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Palmetto's Olympia theater reopens


After more than a decade of silence and uncertainty, Palmetto’s Olympia Theatre is brimming with life again.

Joel Jarvis, a longtime Palmetto resident and retired general contractor, has poured more than $1 million worth of renovations into the 1916 building to return it to its glory days.

The nearly 100-year-old, 48,000 square-foot theater, operating as Olympia Performing Arts Center, will host shows for the community and by the community. There will be children’s theater, dinner theater, cabaret, improv, concerts, professional beauty pageants and more.

After a 13-year process of getting the building back on its feet, Jarvis feels satisfied.

“It’s like Christmas,” he said. “It really is.”

The venue will present its first big production, “A Magical Evening,” at 8 p.m. June 19. The show will be a mix of Broadway tunes and magic.

During a recent rehearsal, four “magic” birds sat tame waiting on directions from magician/actor Michael Kent.

“I’m very excited,” said Kent. “I started working with Joel back in October to help build all this.”

With the small cabaret theater inside and an outdoor space dubbed “Backstage” ready to host performances, the only space left to tweak is the main stage. That will take another year to 18 months.

Plans call for floor and balcony seating, a dressing room and a green room. When completed, it will seat 340 people and provide space for bigger shows.

The cabaret holds 99 seats and Backstage holds 128 sitting, about 400 standing.

The kitchen/bar area to the side of the Backstage should be up and running in July, Jarvis said.

Other improvements include a new roof, spacious bathrooms with old-fashioned lighting and fresh paint throughout.

There’s also an antique pump organ to greet guests in the lobby.

“Inside and out, we’ve tried to keep a historic feel to the building,” said Matthew Mayo, artistic director of the performing arts center. “And it really feels like walking into a cabaret, vaudeville theater.”

Mayo, who was an acting director for the former Olympia Children’s Theatre, is excited about the venue. He’s been pushing for more theater north of the Manatee River for a long time.

Jarvis likes to think of the arts center as a place where legends will be made and stars are born.

Olympia’s history

Olympia opened in the early 20th century, ushering in the motion picture age as a movie theater — the first of its kind on the west coast of Florida. After decades of showing films, the theater shut down in 1956.

It took on several reincarnations of restaurants and office space.

It also attracted pizza lovers as a Hungry Howie’s. Then it sat empty after 1989, foreclosed and later condemned. The bank that owned it wanted to tear the theater down, but doing so would have cost more than it was worth.

Jarvis, who has a knack for fixing old structures such as Palmetto’s Crusader Building, thought Olympia would be the perfect place to host the Olympia Children’s Theatre troupe run by his wife, Cindy.

“Like a nut, I bought the thing,” he said. “It was not by wisdom of financial wit or anything. It was just by desire. Kind of a dream.”

He bought the property from the city of Palmetto for $1 with promises to refurbish it in a year, not knowing the time, work and finances it would take for that to happen.

“There was nothing salvageable inside — the concrete had to be chopped up, re-poured,” said Mayo.

Over the years, the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency gave Jarvis a $35,000 grant for renovations, plus $9,000 to repair the parking lot.

With renovations moving slowly, the city wanted to reacquire the property to use as a municipal auditorium. It filed an eminent domain lawsuit in 2002 but lost the case.

It continued to make offers to Jarvis, who constantly turned them down. Though renovations were not completed, Jarvis and his wife began using the Backstage on and off as a venue for teen concerts and other events so area youth could have a place to go. But in 2007, the city said performances could not happen without proper permitting.

Jarvis can’t wait to host shows regularly again.

Brad Fitzgerald of the band Electric Myakka is looking forward to playing in a new venue. The band will perform a Fourth of July concert there.

The Olympia, he said, is a one-of-a-kind venue.

“It’s just an absolute gem of a place,” Fitzgerald said. “There aren’t any 1916 art deco-type theaters out there. They are returning it to its original purpose, which I think is marvelous.”

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.