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Return of Webb's City

[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Meet Doc Webb, the P.T. Barnum of the retail business, who made his famous St. Petersburg mall into a landmark. Webb’s City: The Musical opens today and stars Steve Wilkerson as Webb and poster girls, from left, Rebecca Vasallo, Christina Johnson, Emilee Dupre and Dayla Perkins.

Revisit the razzle-dazzle attraction of yesteryear in downtown St. Petersburg - this time set to the sound of music.

By PETER SMITH, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

When you try to explain Webb’s City to people who weren’t in St. Petersburg during its heyday, you soon find yourself reduced to muttering words like “Disney World . . . the ’30s . . . mall . . . P.T. Barnum . . . cheap shopping fun . . . carnival.” And that’s before you get to the mermaids, the kissing rabbit and the tic-tac-toe-playing chickens.

Explaining Webb's City and its proprietor, J.E. "Doc" Webb (patent medicines, Tennessee), to the uninitiated can seem a little daunting. Okay, a lot daunting. But now, there's something to point to and say, "Yeah, it was about like that."

Webb's City: The Music
"Friends have come up to me and sung these faux songs," Ahlin said, wincing at the thought of imitations he has heard, such as a gravelly voiced Al Jolson-style version of a hat-and-cane number on The World's Most Unusual Drug Store.

Who was Doc Webb?
Perhaps the only thing more amazing than James Earl "Doc" Webb's life and career is that it has taken this long to turn it into a stage show. If the particulars weren't so well documented in history books and newspaper clippings, you would think it had to be the stuff of imagination.

For this insight, we can thank playwright-director Bill Leavengood and composer Lee Ahlin, whose musical comedy Webb's City: The Musical opens today for two performances at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall and moves to St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater June 30 and July 1 and 2.

The show's creators hope to take it on the road, far beyond the city where its five decades of action are set.

Leavengood, a St. Petersburg native who has won numerous awards for his playwrighting, paused before a rehearsal last week to talk about how he wound up as both writer and director of Webb's City. "I was just going to write it, then somebody says "You know, you really should direct this, too,' so here I am."

The show has pretty much been an all-consuming effort.

"My wife, Diana (the show's production manager), and I are going to make a list of the fires we've had to put out over the last few months, from places for the out-of-town actors to live, to almost hiring someone we found out was like a major ongoing alcoholic. Diana has done so much for the production, neither of us has had any time for anything else. We had to put our daughter in the show so we could see her."

[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Steve Wilkerson as Doc Webb, left, and Joshua Wolf Coleman, who plays Leo, Webb’s confidant, talk in front of a famous St. Petersburg green bench in a scene from Webb’s City: The Musical.
J.E. "Doc" Webb was a major figure in St. Petersburg history, renowned as a merchant, showman and even a civil rights champion. There still are plenty of people around who well remember him and other prominent figures portrayed in the play, including the late St. Petersburg Times owner Nelson Poynter. But this is not a booster show. "While I never wrote about anyone this heroic and romantic before, it's the flaws that make the heroism interesting to me," Leavengood said. "We aren't doing a whitewash here.

"He got rich doing it, but he watched out for the little guy, for black people. We had to invent a character for him to relate to to make that clear, but you saw it in everything you read about him."

Most of the show's rehearsals were at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, just part of the community cooperation the production has gotten from the beginning.

"Theater companies all over the area have given us help with sets and costumes, dry cleaning. We get free dry cleaning!" Leavengood marvels. "We're trying to put on a $100,000 set for $30,000. This stuff all costs money, which we don't have. We try to put the money we have into the actors' pockets."

The show is part of the Pinellas millennium celebration, but it's being put on entirely with contributions, not tax dollars.

As the rehearsal is about to start, Ahlin's anthem-like Wasn't It a Good Ride is rattling the windows. Sitting directly in front of 30-odd people, all singing their hearts out, is like standing behind a 747, except in tune. You can feel the pressure in your chest, and the harmonies, sketched out delicately on Ahlin's guitar and boisterously blown to the far wall by the singers, are so rich and deep they practically bring tears to your eyes. The songs are rich and varied.

[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
Angela Bond plays Aretta, Doc Webb’s second wife, in Webb’s City: The Musical, which opens today at Ruth Eckerd Hall and runs next weekend at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater.
The children in the cast (including Alice Leavengood) are working and, well, behaving like children, oversinging without regard for key one minute, blending like melted butter the next. Older kids are taking everything that happens very seriously, except when they don't. Leavengood and Ahlin run a lighthearted rehearsal, full of a sense of fun and yet serious.

The show's opening number, Boomtown, reminds us that where we live is regarded as a paradise by most of the world -- particularly in those heady days of the 1920s when Webb first arrived in St. Petersburg. People once walked down Central Avenue like it was the doorway to heaven, and only the passage of time and shifting tastes make it not so.

One scene takes us back to the old Florida Theater. Those of us who spent our youths there, in what Lenny Bruce called "the cathedral of the imagination," still thrill to the very mention of the name.

Steve Wilkerson, playing Doc Webb, is every inch a contemporary man yet, when called upon to be so, is sincere and irony-free in a way it seems no one is anymore. He portrays Webb as part desperate carny, part savvy businessman, part believer in the little guy. When he flirts rather straightforwardly with Angela Bond as Webb's beautiful, equally straightforward soon-to-be second wife Aretta, you see why she would fall for him, and he for her.

Leavengood's script makes capitalism's hopeful appeal a little more clear. A guy with an idea and an ideal can make something that lasts. "Interestingly enough, though, the very idea Doc Webb had, used by others, is what finally shut his place down," Leavengood mused. The Webb complex -- more than 70 stores draped over 10 square blocks -- may have been St. Petersburg's first shopping mall, but it couldn't compete when the big suburban shopping meccas beckoned.

As the evening wears on, a visitor leaves, wanting the second act to be a surprise on stage. Swing dancers and an Andrews Sisters-style close-harmony group are working on a number with the same concentration displayed for three hours. If sheer love of and respect for a piece of material is any indication, Webb's City: The Musical will be well worth your time.

At a glance

Webb's City: The Musical, today at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater; June 30 and July 1, 7:30 p.m., and July 1 and 2, 2 p.m., Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $12.50 and $17.50.

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