Three volunteer ushers at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall reveal what it takes to keep things running smoothly at the iconic bayfront venue.
Anyone who’s been to a performance at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has seen them. They’re nearly as iconic as the purple bayfront hall itself.
Dressed in their signature black suits and vests, perhaps they’ve shown you to your seat — or more importantly, the restroom.
None of the onstage action — be it ballet, orchestra, rock ’n’ roll or comedy — would be possible without the more than 500 ushers who volunteer their time to ensure each night runs smoothly.
The job comes with perks, to be sure. But for the 53 who volunteer each night, it’s not all watching performances.
From helping people who’ve shown up on the wrong evening — or at the wrong venue — to emergency evacuations and rowdy guests, these ushers are the face of the organization for 24 shows per season. And they have to be prepared for anything.
We sat down with three longtime volunteer ushers to talk uniforms, what’s kept them volunteering and just how many times they’ve seen Tony Bennett.
Years of Service: 19
It’s Friday Fest at the Van Wezel, and the volunteer ushers are enjoying the chance to take a break from the formal dress code. In lieu of his typical black suit and tie, today, team captain Larry DeRosa is dressed for the outdoor summer occasion.
Local band Kettle Of Fish performs, and patrons dance near the bayfront stage as DeRosa makes his rounds. Today, he’s working as a floater — he’s not tied to any particular post, which allows him to do what he loves most: mingle.
“I’m a people person,” he says. “I love interacting with the patrons and with the other volunteers. That’s probably the thing you need most to do this job — you’ve got to love people.”
DeRosa, like many of the ushers, says he started as a patron.
“I was watching a performance, and I was just struck by the ushers,” he says. “I thought that looked like a fun job — I’d like to do that.
“The job has lots of perks,” he says. “Of course, it’s great to see all the shows. But for me, it’s about interacting with people. You get to know these people pretty well. They become friends.”
DeRosa says it’s a commitment, but it’s something he loves. He says when ushers first start, many of them take on extra shows that aren’t on their season-long schedule.
“That tapers off pretty quickly,” he says with a laugh. “Or you’d be here every night.”
He laughs as he recalls how many times he’s seen Tony Bennett perform.
“I’ve seen him five times,” he says. “But it’s never the same show twice.”
For DeRosa, the job is an opportunity to put his people skills to work. At Friday Fest, he stops to joke with patrons and other ushers, a friendly smile on his face.
“I really like coming here,” he says. “It’s a fun place to be. It’s given me a lot of joy, and it’s something I always look forward to.”
Years of Service: 15
Vincent Ellis, who worked in the hospitality industry for 15 years before becoming an usher, says the experience served him well.
“Here,” he says with a laugh, “the patron is most certainly always right.”
Ellis began volunteering 15 years ago. He says he was a patron first, and the idea of joining the ranks of the hundreds of volunteers was appealing. In his time as an usher, he’s done just about every job there is to do: taking tickets, assisting patrons at the elevator, ushering inside the hall and out.
“It’s different every time you work,” he says. “Different shows bring out different types of people, so you’re always meeting someone new.”
Most volunteers work as part of a team, rotating duties. Now, Ellis works with the performers to help sell their merchandise. As a result, he’s able to work with all of the teams. Occasionally, he gets to meet the performers.
“Kenny G. is always very gracious,” he says. “He always signs autographs for people who buy his CD.”
For all its perks, he says the job comes with a lot of responsibility.
“You’ve got to make sure the patrons are there on the right night, with the right ticket and in the right seat,” he says. “And if there’s a fire or any kind of emergency, you have to be prepared.”
He recalls a night when the band Chicago was performing. Their pyrotechnics triggered the smoke detectors, and the hall needed to be evacuated.
“We had everyone out of the hall and on the lawn in a minute and a half,” he says.
He says he’s not the type of person to be content with nothing to do — he likes to keep busy. He’s volunteered at 34 shows this season. His favorite are jazz concerts.
“I have too many good memories to count,” he says. “There’s a best memory every year. And then the next season, there’s a new favorite.”
Years of Service: 11
Judy Brombolich was looking for something new. After the death of her husband, Mike, she says she was looking for some way to get involved.
A friend was a volunteer usher at the Van Wezel, and she suggested Brombolich try it out. Somewhat on a whim, Brombolich took her up on the offer.
After an application process, she was accepted and ready to start her first night.
“I remember being scared to death,” she says. “I didn’t want to do anything wrong, so I was pretty nervous. But you learn on the job. Once you start talking to people, that fear goes away.”
One of the first things she noticed was the level of commitment the position takes. Volunteers work on teams, volunteering two to three times per week throughout the season — sometimes up to five or six hours each night.
She says she loves meeting and interacting with the patrons and her fellow ushers, and that having the opportunity to enjoy performances is an added perk.
She likes concerts — ones she calls “oldies but goodies.” And the Ringling College Town Hall Lecture series are a personal favorite.
“This is a big part of the arts community here,” she says. “Sarasota wouldn’t be Sarasota without the Van Wezel.”