Lately it seems James Lemons has been spending a lot of time in a hard hat, so much so that he even has one with his name on it.
Well, except for today.
Today, a construction worker putting up drywall inside Florida Studio Theatre’s new Gompertz Theatre is walking around wearing Lemons’ hat.
Lemons, the theater’s general manager of two years, doesn’t seem to mind. According to his hat, he’s Bruce Price, FST’s production manager.
“At least it fits,” he says with a grin, as he waltzes past the mangled fence separating the Gompertz construction site from the rest of the FST campus. “Structurally, we’re finishing a lot of things now. We’re just about ready to move onto interior work: colors of walls, carpet details, lighting sconces. Fancy stuff.”
Last year, when FST Artistic Director Richard Hopkins announced that the theater would break ground on a $6 million construction project to renovate and expand its 100-year-old Gompertz Theatre, Lemons, 34, didn’t realize how much of the project would impact his day-to-day job.
The manager serves as the liaison between the Bradenton-based NDC Construction firm and FST, a job that he says has come with its fair share of pressure and excitement.
Lemons, a native of Henrietta, Texas, hasn’t breathed in this much sawdust since he remodeled his first home in Dallas.
“A friend of mine once told me that remodeling a house is a lot like building a set,” Lemons says. “Of course, there are a lot of differences, too. Sets are built for speed and efficiency. We build it up and tear it down. The Gompertz needs to last for a long time.”
As most longtime theatergoers are aware, the building has already stood the test of time.
Built in 1925 at the corner of First Street and Cocoanut Avenue in downtown Sarasota, the Gompertz has undergone several transformations in its 87 years.
Originally a movie theater, it closed down in the 1930s and re-opened in the early 1950s as the Palm Tree Playhouse, a 160-seat venue for live theater founded by Sarasota actor Stuart Lancaster, the grandson of circus magnate Charles Ringling.
When Lancaster shut it down in 1962, it remained vacant until the Asolo Stage Two Theatre moved in 10 years later, followed by Theatre Works in 1985, followed by FST in 2004.
“The Gompertz has had a revolving door for years,” says Lemons, who unearthed evidence of the theater’s many tenants when renovations began on the building. “We found boxes of old ticket stubs and playbills from the Palm Tree Playhouse that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1950s.”
Among some of the found treasure: handwritten movie tickets, old inkwells and employee pay stubs buried in the sand under the floorboards. According to Lemons, some of the checks were for $25 — one week’s pay.
“We kept a lot of what we found,” he says. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do with it yet, as far as preservation goes.”
Lemons has been so focused on overseeing construction, he’s had little time to think about his first love: directing theater.
A graduate of Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, Lemons spent 10 years as the associate artistic director at WaterTower Theatre, a 32,000-square-foot professional theater in Dallas.
A fan of musical comedies, Lemons carved a niche for himself, directing what he describes as “the most modern, crass musical theater you can think of.”
“If it was classy,” Lemons says, “I never did it.”
Despite his penchant for lighter fare, the director was burned out on musical theater and craving a new adventure.
He says he found it at FST. And, no, he’s not had the itch to direct anything … yet.
“Right now I’m focused on construction deadlines,” he says. “I’m Type A enough that I like getting this work done. I like crossing it off my list. In two weeks I’ll be able to cross off stuccoing. Is it wrong that I’m getting excited about seeing my Sharpie roll across the page?”
BY THE NUMBERS
160,000 — The number of people that FST reaches with its current programming
11,000 — The number of subscribers in FST’s Mainstage series
6,000 — The current number of square feet inside the Gompertz Theatre
18,000 — The number of square feet FST will add to the current Gompertz Theatre
$5.6 million — The cost of the Gompertz construction campaign
$1 million — The cost of the property at the corner of First Street and Cocoanut Avenue
230 — The number of new seats FST will add to its campus
5 — The number of months until the Gompertz’s grand opening