& Area Guide
Return of Webb's City
By PETER SMITH, Times Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000
When you try to explain Webbs City to people who werent 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 thats 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."
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."
"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.
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.