Until the Curtain Rises Again

March 11, 2020 was like any other night for me at the Van Wezel – another great concert, this time by Paul Anka. The action-packed week started with superstar Josh Groban bringing down the house with his glorious voice, followed by the heart wrenching Broadway musical, The Color Purple. My friend Patsy and I made our way through the audience in the lobby and took our seats just before the lights started to dim. This is always a magical time for me – the hush that falls over an audience right before the star steps on stage.

First up was a film of Paul’s younger days as a teen idol, then as a young member of the Rat Pack, followed by a lifetime of memories of Paul singing with the greats and with his adoring family. Then, Paul took the stage in a concert dedicated to Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board, Mr. Frank Sinatra himself. Paul, who has written so many hit songs for himself and a myriad of stars, launched into the legendary Sinatra hits and interspersed them with tales of The Rat Pack.

“Frank always had nicknames for everyone,” he told us. "I was ‘The Kid.’” Anka, like Sinatra, is an Entertainer with a capital E. He fed off the audience and the energy at the Van Wezel that evening, and the intimacy of the Hall seemed very special to him. He gave us his all and kept singing and entertaining us for as long as the crowd kept cheering. Little did I know that night, something I couldn’t see was lurking to stop the immense joy our theaters provide every night to audiences throughout the world.

Encore after encore, Paul came back onstage and ended up performing for an additional 30 minutes. After the lights came up, Patsy said “I just didn’t know how fabulous this would be. I haven’t seen him since I was very young.” After the show, we headed backstage to congratulate him on a great show and heard more stories about Sinatra. When I left the stage door, I didn’t realize I had seen my last Van Wezel show for a long time.

The news turned upsetting the next day: Broadway went dark. I’m a Tony voter and experiencing a Broadway show is like a life-giving force to me. The next morning, I had a sobering call with the City Manager (who also loves the arts) and the directors of the Ballet, Orchestra, the Asolo, and the Opera. We were brought to the sickening but unanimous decision that our curtains would be closed for the foreseeable future. Since then, the applause and cheers of that last concert echo in my head and in my aching heart. Every day, I check the calendar to see what could have been: An American In Paris, The Choir of Man (my favorite new show), Harry Connick, Jr., Itzhak Perlman, David Foster, Katharine McPhee and many others. We grieve for so many people in our industry and elsewhere that have been impacted by this unprecedented horrible chain of events.

My staff and I are passionate about the arts and theatre. While we may not be seated in the Hall tonight, THE SHOW WILL GO ON – I promise you that. The curtain will rise, the music will fill the theatre and we will again experience the magic of live entertainment. The Great White Way will be lit up once again, the Van Wezel filled with our beloved audiences and that special joy will be back as we together laugh, cry and cheer as one.

In the meantime, my staff and that of the Van Wezel Foundation are working hard like all our local arts groups, figuring out how to deliver the joy of performance in a different format, whether online or singing out of our windows and doors. We have rescheduled many performances so they are not lost, and have booked even more in preparation for a phenomenal 2020-2021 season ahead.

Just a footnote to these thoughts—as I am writing this piece, I get a call from Paul Anka’s agent. “Paul loves your theatre and the audience in Sarasota so much that he wants to return next year!” He remembers that special evening the way that I do, and never ever wants the music to end.

I can’t wait to take my seat in the Hall once again, and I hope to see you there soon!

- Mary Bensel (March 30, 2020)


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