The Naples Players was conceived in 1952 as friends gathered for a sunset cocktail party at the home of Henry and Mary Watkins. Leonard Latham, a theatre director from Cape Cod was in that gathering and suggested that Naples could do well with a live theatre.
It wasn’t long before another meeting was held and The Naples Players was born. The first set of minutes took place on January 19, 1953 at the Naples Women’s Club. Eight days later the troupe became a membership-driven organization with dues of one
dollar. Committees were formed for play reading, casting and staging. By the third meeting, the members had $47 in the treasury and a $35 budget for their first set.
The first show, “I Remember Mama,” ran for one night on March 20, 1953 at the then Naples high school (now Gulf View Middle School). The Miami Herald wrote, “Another cultural step in the progress of this city was taken when the newly organized Naples Players gave their first performance...worthy of accomplished professionals.”
Inspired by the success of their first performance, The Naples Players approved a constitution and by-laws that spring. The following season “Call It A Day” ran for two days and it’s success could be measured by the increase in the coffers from $137.80 at the start of the show to $700 at the close.
Over the next few years the members concerned themselves with the running of a community theatre. Only one issue continued to plague the theatre – the desire for a venue of its own. On January 20, 1956, a petition of incorporation was signed, notarized and submitted to the state. In June the members purchased three acres, described as “just over the bridge in Coconut Creek.”
116 members strong, The Player’s first musical, “H.M.S. Pinafore,” was staged 1958. With the recession of the late 1950’s, the Players still managed to produce four plays a year through 1960, while actively seeking a permanent home. Various plans for theatres were routinely presented, modified and dismissed.
While some members planned for a theatre on the Coconut Creek property, a partnership with the Naples Art Association was also discussed, as well as the idea of a building on the grounds of the Caribbean Gardens (now The Naples Zoo).
In the late 1950’s, conflict arose and the number of productions dropped to two per year, with just one in the 1961-1962 season. A new board was installed and The Players created their first strategic plan. The plan called for increased publicity and an awards system. To compensate for decreasing revenues, dues were increased from $5 to $6.
The following season, the theatre staged three productions and the desire for a home of its own grew. Bonds were sold and hopes ran high. However, the late 1960’s saw the Players insolvent and the Coconut Creek property was sold.
The 1970’s were a busy time however, with shows, classes, workshops and seminars. The most notable play of the period was “Fiddler on the Roof,” which broke all profit records and resulted in an effort to mount more artistically challenging productions such as “Man of La Mancha” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” At the start of the decade, season tickets for four shows cost $6.00, were increased to $8.00 and then to $10.00. The policy of invitation-only membership was relaxed and a simple recommendation from an existing member was sufficient for becoming a new member.
Changes in marketing, pricing and membership revitalized the organization.
By the 1980’s, the group was presenting four productions a year and a concerted effort to stray from audience-pleasers and comedies, resulted in productions such as “A Lion in Winter” and “Ah Wilderness,” firmly establishing The Naples Players as a serious and outstanding community theatre. Still, a home of its own eluded the group.
In 1984 a movie house (Kon-Tiki Theatre) was available for rent at the corner of US 41 and Goodlette Frank Road and The Players signed a lease. An architectural firm was hired for interior renovations and the Downtown Naples Rotary Club donated $6,000 for the purchase of seats. On March 16, 1985, The Naples Playhouse opened with “Guys and Dolls,” selling out before opening night. In 1987 a subscription for five shows cost $40.
In the 1990’s the property was sold and the Playhouse was razed to make way for a retail and condominium complex. It was clear that the only way to safeguard their destiny was to build and hold the deed to its own facility. Joyce Heptner relocated to Naples and became The Players’ first Executive Director and Ted Tobye, then President, organized the Steering Committee for the New Theatre Building. Sites were studied, demographics defined and designs discussed.
At that time, renowned urban planner Andrew Duany was hired to revitalize downtown Naples. His plans called for bringing the arts into the area with Cambier Park sited as the location. After meeting with opposition, the city council, in an historic move, closed Seventh Street to vehicle traffic to create Players Plaza with an outdoor stage.
A major fundraising effort followed, architects and consultants were hired. Arrangements were made for $3 million in tax-free municipal bonds and a major line of credit was established. The bonds were never needed. The first major gift came from Frances Pew Hayes. Others soon followed by the likes of Peg and Herb Sugden, Lois and Dick Blackburn and Jay and Patty Baker. Three successive yearly grants from the State of Florida totaled nearly $1.5 million. The final result was the 1998 debt-free opening of Sugden Community Theatre on 5th Avenue South, with the play “Me and My Girl.”
Today The Naples Players stage more than 220 performances a year, many of them sell outs. With a subscriber base of more than 4,000, children’s program that reach over 600 children annually, and having been voted Best Live Theatre for ten consecutive years in the Naples Daily News Southwest Florida Choice Awards, the momentum continues strong as ever.
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