Last Sunday night, Corinne Woodland sat outside the Riverfront Theatre in downtown Bradenton. She heard it was about to be torn down soon. She posted something on Facebook telling people she was there, but she sat there all alone.
"I was all by myself, ugly-crying, for a long time," she said.
After a while, a few people who had seen her Facebook post joined her. Then a few more. By the end of the evening, someone counted 18 people, all of whom had come to say goodbye to an unattractive building with a leaky roof and rats.
"I know it's in terrible shape," she said. "I know we have this nice, new theater. But my heart, my soul, my whole life is inside that building."
She's not alone. Woodland has been performing in Manatee Players shows since she was 9 years old, and for years before that she watched her parents, Mark and Kelly Woodland, perform there. She thinks of it as her home, and a lot of other performers who learned their craft within those walls are also grieving.
"They're ripping out a piece of my heart and they're tearing down my home" said Tahlia Joanna Byers, a professional dancer and actor who got her start with Manatee Players at the Riverfont Theatre. "It's a very holy place for me, literally and figuratively."
Byers is performing at Asolo Repertory Theatre in "West Side Story," a show that she performed years ago at the Riverfront Theatre with the Manatee Players. The theater has been vacant for nearly three years, since the Manatee Players moved into their new home at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. Performers, administrators and audiences all have a much more comfortable place to create and enjoy theater now, a place with technical capabilities far beyond the in the old theater.
But there was something special about the old place.
"I feel like we did some great work there, in not-so-great conditions," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director of Manatee Players. "And when you do exceptional work in adverse conditions, you feel like you've climbed a mountain."
The conditions were indeed terrible. The rain would not just leak in, but pour in through the roof. Actors had to run around the building with buckets during rainstorms, trying to catch the water from the leaks that had developed since the previous storm. It only helped so much.
During some shows, Denny Miller said, the carpet
in the audience area was so saturated with rain water that "you could make a splash."
Miller spent 30 years with Manatee Players, all but two at Riverfront Theatre.
"It was my other home," he said. "I'm sorry to see it go."
Miller started as a volunteer usher, became a performer (he was in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the last Manatee Players show at Riverfront) and eventually was the marketing director for Manatee Players. He left the company this year and now lives in Sebring.
Rats were common sights in the building, and there was a cat that got in that nobody could get out for years. But those weren't the only non-human inhabitants. "We had our ghosts," Byers said. "Things would go missing and then show up days later mysteriously."
"People were constantly seeing things," Kerby said. "Teams of ghost hunters were always wanting to investigate. Sometimes we'd let them in."
But for Kerby, the spirits that dwell within the theater were anything but spooky.
"For me, it felt like a very positive energy," he said. "There was this one backstage area, I think it used to be the scene shop, and people would write their names on the walls. There were thousands and thousands of signatures, going back 60 years. That's the energy I felt there."
Lots of Manatee Players veterans have been making pilgrimages to the old theater, Kerby said.
That gathering last weekend was probably the largest though. Woodland, her friends and some strangers were outside of the theater for several hours. Woodland had brought along several bottles of glitter. She stepped over the short barricade that's meant to encourage people to keep their distance, and she sprinkled glitter on the driveway and the front steps. She put some into the palm of her hand and blew it into the inside of the building through the mail slot.
"I just felt that I needed to bless the building with glitter," she said.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.