mailing list.”
Things were always low-key. As money came in from ticket sales, it was channeled back into the necessities of keeping the theater going.
“We were content,” Navarro says. “We rented a small building on Delette Street that we called the Gulfport Players Rehearsal Center. We had our meetings and auditions there, and we would rehearse there, build the sets and then take the set over to the Rec Center and use the small stage that they had there.”
In 2000, the City of Gulfport expanded the Senior Center on 27th Avenue with the addition of a 172-seat performing arts center, dedicated as the Catherine Hickman Theater. No more Rec Center for the GCP.
All well and good. That same year, however, the City sold the Delette Street building. Navarro, who was by now president of the theater, decided that complacency was no longer an option.
“When I took over as president, we had a couple hundred dollars in our checking account,” she says. “We did our little plays, and as long as we had made a little bit of change or whatever, everybody was happy with that.
“But things suddenly changed because the building that we had been renting from the city, our rehearsal center, got sold out from underneath us. And we had no place to call home.”
After a lengthy search, she discovered a vacant warehouse at 49th Street and 17th Avenue, which, at 8,000 square feet, would give the Players more than enough audition and rehearsal space, plus rooms in which to store its massive collections of costumes and props.
The rent wasn’t cheap, and once the group was granted 501©3 nonprofit status – according to Navarro, nobody had thought of it before – a fundraising campaign began.
In 2007, Gulfport resident Dawn Fisher gifted the Gulfport Community Players with the $250,000 necessary to buy the facility outright.
“She told me the reason she donated the money was not because she’s into theater so much, but her mother was kind of a frustrated actress,” Navarro marvels. “She was a mom, and had raised the kids, and always wanted to be onstage. So she said ‘This is in honor of my mother.’”
Fisher refused to let the building be named for her. So it became the Back Door Theater. “The only thing she asked – and I’ve made this my promise till I die – is that this we always improve the building, that this always be a home for community theater.”
Many improvements have been made to the Back Door, including a new air conditioning system, and the construction of site additions for building and storing sets.
All GCP plays are rehearsed in the Back Door. Once a show is ready to go up, the sets, furniture and costumes are trucked a mile over to the Hickman Theatre.
Katie Calahan is the director of the GCP children’s summer theater program. “When I was a kid, I just wanted to be a part of theater and performance, and community theater does that,” she says. “Because there’s nobody who can’t just walk in the door and pitch in.” She worked with St. Petersburg City Theatre, in the days when it was known as the Little Theatre.
Calahan, a St. Peterburg native, went on to earn a degree in theater, but had taken time off to have a family. “I wanted to get my foot back in the door, and so I came back to community theater when my youngest was old enough for me to be away at night. It was nice to come back.”
In 2017, at Eileen Navarro’s invitation, she started the Junior Stars program, at the Back Door rehearsal space. “I guess there are two things I’ve always been good at,” Calahan says. “One was performing in theater, and the other was teaching. I’ve always loved kids. As far back as high school, I would tutor kids and run drama programs for people.”
The Junior Stars program, she says, has done great things in its two years. “I’ve seen kids who came in the door and could barely utter a line for an audience, that are now proudly taking center stage and singing solos. Really owning themselves.
“They don’t all leave me necessarily wanting to do another play, or to be a performer – but none of them leave me the same way they came.”
Of the many, many participants in the ongoing success of the Gulfport Community Players, from the stage crew to the lightning people to the directors and the actors, no one is as hands-on as Eileen Navarro, who says – only half-joking – that she lives at the Back Door. She can work the lights and the sound. She sews costumes. She acts, sometimes, and sings. She sweeps up.
Navarro, says Linda Horrell, “is absolutely essential. She seems to have the energy of 10 people.”
What it comes down to, Navarro explains, is the “community” in community theater. “It’s one of the reasons I continue to do it,” she says. “In the early years, I did shows at other theaters and whatnot, but I was always drawn back to Gulfport. Because it’s where my allegiance was.”