BRADENTON -- It was called a "Crystal Gala," and its official purpose was to celebrate the grand opening of the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
But at its heart, the Saturday night soiree was really a tribute to what a community can do when it comes together.
"I have never, ever known Bradenton not to step up to the plate when they saw something that needed to be done," said former City Council member Marianne Barnebey. "Bradenton always steps up to the plate."
Bradenton, and the rest of Manatee County, stepped up in a big way to build the new center.
The idea started more than a decade ago, when Cora May Stone donated $2.5 million to the Manatee Players for a new building, on the condition that construction start within a year.
It did, but the Manatee Players still had to raise many millions more to finish the job. A lot of Manatee Players officials don't remember a time before the performing arts center project.
"It's been a long journey," said Rick Kerby, the Manatee Players' artistic director. "When I got here 10 years ago there were already design plans and money. So we've been waiting for this night for more than 10 years."
Saturday's gala started in the early evening in the lobby of the performing arts center.
Bradenton's most prominent citizens came out to the big event, adorned in tuxedos, gowns, jewels and smiles. They arrived with anticipation of the night ahead and of those that will follow as the season is set to begin.
"It's going to be a centerpiece of downtown," John Vita, vice president with Morgan Stanley, said. "A place for everyone to come down and enjoy themselves and enjoy the culture of our community."
Several gala guests remarked that the new center was a defining element in Bradenton's development.
"It's expanding on the economic growth and cultural activities of the community," said Barbara Najmy, an agent with Michael Saunders and Company. "All good things are happening in our area and this just another piece of growth."
After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, and the unveiling of a portrait of Cora May Stone, the gala moved into the 380-seat Stone Theatre for a performance by Sarasota's Nock Family, a graceful and hilarious circus act from Sarasota that is among the contestants on "America's Got Talent." Their performance was followed by a rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables," which opens the Manatee Players' season Thursday.
Sarah Cassidy, who plays Fantine in the upcoming production, offered an emotional rendition of the show's best-known song.
After dinner provided by Pier 22, the guests returned to the lobby for music by Palmetto resident and former NFL player Henry Lawrence.
For Janene Witham, the executive director of the Manatee Players, the grand opening marked a chance to enjoy what the company and the community had accomplished.
"Just this week I've had a chance to take a breath and look around and appreciate what we've done here," she said. "Every time I turn a corner and see something else we've accomplished, I'm in awe, and I'm so humbled and grateful to the community."
For the Manatee Players, the new center also means artistic possibility that they never could have imagined in their former longtime home on Old Main Street.
"I think we proved ourselves in the old theater,' Kerby said. "Now all we can do is dream bigger."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.
Jessica De Leon, Herald reporter, contributed to this report.