BRADENTON -- It's hard to imagine Bradenton without the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre.
For 60 years, starting with its inaugural production of the sentimental "I Remember Mama" and ending with its exuberant staging of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the theater has been an essential element of its city's geographical, social and cultural landscape.
"A lot of us younger people, we grew up here," said 16-year-old Nick Drivas, who has performed in several Players shows at the Riverfront Theatre. "There are a lot of memories here."
Drivas was among the crowd at the final performance of "Forum" on Sunday afternoon. The company is gearing up to move into its new home at the spacious and technologically up-to date Manatee Performing Arts Center on March 28, when it launches a production of "Miss Saigon."
The last play in the old space was an emotional one, and a lot of the people in the crowd said it was "bittersweet." But they were thinking more about the future than the past.
"It wasn't as bad for me as it was for some people," said Denny Miller, who played Erronius in "Forum" and who
serves as the marketing manager for Manatee Players. "Remember, I know better than anybody what we're moving into. I sat in the back row of seats for 15 minutes the other day and just thought about that."
Amanda Lade's only 11, but she's been performing at the Riverfront theatre for four and a half years, starting with a production of "Annie." Her most recent appearance was in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
"I feel like it's a special day, and I wanted to be here and celebrate with my friends," she said shortly before the show started.
Manatee Players has outgrown the old theater in may ways. The stage was barely large enough to hold the cast of some of tis larger musicals, it had become technologically antiquated and it was in need of extensive repair.
"A lot of people say, 'Why can't they just repair this theater?' " said assistant box office manager Marie Van Duzee. "There's no way they could fix it. They'd have to tear it down to fix it."
The new theater is costing more than $12 million, a staggering sum for any community theater. But Manatee Players has raised it from donors large and small. A piggy bank on the box office counter has a sign that says "Please feed me. I am hungry for a new theatre." Patrons have deposited more than $1,000 into the slot on its back over the past two years.
No one seemed to be sure what would happen to the old theater. Company staffers and volunteers said they had heard various things, that it would be turned into a park, or condos or a parking lot. Everyone assumed it would be torn down.
Becky Wence, a long-time players patron whose son Colin was the stage manager for "Forum," said she was excited to see the company move into its new home, but that she'd miss the historic building.
"This is Bradenton history," she said. "This is something you recognize. This is the Riverfront Theatre. This is Manatee Players."
A lot of people shared that sentiment. But the sentimentality involved in the building did not overwhelm their enthusiasm about moving into a modern new space.
"You know, buildings are buildings,' said Mike Nolan, right after he came of stage from playing Forum lead role of Pseudolus. "We're moving into a great new theater and we have some great shows coming up. But it's the people you work with, that's what you love, that's why you do this, and the people are going to still here no matter what building you're in."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.