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    Oh, what a beautiful deal for teen actors

    Florida Power's donation allows Dunedin High to perform Oklahoma! in Ruth Eckerd Hall while the school auditorium is renovated.

    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Michael John, 18, (as Ali Hakim) kisses the hand of Karie Bache, 18, (as Ado Annie) during a rehearsal.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- Over the years, hundreds of schools nationwide have, at one time or another, staged the play Oklahoma! in their school auditoriums.

    Then there's Dunedin High.

    Renovations at the school have caused problems and limited student access to areas of campus for more than a year. The drama department is no exception.

    The school auditorium needs a new air conditioning system, so staging the production there was out of the question.

    "We were really scared we weren't going to be able to do our spring musical," said Layla Seale, 18. "And for us seniors, it was kind of heartbreaking."

    Determined to save the dreams of the seniors, who since ninth grade have waited for their time in the spotlight, the school's theater director had an idea.

    Move the show to Ruth Eckerd Hall.

    But renting the 2,100-seat theater would cost $7,000, and raising that much could prove difficult.

    Then, at a January teacher appreciation breakfast sponsored by Dunedin's Chamber of Commerce, the school's theater director, Ronald Shaw, asked for help.

    It came.

    Nancy Loehr, regional manager for Florida Power, announced the company would donate $5,000 toward renting Eckerd Hall. The school would have to raise the rest.

    "I was sitting at a table with principal Mildred Reed, and we both jumped up and hugged each other," Shaw said. "We were so excited and thrilled that had happened because we were really disappointed the auditorium was going to be closed."

    Loehr said the gesture was driven by emotion.

    "One of the nice things about my job is being able to stand up and do things like this," she said. "But it also fits within our goal toward children, education and being good corporate citizens."

    The entire production, including labor from a union crew from Ruth Eckerd, will cost about $15,000. Shaw expects to make up the difference in ticket sales. The musical will be staged May 8 and 9. Tickets go for $10 and $15.

    Florida Power's gift to the high school comes at a time when Dunedin city officials and Florida Power are at odds over whether the city should start its own electric utility.

    "I would have done it if it were a school anywhere in this county," Loehr added. "It was heartfelt, it was true and it was their day."

    Dunedin's franchise agreement with Florida Power expires in January 2002, and Florida Power officials have said municipalization would be a bad idea and likely mean heavy financial risks.

    "I would have to say we have to look at (the donation) for what it is -- a nice gesture," said Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence. "But I would take it at face value and would accept it in the spirit in which it is given."

    In addition to replacing the air conditioning system, workers also are renovating the back side of the auditorium. Workers will replace the electrical room, build dressing rooms, costume storage and a workshop to be used for building sets.

    The cast, meanwhile, is rehearsing in the auditorium even though it will be transformed into a dusty work site.

    The rivalry between farmers and cowboys in the Territory of Oklahoma in the early 1900s provides the background for Oklahoma!, in which Curly, a cowboy, and Laurey, a farm girl, play out the love story.

    On a recent school day, Dunedin High's auditorium doors ushered in a breeze that cooled the otherwise stale air that can settle in a theater with no air conditioning.

    "It feels great to be able to perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall, but it's kind of scary, too, because I hope we don't screw up," said Stuart Best, 17, who plays the role of Will. "We have more of a responsibility to do well in front of a larger audience."

    Principal Reed said the school's $20-million renovation is scheduled to be completed by August and will showcase two new two-story classroom buildings, as well as new windows, paint, carpet and classroom equipment campus-wide. Earlier this week, the school's administration office was moved from a portable building to its newly renovated space.

    "We've gone through a lot, and our students have gone through a lot, but we have managed this the whole way through," said Reed. "For our students to have the opportunity to perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall is outstanding. How many others do you know of that have had the opportunity to be there? This is, indeed, an excellent opportunity."

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