BRADENTON -- Shortly before 8 p.m. Thursday the space called Stone Hall was completely dark and silent.
At about 8 p.m., the grand drape slowly rose. Haunting music came up and filled the space. Then, a sheet of soft light arose and actors appeared in it as if rising from mist.
In those few moments, when "Miss Saigon" began, a Manatee County audience of more than 300 was transported to another world.
And also in that moment, the new $15 million Manatee Performing Arts Center, before just a soulless object comprised of hundreds of feet of wire and pipes and tons of metal and brick, was now alive.
First hour wows crowd
By intermission of the first show at the new theater, audience members were effusive in their praise of the special effects and production values.
"I saw this show on Broadway and this tops it," said Ed Silverberg of St. Petersburg.
"We saw it in Tampa and this is better," said Bob Benac.
Patrons raved about magical moments that they said could not have been pulled off in the beloved Riverfront Theater, where the Manatee Players did perform before Thursday. The phrase, "professional theater quality," could be heard.
Theatergoers also marveled that there were no lines for the restrooms at intermission, like in the Riverfront.
The only glitch in opening night seemed to be some duplicate tickets that caused some patrons to be assigned the same seats. But since the first show was about 20 seats short of a sellout, everyone got a seat, theater officials said.
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston had the honor of being the first person to address the special audience moments before "Miss Saigon" started.
"This is an elegant night," said Poston, echoing the sentiments of many who may never have walked a red carpet into a building until Thursday.
The crowd was dressed to the nines, men in tuxedoes and women in elegant dresses.
The crowd before the show was ebullient.
They sipped wine and nibbled on cheese.
"This is fantastic, a dream come true," said Arline Spino. "So many worked so hard to make it happen. We need to thank all the people who stepped up to the plate to make it happen."
Bayard dream comes true
Sara and Steve Bayard, a Richmond, Va., couple who owned GM dealerships, threw out a challenge about two years ago. They loaned the theater $1 million and contributed $800,000, but, more than that, pushed the project forward with their enthusiasm, Spino said.
"We were going to Broadway touring shows in Richmond and moved down here 10 years ago," Steve Bayard said. "We realized the Players were presenting shows every bit as good as the Broadway touring shows we were seeing. Because of the quality of performances, we felt that Rick Kerby, the Manatee Players' producing artistic director, and his actors deserved a decent theater."
"I am the butt-kicker," Steve Bayard said of himself and his role in raising the last few million to push the theater into existence.
Kevin Dilallo of Manatee Healthcare System called it "a fabulous building."
"I think it will draw community together," Dilallo said.
"It's truly a facility for the Manatee and surrounding community to be proud of," said Susan Romine, the secretary on the theater's board.