Further complications disrupt playhouse's transformation


An artist's rendering of the new Gainesville Community Playhouse designed by Jay Reeves and Associates.

Special to the Sun
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Just as Cinderella's fairy godmother turned a pumpkin into a chariot, arts patrons are turning the old Gainesville Community Playhouse into the state-of-the-art Vam York Theater.
But, just like Cinderella, GCP will not make it home on time.
After an initial setback that pushed the new $2 million Vam York Theater opening from October to late January, further complications again have delayed the building's grand opening. "Cinderella The Musical" - Vam York Theater's inaugural play - is now scheduled to open on March 24.
With the demand for contractors and subcontractors skyrocketing after the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, the theater had to wait for welders to come in and finish the catwalks, said Hannah Stahmer, co-director of "Cinderella" and a GCP member since 1975.
"They had to get the catwalks welded in before they could do anything else and had to use huge lifts to get up there," Stahmer said. "Until that was done, everything else was held up because all of the equipment was on the stage and in the auditorium. They couldn't work on anything else. It's like a domino effect. You have to have one thing done before you can finish the next."
The community troupe has been staging its shows in a small space in Northwood Village Shopping Center since its old building was demolished last summer. The new facility is on the same site - along NW 16th Boulevard near NW 43rd Street.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella" was originally scheduled to open on Friday in the new Vam York Theater. But the construction delay will prompt a two-month snag in GCP's season, with "Cinderella" moving into the March slot originally slated for "Beauty and the Beast," which now will open in November as part of GCP's 2006-2007 season.
"Instead of trying to cram another show in (to the temporary stage), we took a step back to make sure the theater was ready," said Jerry Brewington, a long-time GCP volunteer in charge of long-range planning. "We wanted to make sure that our first production is great - and it will be."
Of the construction delay, Brewington said, "It's not anybody's fault. It's just been more a series of little events."
The new, nearly 10,000-square-foot theater will boast a 45-foot-high fly system that will allow scenery and backdrops to fly in and out quickly. There's also a two-story lobby, backstage bathrooms, a green room, two dressing rooms, a costume assembly room, a set shop and new technology and lighting systems - all huge advancements from the old GCP theater, which had no backstage bathrooms but had an opossum and squirrels.
"It has all the bells and whistles of a huge theater," Stahmer said. "I envision twirling skirts and pretty lifts that we could never do on our old stage. Our theater is growing up."
Rehearsals for "Cinderella" began in November, Brewington said. But with the change in dates, some of the actors had to drop out of the production due to schedule conflicts.
The shortage of subcontractors since the hurricanes is nothing new in this area, said Jim Painter, president of Builders Association of North Central Florida and co-owner of Painter Masonry. In fact, the shortage may get worse, he said, as subcontractors flock to New Orleans to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
"Any good craftsman right now is difficult," Painter said. "We have good paying jobs being offered to us, but we can't find the people that want to work in construction."
The subcontractor shortage certainly is not the first setback for the Vam York Theater, often called the "Miracle on 43rd Street" because community donations and support made it possible to build.
In 2003, GCP was a top contender for a state grant that would have added $360,200 to the building fund. Later that year, legislators slashed arts funding by $22 million statewide, rendering the GCP's grant quest useless for the time being.
Meanwhile, the price of building materials rose. The board trudged on, amping up the capital campaign. Ultimately, the theater raised more than $1 million and, after adding its own money, will have to pay off about $800,000 in debt for the $2 million facility, Brewington said. The theater's primary benefactors were E.T. and Vam York.
As of now, the new theater's catwalk is finally finished and the dry wall is ready to go up this week. "Cinderella" is expected in March with much fanfare, marking one of GCP's most significant milestones in its nearly 80-year history.
But, said Brewington, "If we are delayed again, I'm jumping off the top of the building."

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