As it reflects on 45 years of arts and entertainment, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall looks ahead to the future.
The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is almost as synonymous with Sarasota as its pristine beaches and coastline.
The “Purple Lady,” constructed in 1968, opened her doors Jan. 5, 1970, with a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Since then, it has served as a home for Sarasota’s local arts organizations as well as international touring talent.
Legends such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Harry Belafonte, Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Pavarotti, Liberace, George Carlin, B.B. King, Don Rickles, Martin Short, Jay Leno, Liza Minnelli, Smokey Robinson, David Copperfield, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Tony Bennett have all performed on its intimate stage.
And to ring in 45 years, the Van Wezel lived up to its impressive performance pedigree. Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band played for more than two hours last week to a sold-out crowd.
“He couldn’t have been more gracious and giving,” says Monica Van Buskirk, president of the Van Wezel Foundation. “Ringo wanted everyone to dance and to sing back all the Beatles tunes that we knew. It was just a special moment for me, personally.”
Van Buskirk has been involved with the foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates and fundraises for the city-owned performance hall, since 2000 as a volunteer and donor. She’s entering her fourth year as president.
According to Van Buskirk, during her tenure she has helped lead a reversal in the hall’s financial fortunes.
“It was controversial that five years ago it was in the red financially, but now it’s in the black by about $500,000,” says Van Buskirk. “It’s been a huge job to make this an independently viable place.”
And with a firm budgetary foundation, Van Buskirk and the foundation hope to increase the building’s role in its two major functions: entertainment and education.
An estimated 25,000 children visit the Van Wezel each year to see the performing arts organizations that tour through Sarasota as well as youth-oriented programming such as “Let’s Go Science Show,” “Curious George Live!” and “Schoolhouse Rock Live!” Through its fundraising efforts, the foundation pays for transportation for the field trips to the Van Wezel.
“When you see those children and young students in the hall and you say hello and they all scream back hello it’s very moving,” says Van Buskirk.
In regards to the Van Wezel’s next 45 years, Van Buskirk sees an extension of that mission of entertainment and education in an expanded Van Wezel in coordination with the Bayfront 20:20 revitalization plan. The board of the Van Wezel Foundation has been meeting with consultants to orchestrate a plan that will usher a new era for the bayfront.
“I see a campus being built here for the arts and a collaboration with other arts organizations,” says Van Buskirk. “I see a campus that is an arts-oriented organization, and I hope to see restaurants, gardens and bistro. I want to see this land being used properly instead of as just a parking lot.”
And as for the 50th anniversary celebration in 2020? Van Buskirk and the Van Wezel are already creating a short list and actively pursuing potential star performers.
“Personally, I’d love to see Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones,” says Van Buskirk. “And our hall is so intimate there’s almost not a bad seat. You feel like you’re with the stars.”
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