History of the Florence Little Theatre
“All the World is a Stage” was not just a metaphor for those responsible for the organization of the Florence Little Theatre. Driven by their desire to perform and without a building to call home, these tireless individuals performed anywhere and everywhere they could to bring live theatre to Florence. What they started 84 seasons ago remains an inspiration to all of us today as we strive to bring to life the magic that is live theatre.
It all began in 1923 when Margaret Wright formed a group called The Community Players. Their first performance, in August of 1923, was staged on the lawn of Mr. James M. Lynch's home on West Palmetto Street. Even though there is no record of the titles of plays during the theatre's first few seasons, we do know that the players initially went out and “rounded up” an audience for theirproductions. They would perform outside, in homes, garages, or any place they were allowed. Before long, coaxing was not necessary – they came willingly and in great numbers.
With the onset of winter that year, The Community Players had to look for a building they could rehearse in as well as perform in for their larger audiences. The Pinewood Club offered their facilities for performances and the group appropriately renamed themselves The Pinewood Players. During this time, the theatre flourished and this served as their home until fire ravished the club.
Although the fire destroyed the club, it did not extinguish their desire to continue to perform. They were allowed use of the YMCA and Florence High School until 1929. The crash of the stock market plunged the nation into the dark Depression. The stage mirrored the lives of many during this time and went dark for 10 years.
In the summer of 1939, a group of eager college students felt the time was right to once again give the people of Florence an escape in the form of live theatre. They were able to combine their energy and passion with the talents and experience of many of the original Pinewood Players, continuing the lineage that had been started some 16 years prior. They initially produced several one-act comedies in a storage garage behind the Sanborn Hotel.
By 1940, the Pinewood Players were back in full swing. Most shows were performed at Florence High School, with season memberships selling for $1.00. This price entitled the patrons admittance to all shows during that season, with a guaranteed minimum of three shows. 1940 also marked the changing of the group's name to The Little Theatre Guild. In addition, open auditions made their debut, allowing the general public to read for parts and have the opportunity to be cast with the seasoned actors. Thetheatre had entered a period of rejuvenation, but it was short-lived. In the summer of 1941, FLT went dark for the second and last time, as the nation, as well as many young male actors and theatre volunteers, went off to fight in World War II.
On October 13, 1947, the new Florence Little Theatre Guild met at the YMCA. George Glass, Sylvia Stein and Mary King were elected as the officers. For the first time in the theatre's history, bylaws were adopted. This guild was also instrumental in obtaining rights to the old air base movie house as the new home for their productions. Renovations were made to the structure to accommodate performances. While the male volunteers were busy building the stage, their female counterparts sewed the original show curtain.
The need to replace the furnace system pushed the guild into a situation of bankruptcy. Without the funds to complete the renovations, they decided to cast the first Junior Players production of “Snow White.” Starring Sally King, Charles Waters and Jennie Hood, over 1,000 people attended, literally putting the guild back in the black overnight. The success of this show saved the theatre and facilitated the completion of the renovations.
The 1950s brought more ambitious dramas to the stage, and the 1960s opened the door to big Broadway musicals. Although they were grateful to have a home, space for such elaborate staging and rehearsals was limited. It was not unheard for choreography rehearsals to take place in the street in front of the air base. The dancers would scatter when a car drove through and immediately resume rehearsal. Modesty did not last for long if you acted in a production. There was one dressing room divided by a drape - men on one side, women on the other. Many times, there wasn't enough room for all of the actors, so they dressed where they could find space, including outdoors.
Additionally, there were some technical and structural issues that caused problems, but produced some rather humorous memories. Leaks in the building would cause water to run down the length of the auditorium. During an especially heavy rain, the water would puddle around the feet of the orchestra. Toilets could not be flushed during a performance. With pipes running the length of the building, anyone using the facilities could be heard on stage. “Urgent needs” cases were asked to go outside.
One of the most memorable technical difficulties occurred during a performance of “Ten Little Indians,” when the seagull sound effects would not work – the tape had jammed. It is told that local businessman Carter Byrd, who was running sound, ran out on stage and yelled, “Seagulls! Seagulls! Seagulls!”
In 1966, a board of trustees was formed to oversee a capital campaign, established to raise money for a new facility. Within one year, the committee had amassed $160,000 in pledges and contributions.
Four men, Ronald Sopkin, Phil Stephenson, Jeff Corbin, and Joe Baroody, were instrumental in the building of the new theatre. They, along with a dedicated board of directors, channeled their love for the theatre into a vision to build one of the finest theatre facilities in our state. With property donated by an anonymous “angel,” Florence Little Theatre held its grand opening on November 14, 1968, with a production of “The King and I."
In September of 1970, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church approached FLT’s board of directors with an exciting, but unusual request. Having lost their home to fire, the facility they were renting was not working for them and they needed a new “temporary home” to hold services in. This relationship was mutually beneficial for both entities and brought in much needed revenue during those early years when the theatre was trying to retire its debt on the building. St. Anthony’s continued to hold mass at FLT every Sunday until Palm Sunday of 1973 when they moved into their new church on Hoffmeyer Road. At the annual awards night in May of 1973, St. Anthony’s received a special award for “The Longest Running Show” held at FLT.
Since opening its doors on Cashua, FLT has performed an extensive list of musicals and plays. Patrons often compare performances to those they've seen on Broadway. We feel, and have received assurance, that although we are an amateur theatre, we have a reputation for putting on some of the best professional quality productions that can be found throughout North and South Carolina.
Areas of growth over the past years have generated additional avenues of income other than our regular season, while fostering the love of live performance for theatre goers of all ages. The FLT Children's Workshop, an extremely popular program, is an after-school program designed to teach basic theatre knowledge in a multitude of areas – stage movement, vocal training, and makeup are among a few. Running from September until May, each class concludes with a full-length production, allowing friends and family to witness what this confidence-building program has done for their young ones.
Keeping education of the children in mind, another highly successful endeavor is the Schoolhouse Players. Under the direction of Kathy Moore, this group of talented adults presents plays to school-age children for entertainment as well as education. Many of the local schools consistently attend these performances. The parents, children and teachers all give raving reviews of these productions.
A significant contribution to the theatre came in the formation of FLT Singers and Dancers in 1992. Under the initial direction of Robin Thompson and Cecilia Hamilton Sprawls, this group performed multiple benefit concerts and participated with the symphony and Arts Alive. With the addition of Shaw Thompson to the mix, the group continued benefit performances as well as working with smaller groups to perform in the name of the theatre for local and civic clubs. This group of approximately 50 singers and dancers has changed over the years, but the quality of their performances remains professional. Their shows always pack the house. It is not unusual to have patrons return more than once to see this group perform.
Several years ago, a sizable donation by Encore Theatre upon its dissolution and a grant from the Drs. Bruce and Foundation established a Capital Improvement Building Fund. In 1999, FLT launched a major capital campaign. With the support of hundreds of individuals, local businesses, financial institutions and another very generous grant from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation, the campaign was very successful. All money raised was earmarked for the future vision of the theatre – a larger facility with a rehearsal stage, larger lobby, extra storage and most importantly, BIGGER BATHROOMS! This was the ultimate goal, but additional funds were still necessary.
In 2005, the theatre was honored with the presentation of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, the Governor’s Award for the Arts. This prestigious award, the highest honor given to an arts organization in the state, recognizes organizations, businesses or individuals who have played an active role as innovators and advocates of the arts in South Carolina. This award was presented during session at the State House in Columbia.
In January of 2006, the call came that would open a whole new world for FLT. The Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation offered a $10 million grant to fund construction of a new theatre in downtown Florence. In addition to the grant, McLeod Health, Florence County and Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation also deeded the properties needed to build a new theatre on. The Board of Directors accepted this generous and completely unexpected offer and begin working on fulfilling a dream – a 35,000 square foot facility boasting a 400 seat auditorium, rehearsal hall, set construction shop, increased and updated technical capabilities, expanded lobby, additional dressing rooms, a board room, costume shop and increased storage space – and yes – bigger bathrooms! The design of the new theatre will lend itself to the possibility of use by other organizations and private entities for various functions including civic meetings, receptions and corporate use.
We are so fortunate and grateful to have the incredible gifts we have been given. Additionally, we are blessed with the abundance of talent and support from Florence and surrounding areas. It takes everyone - the countless volunteers, the staff, our underwriters, benefactors and patrons, as well as a community, who continuously supports our cause – to create and nurture our ongoing pursuit of excellence in community theatre.
It is our goal to serve our patrons, in our new home, for as many years, and hopefully many more, than we have already served our community and state. We will strive to provide entertainment that ismagical and uplifting each time we open our doors.