Jan Van Wart’s office above the Neel Performing Arts Center looks and smells like an old library.
Van Wart designed it this way.
If you didn’t know he was employed as an auditorium support specialist at State College of Florida (SCF), you’d think Van Wart, a loquacious and well-read man, worked in the history department.
A longtime set designer, carpenter and stagehand, Van Wart’s office, located up a flight of hard concrete stairs above nosebleed seats in the college auditorium, is a virtual time capsule.
Shelves of dusty hardcover books loom over his desk. Phonographs and records fill every nook and cranny.
Yes, you read that right: phonographs — the kind Thomas Edison invented with the outside horn.
Van Wart is a collector of all things old and interesting. At the top of this list are a 1913 Model T Ford and a phonograph collection that rivals that of Edison’s Estate, in Fort Myers. At last count, Van Wart amassed more than 400 cylinder records and 2,000 disc records, many of which date back to the early 1900s.
Van Wart figures records — in particular, the history and culture garnered from listening to vaudevillian records — are what sparked his love of theater.
“Vaudeville is community-based entertainment,” says Van Wart, who grew up listening to his grandfather’s scratchy phonographs. “It’s what we do here. It’s just changed a bit over the years.”
When he says here, he gestures toward the 830-seat college auditorium below.
A Sarasota native and Riverview High School graduate, Van Wart graduated from SCF in 1975. He attended the college for two years, where he received a full acting scholarship under then-theater Director John James.
His first role at the college was as Howard in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Picnic.”
“Anything I do I have a tendency to really get into it,” Van Wart says. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been that way. I didn’t want to just play war. I wanted to play Revolutionary War. And then I had to play it with a flint lock pistol, because it didn’t make sense to play Revolutionary War with a cowboy gun.”
A Jack-of-all-trades and relentless dabbler, Van Wart has worked all over Sarasota in a variety of capacities.
He worked construction.
He operated a printing press at a local technical school and taught commercial art classes at night. He became so enamored with printing presses he built a replica of a 1940s offset press.
He got his master’s degree in fine arts from Ohio University and worked as a set designer for theater companies all over Sarasota and Manatee counties, including The Venice Theatre and The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, for which he still freelances.
“I love to intermingle the creative stuff with the technical stuff,” says Van Wart, who joined the SCF staff 10 years ago. “I like that for every problem, there’s a solution.”
Two years ago he taught a theater appreciation class at SCF’s Venice campus. He loved the responsibility. It gave him a platform to do what he already does so well: espouse the wonder and history of theater.
“It’s tedious and you devote a lot of hours to it,” Van Wart says of his job. “But knowing hundreds of people will see your work on stage and that it’ll lift them out of their daily routines is exciting. Not to put a heavy moral point on it, but theater was the original spirituality. The Greeks didn’t go to church. They went to the theater.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].