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    Gulfport christens theater with variety show

    Sure, there were first-night glitches, but a $970,000 theater for a city of 10,000? That's entertainment.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


    GULFPORT -- Donna Naughton's hands were red and skinned from rope burns, but across her face was a wide smile that blocked out the sting.

    "We've never had a curtain before," said Naughton, the stage manager for Gulfport Community Players productions.

    She happily showed off her hands, ruddy after opening and closing the stage curtains Dec. 10 in a two-hour variety performance that christened the Catherine A. Hickman Theater of Gulfport. Naughton said: "Isn't it wonderful?"

    For one night, performers and musicians and stage hands and city officials reveled in the newness of their theater. The audience, mostly supporters of cultural arts in Gulfport and politicians who made the $970,000 theater a priority for the city of 10,000, enjoyed the music, dance and theatrics of local talent.

    In the lobby, one woman remarked to another: "Doesn't everything smell new?"

    Also at the first performance was the family of the theater's namesake. Mrs. Hickman founded Gulfport Community Players, which helped with Sunday night's gala performance and which plans to lease the new venue for most of the group's productions.

    Mrs. Hickman also founded the local historical society, started a girls softball league and wrote the book Our Story of Gulfport.

    "She had a way of drawing out the very best in people from all walks of life," said Lynne Brown, a City Council member, who was co-host of the evening with Gulfport resident Charlie Alaimo.

    The evening began with an open house for the new theater and expanded senior center, which were helped along with $280,000 in state grants. The senior center's expansion cost $110,000 and, combined with the theater, was the biggest project in Gulfport since the new city hall opened in 1994.

    Judy Ryerson, a local historian who performed in a Gulfport Community Players skit Sunday night, was part of the original theater group that Mrs. Hickman assembled.

    "I thought, "Okay, I'll help. It sounds like fun,' " said Ryerson, recalling that the group's first play was Dora, the Beautiful Dishwasher. "She could get more people to do more things that were not in their field of interest."

    There were mishaps, but the audience forgave the technicians, who were still unfamiliar with equipment that raised curtains, turned up the microphones and controlled the stage lights. Light bulbs were installed just three days before the grand opening.

    "There's bound to be hitches," Brown said.

    When Mayor Michael Yakes introduced City Council member Jack Olsen to the audience, Olsen struggled to find the opening in the large curtain that he was expected to slip through. Council member John "Ted" Phillips squinted into the audience, unaccustomed to the spotlight.

    At one point Ralph Bassett, formerly of the New York City Opera and now a resident of Gulfport, joked that the pianist accompanying him and his wife, Catherine, was "playing by Braille."

    The pianist, Marge Grudzinski, could not see her music because the stage lighting hadn't been perfected, so workers helped move the piano into the spotlight.

    Then there was Naughton who, after years of working with the Gulfport Community Players, finally got the chance to open a stage curtain. It's harder to close than to open, she said, and next time, she'll know to wear work gloves.

    So let the record reflect that Naughton was the first to raise the curtain at the Hickman Theater. That "Hollywood" David Wright was the first to strum a guitar on stage. That Beth Armstrong, "the voice of Gulfport," was the first to sing God Bless America in a performance that inspired the audience to sing along.

    The first to be moved to tears by a performance on the new stage was likely Cathy Cottrell, Catherine Hickman's niece, who was named after her aunt.

    The clincher, she said, was an appearance on stage by her cousin Joe Hickman, who traveled from Colorado with his children to attend the grand opening of the theater named after his mother.

    "Now as I look around at this beautiful theater, I see the culmination of (my mother's) simple decision and humble actions," Hickman said. "I took a walk along Shore and Beach boulevards today with my mother's grandchildren. And I see the arts district that I think owes itself in some way to her dream and her work in this community."

    Opening remarks from City Council member Lynne Brown, who co-hosted the opening gala at the Catherine A. Hickman Theater of Gulfport:

    "Not only is this lovely theater a dream come true, it is a logical outgrowth of a long tradition. From the very first days of our town, once an almost uninhabitable wilderness of scrub palmetto and sand, those first people left their arduous work of grubbing out a living from land and sea to entertain and amuse each other. The early settlers brought with them violins and guitars, and happy music spilled out across the silent waters as those folks, never too tired to dance and sing, lost the weary woes of the day in music.

    "Later, as the settlement grew and more permanent homes were built, some lucky few had pianos hauled or shipped in. Many of the ladies played, all of them sang and some of the men recited at length, while everyone, of course, joined in the merry old-fashioned dances. No occasion was without this kind of commemoration -- at school and church, at political gatherings and picnics and birthday parties, the accounts never vary: music and food, dancing and singing, a grand speech by the mayor, and always until very late.

    "From earliest days then, Gulfport has had a history of entertaining itself, necessary at first due to the isolation and loneliness of the few brave souls carving out a life here, then a way of cheering themselves against the sorrows of life in times of depression and war. When there wasn't even a nickel to afford a trolley ride downtown to a theater, our folks made their own amusements. When all the young men were taken away to fly and sail against the enemy, those left behind gathered to sing heartening and patriotic songs.

    "So the spirits of all who came before us are with us here tonight as we celebrate the opening of this wonderful facility, the Catherine A. Hickman Theater of Gulfport. We celebrate their spirit, too, and the spirit of giving and caring and sharing typified by the lady whose name we have chosen to grace this building. . . . Now it's time to begin the show."

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