To the editor:
I read recently where a local man wanted to have a "dinner" theater on the Beach. Well, almost on the Beach as the place he talked about was in the old church property on the right-hand side of San Carlos Boulevard as you leave the Beach, about two miles from the base of the bridge.
I served as the treasurer for the Island Arts Foundation for several years but, more importantly, I helped on the hundreds of events that organization sponsored over the years, including some bringing some internationally known performers to the Purple Heart Theater. You see, the building, on Estero Boulevard that housed the Purple Heart Theater was purchased by the then head of the IAF, Carl Conley, and renovated at great expense by him to be used as a performing arts center. Often we volunteers would cook a nice meal then serve it as part of the show. We didn't charge for the meal but included it to enhance the experience of the performance. In this respect it served as the closest thing we had to a dinner theater on the Beach.
Most locals remember when we were "raided" for taking donations for beer and wine during our weekly IAF members jazz show-Soup Bowl Thursdays. We closed it shortly thereafter because zoning said it wasn't fit for the purpose we'd used it for the preceding seven years unless we went through expensive processes and made further changes to the building. Since it had already been heavily subsidized by Carl through ownership of the newspaper and that was sold, we no longer see the sense in putting more money out, particularly to fight legal battles, so we closed it for good.
I wish Ronn James luck in getting the former church permitted as a "dinner theater" since it is much less prepared for that role than the Purple Heart Theater was but then again he may have better luck because it is outside of the jurisdiction of Beach Zoning enforcement, and the county now seems more willing to help people stay in business rather than find ways to close them.
It should be noted though for the record that James has his work cut out for him as the only example of a licensed dinner theater that I am familiar with first hand would be Broadway Palm Dinner Theater. I can tell you that the Prather Family of Entertainment, the owners, have hundreds of thousands invested just to equip the building with sprinklers and other equipment that some deem necessary to operate such a venture. Never mind the cost of a great act, like Gary Puckett, who I know was paid $10,000 by Carl to have at the Purple Heart.
I have come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible for ordinary people to truly start and operate a private facility that supports the arts in highly desirable geographic areas because government, public institutions and already established entertainment corporations make it too difficult to foster. Unless you have a super well-heeled sponsor or patron or the support of a political body (of course in Carl's situation owning a newspaper worked pretty well until he sold it), it is nearly impossible to get the approvals needed. We actually looked at the very property Mr. James is discussing but rejected it because of costs and return. For us, if we ever do this type of adventure again it will be a little more off the beaten path, in a place where what you do with your property (or the type of art you support) isn't so heavily "scrutinized."
We had a lot of fun with the IAF and at the Purple Heart Theater and entertained thousands of warm and friendly lovers of the arts over the nearly ten years we served it. Many of those fine people are still dear friends. I wish Mr. James well as he attempts to bring a home for the arts to the church where he also hopes to have his fruit stand.
Fort Myers Beach
Former Island Arts Foundation Treasurer and Volunteer Coordinator