Civic leaders and arts patrons gather at Manatee Players gala

Manatee Players producing artistic director Rick Kerby, right, chats with guests at the Crystal Gala near a table of artwork and other items that were auctioned as part of the fundraiser.
Manatee Players producing artistic director Rick Kerby, right, chats with guests at the Crystal Gala near a table of artwork and other items that were auctioned as part of the fundraiser. mclear@bradenton.com

Attendance may have been down. Enthusiasm was not.

On Saturday evening, about 150 people donned formal attire, shelled out $175 apiece and came to the Manatee Performing Arts Center for the Manatee Players’ 2016 Crystal Gala.

The gala is a major fundraising event for Manatee Players, and the crowd was noticeably smaller than in previous years. The 2015 gala attracted about 200 people.

If that meant the gala brought in a little less money this year, nobody seemed too worried.

“This is our biggest fundraiser of the year,” said Jeff Evans, president of the Manatee Performing Arts Center’s board of directors. “But it’s also a social event. It’s an opportunity for people who support the theater to get together.”

A lot of the performing arts center’s most ardent supporters seldom get a chance to talk to each other, Evans said. They may have season tickets on different nights. And even if they’re at the theater at the same time, they may only chat for a few moments before and after shows.

At the Crystal Gala, they gathered in the lobby for wine and hors d’oeuvres, saw a short program in Stone Hall, enjoyed a surf and turf dinner upstairs and then went back down to the lobby for dessert and live jazz.

The guests included community leaders, theater lovers and prominent people from the local arts scene.

“I think it’s important for us to support each other,” said Robyn Bell, the conductor of the newly formed SCF Bradenton Symphony. “I think (Manatee Players) will benefit from the Bradenton Symphony, and we benefit from them. It’s not a competitive thing. It’s about cooperation.”

“How many communities can boast something so special?” asked master of ceremonies Vernon DeSear, a longtime Manatee Players supporter who made his stage debut with the company in “South Pacific” when he was in the fifth grade.

DeSear noted that Manatee Players had accomplished something special in creating a facility such as the Manatee Performing Arts Center, but that the work was not completed.

“Thank you for looking beyond what there is now and looking to the future beyond it,” he told the crowd. “It is only going to get better.”

In Stone Hall, the gala guests got a taste of the 2016-17 Manatee Players mainstage season. Sarah Cassidy and Rik Robertson performed “I Am Unworthy,” an odd love song from the Stephen Sondheim musical “Assassins.” Cassidy plays Squeaky Fromme, singing of her love for Charles Manson, and she trades verses with Robertson as John Hinckley, singing to a picture of Jodie Foster.

“Assassins” is the next mainstage musical in the Manatee Players season, and “I Am Unworthy” is a beautiful song. But producing artistic director Rick Kerby acknowledged it was perhaps a bit eerie, so he ended the entertainment portion of the evening with a more conventional number. Maryanne Hernandez, as Mrs. Potts, sang the title song for the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast.”

The fundraising aspect of the gala may have taken a bit of a hit from the downturn in attendance, but the evening offered other opportunities for Manatee Players. Early in the evening, in the center’s lobby, guests entered bids in a silent auction. The center raised thousands of dollars from auctioned artwork, jewelry and other items.

A pair of diamond earrings worth $3,000 was raffled off, with tickets selling for $20 apiece. And after dinner, Kerby conducted an auction of donated items including catered dinner parties, gourmet dinners for 10 at local restaurants and an evening for 15 guests in the skybox at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. That auction generated more than $10,000 for Manatee Players. Two people paid $1,600 apiece for the skybox evening, which included a musical, concierge service an open bar and food.