The Naples Players'
Seventh Heaven

by Jules Morreal

Seventh Street off Fifth Avenue in Naples no longer exists. A once busy thoroughfare, Seventh Street surrendered its right of way to the elegant edifice of the Sugden Community Theatre, home of The Naples Players. Set amidst an English Pub and an Italian bistro its outdoor stage with its resplendent proscenium rivals the beauty of a Grecian Parthenon. On special occasions, the public is invited to attend outdoor concerts, and musical reviews free of charge as a community service offered by the Players. After dinner, patrons of the theater can sit back, bask in the balmy Florida evening and enjoy the outdoor performance.

Not to be neglected is the inclined 300 seat indoor theater certain to give every viewer an excellent view of the stage. Its latest production, Arthur Miller’s, All My Sons, directed by John Herr, played to a full house and an extended ovation at curtain. Performed by local thespians, the theatergoer would be hard-pressed not to compare it to the best Broadway has to offer. All of the Players are unpaid, it is the sheer joy of performing that brings them to every casting call, Herr says with conviction. Herr’s career has spanned the spectrum of thearterdom. With more than 80 productions under his belt, Herr’s acting, writing and directing talents have contributed greatly to the accolades of The Naples Players.

Adding to the success of The Naples Players are the talents of Artistic Director Dallas Dunnagan. Keeping her thumb on the pulse of the theater community, she has brought the Greek tragedies, Shakespearean classics and contemporary works to the Players stage, "Our productions span a broad spectrum of theatrical success," Dunnagan asserts, and all of our endeavors are geared to quality entertainment, and public support." Recent performances with packed houses attest to that success.

In addition, the Sugden Community Theatre has much more to boast. The Tobye Studio, with its surrounding black walls, has a seating capacity of 100. Its circular seating arrangements afford the audience an intimate viewing of the performers. Designed to promote avant- garde and experimental theater, it is another gem the Sugden Community Theatre has to offer.

It wasn’t always a smooth road that the Players traveled. "In the mid 90’s Fifth Avenue was in the doldrums", says Jim Rideoutte, Executive Director of the Naples players." A miasmic pall had engulfed the business community and people were no longer venturing into the shopping area. Restaurants, boutiques and outdoor cafes all suffered the pangs of listless business." Fifth Ave was in its death throes with a thirty percent vacancy rate. Rideoutte envisioned the birth of pawn shops, flea markets, tattoo parlors and adult stores each sounding a death knell to what was once a thriving business community.

Determined to bring a halt to the spreading blight, the Naples City Council awakened to the problem. Brainstorming sessions concluded that incentives to encourage new business and the return of shoppers to the area were of tantamount concern. Calling upon the services and expertise of urban planner Andres Duany, a plan was developed by the City Council and 5th Avenue merchants to resurrect the once bustling community. Duany recommended encouraging the arts and ensuringthem a place for them in the community. Efforts to finance the project by the community were also encouraged.

In the interim, The Naples Players were having problems of their own. In its early stages the players performed in schools, empty store fronts and whatever else was available. As the group grew, it moved into the Kon Tiki movie house on Goodlette Road. "It was like heaven to us," says Janina Birtolo a veteran actor with the Players, "Kon Tiki was a professional theater, a ‘real’ theater, which gave an enormous morale boost to the entire troupe." Birtolo, found a home with the group. The Players have been more than acquaintances to her; she has made life-long friends after sharing stage experiences with them. As a ten year member of the troupe, her acting talents grew as well as her friendships with many of the Players.

However, a specter was waiting in the wings. The Kon Tiki lease had run its course and renewal was not on the horizon. The theater was scheduled for a complete refurbishing and the Players were again homeless. The troupe was about to be orphaned, but their persistent and diehard board of directors initiated a fundraising committee to ensure its survival.

However, the dark cloud that engulfed the Players had a silver lining. Acting upon Andres Duany’s recommendation to encourage the arts, the City Council closed Seventh Street and leased the land to The Naples Players. "Much to our surprise the community came to our rescue." says Rideoutte. " We had $50,000 in the bank and local support helped to raise another $2 million." The Sugdens, a prominent Naples family, contributed well over $1,000,000, which encouraged others to support the effort. A total of $6.5 million was raised with additional pledges from other community members.

Architect Andrea Clark Brown was hired to design the theater. Months later, the Sugden Community Theatre rose from the ashes of a once dying community; resurrecting Fifth Avenue to a bustling upscale business center.

Today, a casual evening stroll can be enjoyed along Fifth Avenue enjoying the countless interesting boutiques and outdoor cafes and ending with a professional performance at the Sugden Community Theatre by The Naples Players •

from the September-October 2004 issue

Jim Rideoutte

"The community came
to our rescue."