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Rising rents may silence puppet theater

Building owners hope to recoup renovation costs. Frog Prince's founder, 78, hopes for her own fairy tale rescue.

By KAREN LACHENAUER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


Building owners hope to recoup renovation costs. Frog Prince's founder, 78, hopes for her own fairy tale rescue.

TARPON SPRINGS -- After 14 years of entertaining children with fairy tales and happy endings, the founder of the Frog Prince Puppetry Arts Center and Theatre is hoping for a storybook rescue of her own.

Frog Prince founder and executive director Norma Bigler faces the prospect of a rent increase for her space at the historic Arcade building on S Pinellas Avenue. Even if she can stay on at her current rent of $500 per month, a new owner says the cost of renovations to the building means that he must look for tenants who can pay more for her spot.

For 13 of its 14 years, the Frog Prince has occupied a small space in the Arcade building. The office is just big enough to seat 50 to 60 people and is bursting with storage boxes piled on trunks next to scenery, frogs, puppets and -- what else -- a tuffet.

At 78, Bigler is stooped with back problems, but she still enjoys putting on two shows a month, plus performing at schools, the library and birthday parties. She also offers acting and puppetry lessons for children.

She hopes to persuade the Arcade's owner or a benefactor to help her with the rent, maybe even to expand. As it is, her ticket prices of $3 to $5 for puppet shows don't let the non-profit theater break even.

"I want to stay, be a part of the beautiful Arcade," she said. "I've just hung in here until, as you can see, I'm just about exhausted.

As she sees it, she has three options: She can get help. She can put everything in storage until she can revive the Frog Prince somewhere else. Or, she says, she can lower the curtain for the last time.

Bigler says she does not want the Frog Prince to become a touring company working out of her home.

"I cannot blame anybody," she said. "I said to somebody the other day: If I could not get it together in 14 years (to find enough support for the theater), then I'm a failure."

But puppets and performing are her life. Bigler has a master's degree in puppetry arts from the University of Connecticut. She knew Muppets creator Jim Henson. She does not want to fold up her lilypad floor mats and go away.

"Wouldn't it be nice if someone or some organization in this community would have some appreciation for our uniqueness and want us to have a home?" she said.

What has brought her to the crossroads is that the Arcade building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been bought by a group with a vision of its own.

The new owner, Arcade Professional Center L.C., based in Boca Raton, paid $800,000 for the building last fall and has spent another $600,000 renovating it, according to Fort Lauderdale attorney Paul Gravenhorst. With more than half of the offices still vacant or being finished and a $9,000-a-month mortgage, he estimates the company is losing $10,000 a month.

Gravenhorst said income from other properties is carrying the Arcade for now, but he has high hopes for rehabilitating the turreted building into a quiet office mall.

"The building stands out in the downtown area. It's very impressive," Gravenhorst said. "It has beautiful architecture. It has just been neglected tremendously."

Arcade tenants and surrounding businesses are thrilled with the makeover, which has closed in the two-story breezeways where pigeons roosted and vagrants and prostitutes once roamed at night.

But the improvements come at a price.

In February, then-property manager Arvida Realty Services of Clearwater asked Bigler for a rent increase from $500 to $819 a month, or $10 per square foot on an annual basis, beginning in March. Further proposed increases would push the rent to nearly $1,000 a month in 2003.

She contacted the Pinellas County Arts Council, she said. Arts council attorney Walter Blenner immediately wrote to Gravenhorst, asking him to let the Frog Prince stay at its current rate until July plans have been fulfilled, especially as the Arcade is still partly vacant.

Gravenhorst said he would be happy to let her expand at her current rent if "you can find someone to pay $30,000 (a month) for the whole building." That would give him the minimum he seeks, $12 per square foot, or up to $15 for small spaces.

Gravenhorst said Bigler can stay at $500 a month until he gets a tenant for her unit. But he said he will be "aggressively" seeking tenants. Bigler is thankful she isn't being evicted, but does not like the prospect of staying on without a lease because she might have to leave any month.

For a long time Bigler has looked elsewhere to find a less expensive home. Currently she figures she and her husband, William, put at least $200 of their own money a month into the theater, which costs about $30,000 a year to run.

She has tried, without success, to find space in the old library building in Craig Park, the renovated train depot downtown, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and the new Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg Junior College's Tarpon Springs campus.

Mayor Frank DiDonato is sympathetic.

"Norma needs a space of her own," he said. "The biggest problem is having a facility that goes unused that allows storage of her puppets and still allows her to have shows. She knows she can always schedule shows with us" at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, library and Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center in City Hall.

He said he would talk with cultural and civic services director Kathleen Monahan to see about any potential space. The city is helping host a day of puppetry April 28 at the library, cultural center and at the theater itself to mark the National Day of Puppetry. The city also pays the Frog Prince about $500 to put on a children's show at the cultural center about once a year. For the Frog Prince to survive, "I think she has to work in collaboration with someone who can carry on her dream," Monahan said. "It's a vision that needs to be carried forward."

But that can be a stumbling block for a small arts group, said Pinellas County Arts Council executive director Judith Powers-Jones.

When "the pivotal person within the organization is in fact the person who founded the group, who (has) the vision and the commitment and the passion and (has) sort of forged and moved that organization along, sometimes it's really challenging to bring lots of other people to your vision," Powers-Jones said.

Frank Lakus and Ron Brown, puppeteers who are Frog Prince regulars, might some day take over for her, but Bigler does not talk like someone who is ready to retire yet.

Powers-Jones agreed that Bigler needs a space of her own.

"But, by the same token," she said, "if they lose the space, if they can continue to perform, whether they do it at the schools or the cultural center or the libraries or whatever, it will be wonderful. It's a difficult place to be but you have to reinvent yourself, just like large corporations do."

The Frog Prince has too small of a budget to get matching grants of any size, but the arts council has given the Frog Prince almost $4,000 every year since it started giving out grants five years ago.

"It's just the whole set of circumstances that seems to work against us," Bigler said. "I think we've done everything. In spite of everything, we've persevered. I guess what we need is a miracle."

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