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Rebirth of a landmark arts venue

The Mahaffey Theater at the St. Petersburg downtown waterfront officially reopens after a $20-million renovation.

Published May 14, 2006



ST. PETERSBURG - Mothers understand the joy and pain of labor.

So it was fitting, said Mayor Rick Baker, that dozens of mothers presided over the formal ribbon-cutting of the newly renovated Mahaffey Theater on Sunday - the city's "12-month labor of love."

"We're trying to become the cultural center for the state of Florida," Baker told a crowd of outside the theater Sunday afternoon. "This city and this county deserve that."

After Baker's comments, a group of mothers approached a crimson ribbon and snipped.

The city hosted the open house and ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the return of programming to the newly renovated theater.

The facility reopened about a month ago after being closed for almost a year during a $20-million renovation.

Sunday's event featured a contemporary production of the Three Little Pigs by Stages Production, African drumming and dance by the group Dundu Dole, guitarist Roberto DeBourg and balloon tricks by Mark Bryne.

The diverse offerings were an attempt by the city and the newly hired Philadelphia theater management company SMG, to mirror the breadth of the community.

"We hope to be a premiere performing arts facility," theater manager Chris Fahlman said. "But we also know we have an obligation to serve the community, so it was important to reach out to the demographic of the community."

The newly opened theater is only part of the city's ultimate goal for the waterfront.

There are plans to relocate the Salvador Dali museum next to the theater, as well as a pavilion and waterfront park. The city has entered into a $6.2-million naming rights agreement with the Progress Energy company.

The entire complex is to be named Progress Energy Center for the Arts. The City Council will take the final vote on the naming rights agreement this week.

Throughout the theater Sunday, first-timers and those-in-the-know enjoyed changes and familiarity alike of the place.

There was a new concession stand, box office and restrooms. Inside the theater the ivory balconies gleamed from a new paint job and fresh burgundy carpeting.

But a bright view of the water through a 40-foot glass wall in the theater's new East Atrium easily stole the show.

"It (the view) was invisible unless you went outside," said Tom Oller, 58 of St. Petersburg. "Unless you went outside you didn't know it was there, now it's very picturesque."

For 96-year-old Catherine Batman, the new look didn't take away from decades of fond memories of the place. Black-tie galas, Broadway shows and season tickets to the symphony were fresh on her mind.

An especially fond memory of the old Mahaffey: The famous opera Aida.

"It was a real event," she said. "They even had elephants on stage."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at or 727 445-4162.

[Last modified May 21, 2006, 11:03:44]

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