The Dream of a Performing Arts Theater is Realized
During the event, guests took behind-the-scenes tours; enjoyed performances by Celebration Brass and the Highlands County Concert Band; and viewed the ‘Florida Folk Art’ exhibit at the Museum of Florida Art and Culture.
Theatre construction began in April 2009. While the construction only took 11 months to complete, the transformation began over 10 years ago.
To understand the significance of the renovation, one must start at the very beginning.
February 1976: Auditorium Envisioned
In February 1976, SFCC President William Stallard announced SFCC’s intentions of building a 500-seat fine arts auditorium. The cost of the proposed project was $826,000.
During the auditorium’s conception, a once-in-lifetime opportunity arose. The recently passed Florida House Bill 1909 on community educational facilities indicated that the state of Florida would pay two-thirds of the cost of a facility, with local government units paying the remaining one-third for that facility.
This legislation enabled SFCC to expand its plans for a 500-seat fine arts building to a 1,500-seat auditorium, increasing the estimated cost to $1.5 million. The state would contribute $500,000 in addition to the money the Florida Department of Education had already granted and the local community would provide the remaining $333,000.
The pressure was on. SFCC had a limited amount of time to secure the local financing to qualify for the program.
Dr. Stallard approached the Avon Park City Council for support, and the council contributed $75,000. SFCC then approached the Highlands County Commissioners, which voted four to one to contribute $150,000 to the project over a two-year period.
After unsuccessfully approaching several other local entities, the college was still $43,000 short of the necessary funding and time was running out.
In last minute desperation, the college re-approached the Highlands County Commissioners and the Avon Park City Council. Due to financial constraints, the commissioners were unable to contribute further funding.
But in a true highlands county heroic fashion, Anabelle Wordon, executive manager, Avon Park Chamber of Commerce, and Evelyn Jones, director, Young Highlanders, Junior Highlands, and the proposed chapter of the Sweet Adelines, appealed to the Avon Park City Council to contribute the remaining funds.
During the meeting, Jones volunteered to orchestrate a countywide committee to raise the extra funds. However, a commitment for the funds was due in less than a week, and time didn’t permit for such a fundraiser.
The project was doomed – until the Avon Park City Council agreed to pledge an additional $66,000 with $43,000 of the pledge to be raised by Jones and the community before Dec. 31, 1976.
Once again, the pressure was on. If the funds were not raised by this time, the earmarked funding would revert back to the state.
Jones and her committee wasted no time. The committee set a fundraising deadline of Oct. 15, 1976 and got to work. Committee members traveled the county visiting local organizations and individuals to raise awareness and funding.
Meanwhile, the momentum of the project moved forward. The plans called for an auditorium with great flexibility and function.
The building would seat 1,500 individuals or it could be divided by motorized panels into five different areas. The stage would have built-in flexibility and would be able to accommodate a symphony orchestra, a follies show or drama production.
It would have two large dressing rooms, prop storage areas, and floor level orchestra space. The academic portion of the building would accommodate music, drafting, engineering, little theater, ceramics, and art classes. It would also have space for viewing galleries and covered patios.
At the time, the largest seated building on the SFCC campus was a lecture hall with 130 seats and there was no other auditorium in the county as large as the proposed facility.
In a Sebring News-Sun editorial on April 15, 1976, the editor addressed the need for the auditorium by stating, “Without a facility, there’s no capacity of adding to the luster of life in Highlands County.”
A few months later on June 10, 1976, the editor then addressed the need of such a large auditorium stating, “…because a half-full house today will be tomorrow’s standing room only.”
By November 1976, the community had joined together to raise the full $43,000.
August 1978: Auditorium Opened
The planning and construction of the auditorium was completed in two years.
In August 1977, groundbreaking ceremonies were held, and in August 1978, the community’s dream became a reality when the 1,500 seat Community Auditorium and Fine Arts Complex was completed. The total cost of the project was approximately $1.3 million.
The SFCC Drama Department put on the first performance in the auditorium, Hotel Paradiso, on Dec. 9, 1978.
1984: Cultural Series
In 1984, Dr. Catherine P. Cornelius became president of SFCC after Stallard retired. Cornelius wasted no time in picking up where Stallard left off. She appointed Doug Andrews, then head of the music program, as the director of Cultural Programs.
“I think Dr. Cornelius created this program because she felt that the facility in 1984 was excellent for a small community to have, and it was a venue worthy of larger productions,” Andrews said. “It’s truly all about serving the community, and we wanted to provide it with a greater variety of performances, capturing the different tastes and segments.”
At the time, an organization called the Community Concert Organization was already presenting three or four performances a year in the SFCC auditorium, Andrews said.
Cornelius and Andrews decided to approach the organization and see if it would be willing to combine efforts in presenting performances to the community. The organization agreed with the understanding that SFCC would underwrite the organization for the first year so that it would break even and that SFCC wouldn’t take away its business.
In return, the board for the Community Concert Organization would become the advisory committee for SFCC’s Cultural Programs.
“It worked beautifully, and to this day, there are still two, possibly three, of the original committee members on the board,” Andrews said.
Then on Dec. 18, 1984, the SFCC Cultural Series, later known as the SFCC Artist Series, opened its first season with six programs. The first performance was the Nutcracker ballet.
“We decided to start the Cultural Series, because we had a facility with the potential to show different kinds of performances, and we wanted to serve the community by doing so,” Andrews said. “In a lot of ways, it was visionary on Dr. Cornelius’ part that the Cultural Series would become so successful.”
1999: Matinee Series
Meanwhile, the Senior Enrichment Series, later known as the Matinee Series, was in full swing. The series was started in 1982 and operated through the SFCC Community Education Department.
Then in 1999, through an administrative move, Cultural Programs took over the series. The program was renamed the Matinee Series to better describe the scope of the featured performances, Andrews said.
When the SFCC Cultural Programs Department began to oversee the Matinee Series, the vision for the series shifted. Originally, the series featured local talent, performers, and organizations. Andrews’ vision was to maintain local talent but to infuse it with professional performances, he said. Within a few years, the series primarily presented professional performances with one of the 10 shows featuring local talent.
Around the same time the Matinee Series changed it vision, so did the Cultural Series. During the 1999-00 season, the Cultural Series became known as the Artist Series.
“This was a conscious effort,” Andrews said. “Artist Series better described the variety of performances that we showcase.”
2002: Chamber Series
In 2002, the Chamber Series was started with the intention of presenting exclusively chamber/classical music for soloist or small ensembles.
2003: Jazz Series
Then in 2003, shortly after Dr. Norm Stephens became the SFCC president, the Jazz Series was brought to life.
“One day while standing in the back of the SFCC University Center Auditorium with Dr. Stephens, I leaned over to him and said ‘can you imagine presenting jazz performances in here?’” Andrews said. “Then Dr. Stephens said, ‘you betcha, make it happen,’ so I did.”
“It didn’t make sense to have these smaller performances in the larger hall because the audience that is drawn to such performances isn’t as large,” Andrews added. “It just made better sense to do it in a more intimate area.”
2004: Kaleidoscope Series
The next project on hand was the Kaleidoscope Series, which was created in 2004. The concept of the series was that it was to be a catchall for solo performers, speakers, and other talents that didn’t really fit into any other category, Andrews said.
Then during the 2008-09 season, the Chamber Series was incorporated into the Kaleidoscope Series. SFCC decided the chamber performances would have more appeal if they were mixed into the series, Andrews added.
2009: Auditorium Renovation
In April 2009, the SFCC Auditorium began to undergo renovations that would transform it into the SFCC Theatre for the Performing Arts.
The project was conceptualized more than 10 years before it began with the desire and need to raise the fly space above the stage. SFCC needed to raise the fly space, because it limited the types of sets SFCC could use, Andrews said.
This mainly affected the musical performances that came to the college. Often, props stayed in the truck because there wasn’t enough room, he added.
As the conversation went on, it increasingly became a higher priority. Ultimately, the decision came that SFCC should and could pursue the transformation.
In June 2007, SFCC hired STH Inc., the architectural firm that had designed the recently completed Health and Science Education Center, to conduct a feasibility study for the work needed at the SFCC Auditorium. Through several months of discussion and review, SFCC learned that there were many costly upgrades that would be required to bring the facility to current building code levels, and it further learned that seating installation rules had changed as well.
Making only cosmetic changes and simply installing new seating would reduce the number of seats by approximately 200 due to fire code and wheelchair access. To expand lobby space, achieve additional seating, raise the fly space, and to meet all building codes would require a significant shift in plans and funding needs.
After much iteration, the plans were modified to include a balcony and side boxes. This allowed for additional Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funding, since the revised plans would add this construction element in addition to the remodeling work. PECO funding is specifically earmarked for renovation and construction projects.
The feasibility study also documented the need for additional artist dressing room space, acoustical treatment, and a new HVAC system, each demonstrating the need for additional funding from the state.
Fortunately, PECO funding became available as these needs were identified, providing the opportunity to move forward with the selection of an architect and construction management firm in March 2008.
“Once we realized that we would be granted the funding, we decided that if we were going to do it, we needed to do it right and address all of our needs, which led to a total revamping,” Andrews said.
“The PECO funding alone wasn’t enough to do it right,” Andrews added. “But this is something we are passionate about providing to our community, so we decided to call for local support again and start a communitywide fundraising campaign similar to the original auditorium campaign. The Capital Campaign was aptly named ‘Just Imagine. . .’ and began in December 2008.”
“Just as the community did before, it has stepped in and embraced this transformation, making it its own,” Andrews said.
The auditorium underwent a multimillion dollar transformation, with $3 million raised by the local community and state matching funds.
The project scope included raising the fly space above the stage and the proscenium to accommodate a greater variety of programs and performances; expanded lobby space, art gallery and display space; more seating options for disabled persons; balcony and side box seating to maintain capacity while improving comfort; replacing all theater seating; fire protection systems and structures throughout the entire complex; upgrading lighting and replacing HVAC systems; adding two elevators to improve access to lobbies, balcony, and side boxes; upgrading existing and adding additional bathrooms; and renovating the music wing to become a multipurpose facility to support performance while continuing to provide music instruction. The project was completed on time and within budget.
“I look forward to the concept of being able to realize and take full advantage of what this facility offers,” Andrews said. “The important thing here is not that we’ve built a new facility, it’s that we are now able to further this program and provide our community with cultural and entertainment experiences like we’ve never been able to before. We can now provide larger performances without the limitations we once had. These will be shows that you might have otherwise had to drive to Lakeland, Tampa, or Orlando to see.”
“We are realizing the part of our mission that says ‘working in partnership with organizations and communities, we offer…opportunities for education, cultural, and economic development of the college district,’” Andrews said. “It’s important for our community and our students to have such opportunities so that they’ll be aware of, understand, and appreciate the complexities of contemporary society.”
“For such a small community, we offer lots of enrichment opportunities for our citizens, and now we can do that even better,” Andrews added.
But none of this would be possible without the support of the community, Andrews said.
“We are forever indebted to this community,” he said. “They support us, not just through the fundraising, but also with continued tickets sales and sponsorships. It just wouldn’t be possible without some of these folks, especially this year with the renovations and venue changes.”
SFCC and the community finally realized their dream on Sunday, Feb. 28 at the SFCC Theatre for the Performing Arts open house and on March 1 when the first performance, Neil Berg’s “101 Years of Broadway,” took place.
“To everyone who has stuck with us and continues to support us, we say thank you,” Andrews said. “It wouldn’t be possible without you.”