Put Out the Light – and Then – Put Out the Light

Okay, okay, so Morsani and Ferguson Halls “going dark” for August may not be as dramatic as Othello in Desdemona’s bedchamber (who got the blog title reference?), but us taking a short time-out is important for a number of reasons. Want to know what secret stuff we’re up to in the big Straz venues? We’re happy to spill the beans.

Backstage sm_Rob Harris

A view from backstage in Morsani Hall, looking up. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

It’s no secret that our hems are a little frayed, alright? We’re thirty years old. Millions—millions—of feet have trod the carpets, butts flopped in seats, hands run along the railings. We’ve grown at the speed of time-lapse so yes, maybe, just maybe, some of our tech is retro in the wrong ways. But when you’re presenting thousands of performances in five theaters all year long, when do you have time to stop and darn the curtains?

So, good people, we are taking a breather in August and early September to attend to several exciting capital projects, most of which will happen in Morsani Hall and Ferguson Hall. Of course, Jobsite Theater kicks off its amazing 20th anniversary season with a return of Spencer Meyers in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the Shimberg Playhouse during this time, so we do have other theaters that will be up, running and cranking out incredible shows.

From Aug. 6-Sept. 11 our facilities, information technology, food and beverage, and production departments will be furiously updating our operations, grounds, and services. Both Morsani and Ferguson stage floors and sound systems will be replaced as well as the Patel Conservatory sidewalk. We’re upgrading our stage lighting equipment to LED (yay!) as well as chucking our infrared listening system for a brand-new mobile connect assisted listening system (read: new Wifi and an app are involved). Our print signs are going digital, so you’ll soon be seeing more video around campus, and we’re bringing in 21st century portable staging to replace the old stuff that is probably a contemporary of the original Cats.

IMG_6956_edit

Stage lights in Ferguson Hall.

You’ll notice quite a few improvements around our cocktail activity with revamped concession stands, gleaming portable bars and new equipment at the Riverside bar. We have some non-sexy but crucial upgrades in stuff you probably won’t notice like new A/C coils, door replacements and spiffy new awnings. We’ll get automated rigging pipes in the Jaeb which makes heavy lifting and reconfiguration of set pieces easier.

So even though a few theaters will be dark, we’ll still be busy-busy making The Straz the stupendous experience you know and love. If you see any of our facilities or production staff on campus while you’re here for a show or a class, you may want to shock the life out of them by saying “good job” or “the new awnings look fantastic” since they are truly our unsung heroes and sheroes of The Straz.

As always, we thank you, good people, for your support of The Straz to fund these improvements that keep your experience magical and meaningful. We hope you’ll be as delighted with our shiny new hems as we are.

tampa_pac_int8

The view from the stage in Morsani Hall.

The Man Behind the Mission

Governor and former Tampa mayor Bob Martinez on growing up Tampanian, the creation of The Straz and what it meant for the growth of Tampa.

Morsani bw

Construction of Festival Hall, now Carol Morsani Hall.

With Caribbean blue eyes, an easy smile and a rambling drawl that flows through stories of Tampa history like the Hillsborough River ambles through this vast county, Robert “Bob” Martinez makes for an enchanting conversationalist on the subject of The Straz and what Tampa was like all those many years before it housed a world-class performing arts center.

This season, we celebrate 30 years of The Straz. As part of this celebration, we are gathering stories, “the million little stories that make up who we are,” and we decided that we might as well start at the beginning – with Bob Martinez.

Martinez’s grandparents came to Tampa from Spain, mingling with the other immigrant cultures of Ybor City and West Tampa – Italians, Cubans and Germans – and, like those new Americans, Martinez’s grandparents joined the mutual aid societies of the area.

“I grew up here, and we belonged to Centro Español. For twenty-five cents or fifty cents a week for your whole family, you had hospital care, a clubhouse, doctors, a cemetery. It really was care from birth to death,” Martinez recounts from the penthouse conference room in the Regions Bank building where, though in his 80s, he works as a senior policy advisor for Holland & Knight, LLP. From this bird’s-eye view, the swooping lines of the deep blue Hillsborough Bay hug the sprawling cluster of white and terra cotta rooftops. Like exotic hot air balloons, railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant’s Moorish minarets spring skyward, an opulent reminder of Tampa’s first renaissance, now on the campus of University of Tampa, home to the Bob Martinez Athletic Center. This view looks like it does now mostly because of Martinez’s mayoral agenda in the early ’80s, the second renaissance for Tampa.

Martinez_Bob_300

Robert “Bob” Martinez.

As worker-centered social clubs, the mutual aid societies came to represent the hard-working and community-centered ethos that would dominate Tampa until the abrupt socio-economic changes of the mid-20th century. Part of the vital fabric of the mutual aid societies was culture. “I went to live productions all the time,” Martinez says. “We had live talent [at the mutual aid societies], and I was taken to all the shows at five and six years old even though I probably fidgeted through most of them.”

In school, Martinez worked on the grade plays – 6th, 9th and senior year – as crew. “I wasn’t a participant. They were mostly musicals.” (He confided later to a singing ability so bad he won’t even attempt to exercise it in the shower or car. However, he’s a crackerjack dancer.)

Dirt roads led in and out of his neighborhood, near where Raymond James Stadium sits today. To get to any excitement, you had to board a streetcar that would click and clack to the action: downtown. “In the ’40s and ’50s, the entertainment center was Downtown Tampa,” he recalls. “Movie houses, hotels. All the hotels had restaurants and live entertainment. I dated my future wife, Mary Jane Marino, at every movie house in Downtown Tampa. Downtown was the core, and that probably stuck in my mind. All the streetcars led to downtown – that’s impressionable to someone young, as I was then. I probably got it in my mind that anything that would happen for Tampa would happen downtown.”

By the 1970s, Martinez, who had been a much-loved high school teacher, bought Café Sevilla, a Spanish restaurant with a reputation for attracting a who’s-who from business, politics and entertainment. “If any famous actors were in town filming a movie, somebody would bring them by Café Sevilla,” Martinez says. “We had Ricardo Montalban, Vikki Carr, Fernando Lamas.” People knew Bob Martinez, and a month after he took over the restaurant, then-Governor Reubin Askew called Martinez to serve on the board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The call jump-started Martinez’s political life, and, in 1979, he announced his mayoral bid. The major focus of his platform?

“I announced I wanted to build a performing arts center. Downtown.”

parking lot

Photo of downtown Tampa before the Straz Center was built.

Martinez, who would later advance to Governor of Florida and eventually serve as Drug Czar under President George H. W. Bush, saw that the Downtown Tampa of his youth had stagnated, mired in random industrialization and unable to revitalize after the cigar industry collapsed. “In July of ’79, I released three white papers, the first one explaining how job creation and economic development were tied to the performing arts center. You see, in order to attract new businesses, the CEOs and their spouses would need something to do, a reason to want to be here. They wouldn’t want to come to a place with limited culture. That’s how I sold it. I tied it to economic development. Nobody was going to come here without some kind of culture.”

At a candidate forum on Davis Islands, Martinez openly spoke about his vision for Tampa and how that vision depended on 1) a performing arts center and 2) everybody’s buy-in. “I explained that bringing a performing arts center to Tampa allowed middle-class people and others to enjoy Broadway and other shows. For a lot of people, it would be the first time in their lives. But it was more than that. A performing arts center would give children who were arts-oriented a chance to develop their strengths and talents. Children who were arts-oriented ought to have the same opportunities to develop those talents as children who have athletic talent, and we had Little League fields all over the county.”

The idea took. The daily papers supported the platform, and Martinez received almost zero push-back on the proposal – impressive, considering it carried a multi-million-dollar price tag that taxpayers, would, in part, cover. He won the 1979 election.

“As soon as I was elected, I gathered a task force to figure out how to build one [a performing arts center]. I called H.L. Culbreath, who was a good friend and customer at the restaurant, and I wanted him to chair the task force. We compiled a list of names, H.L. made the calls, and we had it.”

Groundbreaking

The groundbreaking for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center.

Martinez and the performing arts center task force faced a formidable challenge: how to raise the funds. “This had never been done in Tampa before, raising that much money,” Martinez says. The $15 million he thought would cover the one-hall center was a far cry from the 25-cents-a-week price tag of the mutual aid societies. But, the community spirit was still there, carried on the wind from the remaining shells of cigar factories lining West Tampa and Ybor City. “We realized, though, that if people were going to have to give, it should be to a non-profit organization, not the local government,” Martinez remembers, “so the city doesn’t run it, but the non-profit does.”

The design phases of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (renamed the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009) proved challenging, with a few hiccups along the way but no major bumps in the road. The biggest problem – if you could call it that – was that everyone involved with the concept and construction wanted the best of the best. “The biggest surprise in the whole project was how big it ended up being,” he laughs. “I thought it would be one hall – not two or three or four! But, H.L. kept saying ‘I think we need to add this … ’ and it just sort of grew. The people on the committee were all local business and community leaders, we were doing this for our community, for the growth of Tampa, and a lot of the people involved in the construction were local. We wanted to do it right.” The total costs far exceeded Martinez’s initial thoughts, but the community commitment and business leadership followed through to the end, when the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened for business in 1987.

The success of The Straz’s public-private partnerships set the standard of business for what Martinez calls “a community ticket facility.” “It’s the best model,” he says. “We used the same non-profit concept we established for the performing arts center for the zoo and all the museums with ticket sales.”

Many people don’t know that, before the plans for The Straz began in earnest, a group of “baseball enthusiasts” courted Martinez over lunch to build a pro baseball stadium instead of the performing arts center. Martinez enjoyed his meal, thanked the enthusiasts and said no. “I ran on building a performing arts center, not a baseball stadium. I had to keep my promise.” Martinez, himself a baseball talent who passed on a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to get married and attend college, saw that the zeitgeist for Tampa’s second renaissance would be in the arts.

opening_TBO

Grand opening celebration of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in 1987. (Photo: Cliff McBride)

“If, for some reason the performing arts center hadn’t materialized, it would have been first a denial to the young people who needed arts education. Second, it would have been a denial to people who can’t afford to go to Broadway. It would have had an adverse impact on recruiting business. A performing arts center showed that we were a growing, sophisticated community,” Martinez says. “If we hadn’t built the Straz Center, Tampa wouldn’t have seen growth of the same magnitude.”

An unintended outcome of building a performing arts center as a juggernaut of metropolitan growth was the effect The Straz’s success had on subsequent projects. “Building a performing arts center opened the citizens of Tampa Bay’s pocketbooks for other organizations. The zoo, the history center … once you invest, you’re an advocate. You have skin in the game,” he says. “As you can see, I’m real proud of our community.”

Martinez left Tampa for several years to follow his political trajectory – which, incidentally, led to a parallel side-job related to the performing arts. He landed a walk-on role as a customs officer in the James Bond film License to Kill after meeting with producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who invited him to the set in Key West. Broccoli later allowed Martinez to use pre-release screenings of the film to raise funds for a children’s organ transplant foundation. Martinez then got a speaking part on a “drugs and go-fast boats” pilot for a television movie called Thunder Boat Row but it didn’t get picked up.

Despite the fact that he has both an IMDb (Internet Movie Database) listing and a former place in the Presidential Cabinet, Martinez returned home, to the place of his cherished memories, his grandkids and to the bustling city poised on the next renaissance. In his spare time, he works towards efforts to restore and renovate Centro Español, the mutual aid society building of his youth. But, he is not riding on nostalgia.

View from river

“The future looks wonderful. For a city our size to have two sports teams, arena football and all of our cultural institutions with hardly any corporate headquarters … that’s one great story to tell about the Tampa people. That they wanted these things for themselves. To me, it’s an incredible story,” he says. “And what we have at the Straz Center is second to none.”

Bob Martinez gambled on the economic savvy of relying on the performing arts to drive growth – and won. This incredible story started simply enough, with a teacher-turned-restaurateur who knew that the power of culture could transform a town into an international destination.

The Fine Art Mystery of Morsani Mezzanine

Dr. Jay and Ann McKeel Ross Art Exhibit

Rosenquist_iris lake

A drawing of a robe. Toddler dresses. Abstract boxes in a row. What are these art works hanging unceremoniously on the walls of Morsani Mezzanine? Where did they come from? What do you mean some of the greatest visual artists in the world are on display at the Straz Center?

The Tampa Bay area is a land of many secrets.

Our history holds several little-known treasures: the West Tampa cigar workers who rolled the instructions for the first Cuban revolution into the cigar destined for Havana; Woodlawn Cemetery, which features a fairly nondescript section dedicated only to circus folk, and Keith Richards, whose stint at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater churned out the guitar lick to “Satisfaction.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring and prolific gems in Tampa’s atlas of uniqueness is the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, an experiment in art and education started by artist and professor Dr. Don Saff in 1968 that goes strong right now, even as you read this.

Rauschenberg_graphicstudio

Rauschenberg in his studio with Graphicstudio staff Patrick Foy, Tom Pruitt and Donald Saff, working on In-Dependents/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works) in 1990. (Courtesy of Saff Tech Arts. Photo: George Holzer)

USF Graphicstudio has provided, over the last several decades, a refuge and workspace for some of the most famous, most promising, most daring visual artists to push the evocative, provocative printmaking form. Graphicstudio holds a well-deserved revered status in the art world as a studio at the forefront of international fine art publishing. One of the first artists to work with them was none other than the innovative genius Robert Rauschenberg.

Although The Stones were making headlines in the ‘60s, the boundless eruption of experimental art flourishing in the United States had a home with a group of artists in New York inventing what would be known as Pop Art. Its purveyors – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg – pole-vaulted into the vaunted halls of fame, fashion, fortune (for some) and made art focusing on popular culture a “thing,” a “happening.” Soup cans transformed to colorful social commentary, collages aping advertising slicks erased boundaries between high and low art, and these artists purposefully muddied the waters around concerns with the interbreeding of politics and mass media, consumerism and community integrity. These artists built the complex platform of cultural questioning that each of us stands on today, and two of these Pop Art all-stars – Lichtenstein and Rosenquist – worked in Graphicstudio.

Rauschenberg

But before them came Rauschenberg, whose style, labeled Neo-Dada, built the scaffolding for the later work of the Pop Art movement. Rauschenberg is a legend. There’s no other way to put it. He was the one who reconsidered and reconfigured what constituted artistic materials. He put found objects on painted canvases and threw the distinction between sculpture and painting into a tailspin. Rauschenberg was the guy whose White Paintings – canvases covered in uniform strokes with nothing but white house paint – totally confounded the definition of art, making some people really angry and awakened others to a canvas’s possibility for the artistry in shadows or as a backdrop to the art of life. Rauschenberg’s audacity made people question their fundamental assumptions, which made him both loved and loathed, as most great artists are.

Contemporaries admired him, art historians uphold him as one of the most influential American artists of all time and critics continue to debate interpretations of his kitsch-meets-classical work style that upended the boundaries of what it means to make art. Rauschenberg spent years, from 1972-1987, in and out of Graphicstudio, an effort that resulted in 60 editions of prints that experimented with form and technique. Rauschenberg, with the dedication of USF faculty, staff and students, tested his ideas in photo transfer, cyanotype, sepia prints, printing on cloth and ceramics, new material sculptures and a hundred-foot-long photograph during his tenure with Graphicstudio. His works Made in Tampa Two, Made in Tampa Eleven and Made in Tampa Twelve now hang in the easily accessible pop-up gallery of the Morsani Mezzanine.

Rosenquist_discover

Rauschenberg’s Pop Art contemporary, Rosenquist, noted for his deft and original use of juxtaposition, also has two works from his time with Graphicstudio on display in Morsani: Iris Lake and Discover Graphics Smithsonian. After noticing the Rauschenbergs and the Rosenquists, a leisurely stroll across the Mezzanine reveals the art placards carry one gigantic name after another:

• There are four Untitled works from the master maverick of the Pop Art era, Nicholas Krushenick, whose ultra-bold simplistic color blocks lined with black traces conjure an almost Simpsons-esque aesthetic – only 25 years before Matt Groening became a maverick in his own right. It’s worth noting that during this artistic time period, when almost everyone could be categorized somewhere from Op Art to Pop Art to post-Abstract Expressionism, Krushenick is the only one who defies category. He belongs everywhere and nowhere, which is an admirable feat among the wild bunch of enfants terribles cranking out art in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Krushenick

• Chuck Close, whose John I and John II appear near the staircase, is one of the last living giants of the age. His singular, mosaic-style of painting meticulous portraits from a grid, often using each 1×1 square as a minute canvas as part of the whole canvas, reinvented the art of portraiture.

Close

• Miriam Schapiro, the printmaking revolutionary who invented “femmage,” a collage-like style that must include at least seven of fourteen distinct criteria including scraps, sewing, patterns, photographs and a woman-life context, is represented by one of her most enduring works, Children of Paradise, created during her time at Graphicstudio from 1983-1984.

Schapiro

• Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Robert Stackhouse and the founder of Graphicstudio himself, Don Saff, all have work on the wall in Morsani mezzanine.

Graves, Dine, Stackhouse

That a collection so impressive, so unique hangs rather humbly in the Morsani Mezzanine raises a very important question: how did they get there? The answer lies with Jay and Ann McKeel Ross. Ann Ross, who moved to Tampa around the time that Rauschenberg was collaborating as set designer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Taylor’s 1957 The Tower, graduated from USF. Ann and her husband Jay loved Tampa, loved this area – and they loved art and culture. In 1968, they helped Saff start Graphicstudio, leveraging their relationships to create a pool of supporters to start a subscription program to help fund the artist residency. The subscribers, now called Research Partners, make an annual contribution to support the research mission. In return, they have opportunities to purchase work from Graphicstudio artists for a special price. (Note: anyone can buy full price Graphicstudio prints and sculptures from the studio’s website.)

A Straz Center trustee, Ann – along with her husband Jay – has been a long time donor to The Straz. She loaned these pieces of her personal collection for community enjoyment and appreciation of the fine work happening at Graphicstudio, which is now recognized as the nation’s leading university-based art research workshop.

Ross 1

Ann and Jay Ross.

“Ann and Jay are the only collectors that have been members of the subscription program since its inception and therefore have a complete collection of prints and sculptures produced for our Research Partners over the last 50 years,” says Margaret Miller, the director of Graphicstudio. “They have been generous in loaning works from their collection. How fortunate we are to have Ann and Jay in our community. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing art and culture in this region.”

We are very proud and honored to be able to exhibit such a high caliber of work in an open community space like the Morsani Mezzanine, and we encourage you, on your next visit to The Straz, to come early and spend some time with the pieces from Ann and Jay’s collection. If you would like to get involved with Graphicstudio, check out their website: graphicstudio.usf.edu.

 

Open To Interpretation

open-to-interpretation_credit-rob-harris-productions

Interpreters Anthony Verdeja and Carrie Moore welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing guests to the Straz Center. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions Inc)

The Thursday night show during each Broadway run has a special performer, one whose acting and choreography chops never make a sound. As part of its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) initiative, the Straz Center secures a sign language interpreter for the Thursday night show in the Broadway series, with The Illusionists being the first of this season.

While any Straz Center performance falls under the ADA guidelines and can have sign-language interpretation on an as-needed basis, this initiative guarantees a regularly scheduled interpreted performance that guests can expect.

Far from being a literal English translation of the script, a signed performance requires that the interpreter don all artistic hats at once: the interpreter must emote, understand motivation in gestures and artistically translate a musical script from English into a visual language unto itself. The common misconception that American Sign Language (ASL) merely invented gestures that correspond to English words greatly underestimates the complexity of ASL as its own novel language, complete with its own grammar, nuance and expressive capability. In other words, an interpreter creates an adaptation to visual language in real time, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons the thrilling emotional experience shared by patrons who can hear the performance.

open-to-interpretation_dance
An interpreter becomes a one-person show, transforming a musical into ASL with the same need for fluency that someone would need to translate Chinese poetry into English verse. There is an ‘essence’ that must be captured in the language, and apprehending this elusive quality requires a strong set of skills and no amount of stage fright.

This tall order cannot be filled by just anyone who happens to know ASL. “We’ve engaged an exceptional company to provide sign language services,” says Straz Center director of production services Mike Chamoun. “This group is just tremendous. They add the emotional interpretation like actors, conveying that much more. Most interpreters like to locate the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons before the show, meeting them and asking about what they want from the performance and having that dialogue inform their interpretation. It’s quite something. They are excellent at serving the patron.”

open-to-interpretation_theater

The minority-woman owned company, Absolute Quality Interpreting (AQI), hires only nationally-certified sign language interpreters. Lisa Schaefermeyer, AQI’s founder and CEO, ensures that her interpreters deliver a great performance of the show. “There’s a difference,” she says, “between someone who knows sign language and someone who can perform. There’s a skill level needed to stand on the platform and do what they do. We are fortunate to have interpreters who specialize in the performing arts.”

Chamoun requests a copy of the script from the show, then forwards the script to AQI so the interpreters have time to prepare their own performance. “But they don’t get months of rehearsal,” Chamoun says. “They’re lucky if they get two weeks.”

“The additional prep time allows the interpreter to give a better performance for the audience. She or he has time to think about the right sign to reflect what is happening on stage. Imagine a monotone reading of an audio book, read by someone with no training,” says Schaefermeyer. “Then imagine a great actor performing the text of the same book, and you’ll get an idea of what is possible with great sign language interpretation.”

open-to-interpretation_music

Typically, a Broadway show requires two interpreters to cover the many parts. In Morsani Hall, they stand in a small, specifically-designed alcove complete with its own lighting so that the interpreters fade out or blackout in sync with the main show. “It’s under the house right mezzanine,” says Chamoun. “So, it’s not on stage but on the orchestra level so patrons have a good view. We encourage our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to call the Ticket Sales Office and have a representative make sure they get seats with a good view of the interpreter. We want to make sure they get the same Straz experience, and we are happy to do what we can.”

“We are so excited to be able to do this,” says Schaefermeyer, who has a few decades of experience in the field. “Our interpreters love their jobs, love to spend time with patrons and getting to know cast members. And that comes through in the interpretation.”

An Incredible Sound Feeling

The fascinating story of acoustics in Morsani Hall

Acoustics - Morsani Hall 078

“…The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood….” – Mike Chamoun, director of production services at The Straz, on the acoustically-designed elements of Morsani Hall.

Next time you take in a concert or opera in Morsani Hall, also take in the acoustical secrets that hide in plain sight–the doors, the interior chambers between the lobby and the hall, and the cavity at the top of the theater. All of them work in their own orchestra of acoustic perfection that makes an evening in Morsani Hall one of unforgettable, incredible sound.

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Straz Center, and you will find design marvels camouflaged as everyday objects: a seat back, a bare floor, a slightly-discolored seam separating Morsani Hall from Ferguson Hall.

These seemingly insignificant – or merely decorative – details belie the meticulous planning that started the moment a world-class performing arts center became a reality for Tampa.

“The people involved in conceiving the Straz Center wanted the best,” says Mike Chamoun, director of production services and veteran of The Straz since the day it opened. “They were very clear in their desire to deliver the very best performing arts center possible. So, they got the best.”

Russel_Johnson_01

Russell Johnson, part of the original team of planners for our performing arts center in Tampa, revolutionized the quality of sound in hundreds of concert halls all over the world.

In the case of acoustical design, the best was Artec Industries, led by famed acoustician Russell Johnson, whose inspiring creativity forged some of the world’s most celebrated modern performing arts venues. Johnson, who died at 83 in 2007, joined the original team of planners and designers tasked with creating a state-of-the-art modern facility for Tampa.

Johnson and the Artec team planned the sound capabilities of the mainstage concert hall around the classic European design, knowing that the hall would host grand opera and the multi-tonal needs of full symphony orchestras. They included a foam “acoustical seam” to be incorporated in the foundation of the building and running up through the walls between Morsani and Ferguson so that sound would absorb in the foam seam before leaking into the other concert hall, contaminating the performances. This detail explains why audiences at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show in Ferguson Hall cannot hear the thunderous applause of the audience next door in Morsani at the end of the Itzhak Perlman concert.

Producers Back Stage TBPAC -¬Rob Harris

A view from the stage in Morsani Hall. (Photo by Rob Harris)

“Even down to the bricks,” Chamoun adds. “Construction sand was poured into the three holes of every single brick laid to make this hall.” The sand prevents sound from circling inside the holes and dissipating. In fact, the driving concept was to hold the energy of the sound inside the hall, engulfing audiences inside the sound, giving them the sensation of sitting with the musicians or the musicians sitting among them.

“The whole room is the orchestra. There is no typical ‘shell’ on stage that has to be moved, as you find with most multi-purpose halls. The acoustical shell is the hall itself,” Chamoun says. “There is no carpeting to dampen the sound. The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood. As you move up the tiers, the seat backs get taller to capture sound properly and keep patrons in the proper posture for best listening capability.”

Morsani Sound Cloud

The sound canopy – or cloud – suspended above the audience in Morsani Hall.

The crowning glory in Morsani Hall usually goes unnoticed by audiences: the 18-panel acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the audiences’ heads. The panels adjust to fine-tune the hall for the specific performance: opera has different acoustic needs than a cellist and accompanist or a Broadway show. “The canopy changes the sound image,” says Chamoun. “The entire design creates an incredible sound feeling that is rarely matched anywhere else in the world.”

In the professional performing arts world, the acoustical purity of Morsani Hall garnered a reputation that precedes it. “We’re one of the largest theaters in the country,” Chamoun says, “and we hear all the time about how coming to perform here is like going on vacation. It’s a luxury hall but it’s accessible to everyone. The very best seats for music are in the third tier, that’s where the best sound collects thanks to these acoustics.”

FROM THE VAULT: Natalie Cole

Friday, March 20, 1992

Natalie Cole from the vault

Natalie Cole performed at the Straz Center on March 20, 1992, a stop on her “Unforgettable” tour.

In the early 90’s, the Tampa Tribune had a “Friday EXTRA!” section, an arts and entertainment tabloid, chock full of local and national entertainment news and events for the upcoming weekend.

The section for March 20, 1992, featured the headliner of weekend events at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Natalie Cole, who competed for space in “Friday EXTRA!” with the shocking psycho-sex thriller Basic Instinct, which opened that weekend, and news of MTV’s Spring Break airing live from Florida’s very own Daytona Beach.

Then 42, in her prime, and ramping into Festival Hall fresh from a series of Grammy® wins for her Billboard-sweeping album Unforgettable, Cole was enjoying a resurgence of fame for the wow-factor of “advanced recording technology” that enabled the singer to record a duet with her late father, the legendary Nat King Cole. The album resurrected not only one of American’s most beloved singers, Nat King Cole, but also Natalie’s career, which had plateaued after her recovery from drug addiction and a string of hits in the late 1980s.

According to EXTRA writer Philip Booth, who interviewed Cole for the feature, Unforgettable emerged at the request of Cole fans—both Nat King’s and Natalie’s. Instantly successful in 1991, the idea has sustained Natalie for more than two decades: even in 2015, “Unforgettable” still serves as the highlight of her evening concerts.

Tickets for the show at TBPAC on March 20, 1992 ranged from $25-$35, and she played Festival (now Morsani) Hall.

If you saw Natalie Cole during this performance, share your memories by posting to this blog.

FROM THE VAULT: Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra

Friday, April 6, 1990

Gillespie_from the vault

Dizzy Gillespie and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra performed in Festival Hall (now Morsani Hall) on Saturday, April 7, 1990.

Two of the great, Mufasa-esque lions of be-bop era jazz conspired together for a performance on the stage at Morsani Hall on Saturday, April 7, 1990, and, surprisingly, it didn’t blow up.

However, one can only speculate about what happened to the minds of the audience.

Vibes virtuoso Lionel Hampton, with his Orchestra, hosted trumpeter par excellence John Birks Gillespie, best known as “Dizzy,” in a jazz concert for the record books. At the time, Dizzy was 72 years old, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient that year, and, three short years after his Straz Center engagement, would die an American legend in Englewood, New Jersey.

When Dizzy blew, his neck and face puffed like a set of billows, his eyes bugged and his signature up-turned-trumpet bell gave him his distinctive, original look. The beret, sharp goatee and dark spectacles helped.

Dizzy, in the scope of jazz, held a special place as a musician and African-American man who pushed himself to the limits of his imagination and then some, becoming a cultural ambassador, a beloved American icon and a superior improvisational artist. Plus, he was so darn funny. Who else could have convinced President Jimmy Carter, in 1978, to record the lyrics for a rendition of Gillespie’s own famed tune, “Salt Peanuts”?

Dizzy, who credits Afro-Cuban Godfather Mario Bauza as his musical father, assumed the mantle of Bauza’s work and became one of pioneers of Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz in American music. By the end of his career, Dizzy had 14 honorary degrees and a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award. He’d performed with Cab Calloway, Teddy Hill Band, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and personally discovered Arturo Sandoval.

In 1964, Gillespie put himself forth as an independent write-in candidate for the presidential race, citing his Cabinet, which would include Miles Davis as Director of the CIA and Charles Mingus as the Secretary of Peace. Phyllis Diller, he noted, would run on his ticket as VP.

If only we had a time machine.

Gillespie appeared on more than 1,000 records, and, in this one-night-only appearance, in the flesh on our stage with his good friend and equal legend, Lionel Hampton. Hampton also sported an impressive collection of honorary doctorates and would later earn the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Hampton died in New York City in 2002. He was 94 years old.

The show, billed as “Dizzy Gillespie with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra,” played at 8 p.m. with tickets at $19.50. Again: if only we had a time machine.