Phyllis Zacherle can remember going to The Players Theatre as a little girl.
It was the only place in town where you could see a live show. Men wore suits and women wore long dresses and light mink stoles. Depending on the type of show, some adults wore white satin gloves.
“It was much more formal than it is now,” says Zacherle, 89, a Siesta Key resident who used to go to the theater when The Players performed out of a converted warehouse on Main Street, before it moved into a cypress house designed by Sarasota architect Ralph Twitchell in 1936.
The oldest performing-arts organization in Sarasota County and the second-oldest in the state, The Players Theatre was the heart of Sarasota’s social scene, capturing the attention of editors at Life magazine and Hollywood starlets such as Bette Davis, who attended the opening night of “Grand Hotel” in 1941.
Zacherle was 11 years old when the Players debuted its first one-act play, “A Night at an Inn,” inside the abandoned Siesta Key Clubhouse, and 52 years old when it broke ground on its current building — a 500-seat theater, which opened in 1974 at the corner of North Tamiami Trail and Ninth Street, just east of Twitchell’s original playhouse.
“We have a really interesting, humble and simple beginning,” says Jeffery Kin, the theater’s artistic director. “The stories here are endless.”
To commemorate the theater’s 80th anniversary season, Kin is including some of The Players’ most oft-repeated musicals in its 2009-10 Broadway series, including Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” which opened in September and ran through Oct. 4; “Some Enchanted Evening,” which opens Jan. 14; “Lend Me a Tenor,” which opens Feb. 11; and the musical standby “Fiddler on the Roof,” which opens March 18.
“I’m trying to give a little love to all the casts of the past 80 years,” says Kin, who has spent a lot of time in the theater’s history room since the organization hired him two years ago.
The Players’ history room is something to behold. A dusty little den at the front of the theater, the room is tucked away at the end of an eerily dark hallway, up a tricky flight of stairs, where theater volunteers and staff have stored eight-decades’ worth of boxes, bins and filing cabinets filled with old playbills, scripts, newspaper clippings and books.
“There’s enough mold up here to keep you wheezing and sneezing all day,” says Kin, brushing dust from his black dress pants.
Last summer, when producers from A&E’s “Biography” program contacted the theater looking for pictures of native Sarasota actor Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman), Kin resurrected a dusty bin of 8-by-10 photographs. He was able to track down at least two black-and-white photos of Reubens dating back to the mid-1960s, including the theater’s 1966 production of “The Sound of Music.”
The space is one of several areas in the theater frequently investigated by ghost hunters and psychics. Crew members have reported hearing laughter and seeing lights flash on and off and doors open and close — the kind of paranormal activity that used to give Kin the creeps, until he says he learned to “live in harmony” with the theater’s “spooky friends.”
Last year, a medium visited the theater and identified 10 active spirits, mostly departed actors, including actress Lauren Melville, who was hit and killed by a car in 1997 and actor Robert Atkins, who performed in many Players productions up until his death in 2008.
“You know actors,” says Kin nonchalantly, “always looking for attention.”
Things at the community theater are changing. Kin has reintroduced plays into the theater’s standard six-musical repertoire and launched a Summer Sizzler series that also includes three or four non-musical plays.
“I think what’s happened over the years is that we’ve had to grow up,” Kin says. “We’ve got FST and Golden Apple and the Asolo next door and we’ve had to rise to meet the standards of professional-theater companies.”
This summer, Kin converted a backstage rehearsal room into a 50-seat, black-box studio, where Bryony Lavery’s Tony-award winning drama, “Frozen,” was performed in September. The play chronicles the interactions between a mother and the serial killer who murdered her daughter.
Kin hopes to use the studio space to showcase small cabaret performances, children’s theater and new plays by local playwrights and aspiring directors.
“You’ve got to take chances with things like this,” Kin says. “If you look back in our history, you’ll see people in days gone by who also took risks.”
He mentions that in 1988 the theater produced “Equus,” a provocative play about a young man who has sexual and religious fantasies about horses. Rifling through the theater’s endless inventory of playbills, he stumbles across one from 1933 for a play called “In 1999.”
“Oh boy,” Kin says, laughing. “Don’t you wonder what that play must have been like?”
Mishaps and misbehavior
Some of Players’ best moments went unscripted.
+ The red lobster
To deter actors from goofing off during closing night performances, Peter Strader, the Players’ longtime artistic director, used to hide a plastic lobster in random places on stage.
Actor Bill Sarazen, a third-grade teacher at Phillippi Shores Elementary School and a Players performer since 1987, recalls seeing the lobster stuck in a beehive wig, glued to the back of dress and hanging from the end of a fishing pole.
“Peter didn’t want to ruin the integrity of the show by having us play pranks on each other,” Sarazen says. “The lobster was his weird little way of keeping us in line. It would end up in such a place that the cast and crew would think it looked hideous, but to the audience it seemed like it always belonged.”
Based on the book “Sala’s Gift,” by Ann Kirschner, “Letters to Sala” is playwright Arlene Hutton’s story of Sala Garncarz Kirschner, who spent five years in a Nazi labor camp writing letters and keeping a diary in quiet defiance. The play opens at 8 p.m. Nov. 12 and runs through Nov. 15. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit www.theplayers.org.