The Innovative Palm Tree Playhouse
Articles: Sarasota History
Beginning in 1951, “Comedie” and “Tradgedie,” the traditional masks of theatre, adorned the façade of the building on First Street, which housed the Palm Tree Playhouse, Sarasota’s professional theater.
Founded in 1950 by Stuart Lancaster, the Palm Tree was the realization of a long-standing dream. Lancaster, son of Hester Ringling Lancaster (later Sanford) and Louis Lancaster, and the grandson of Charles and Edith Ringling, inherited the family love of the entertainment world and found his forte in the theatre. He studied and worked at the Cleveland Playhouse, was technical director at the Lakewood Theatre in Cleveland, co-producer and technical director at the Cleveland Playhouse and received additional training at the American Theatre Wing. He was also seen on the New York stage and on television.
But the idea of bringing professional theatre to Sarasota remained paramount and in December of 1950, at the American Legion Coliseum on North Washington Boulevard, the curtain rose on the first Palm Tree Playhouse production, “Home Of The Brave.” The word “curtain” was used in a technical sense, as the stage was the entire central arena and un-curtainable.
For its second season, the Playhouse moved to its permanent home on First Street, the former “Park-Seventh Theatre,” “Garden Theatre,” “Art Theatre” movie theater, where Lancaster adapted the physical plant to use the TUDOR, or projecting stage, with side stages in front and to the sides of the proscenium arch.
The Palm Tree Playhouse was the first professional theatre to adopt this type of staging which Lancaster felt offers greater scope in the theatrical production and provided for a more intimate association between actors and the audience.
Recruiting his company from New York each year, Lancaster presented a nine-play season offering diversified dramatic fare. Some outstanding past productions have been “Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Moon is Blue,” “The Rainmaker,” “Picnic,” “Anastasia,” and the past season’s “Witness For The Prosecution,” “Tea And Sympathy, and “Bullfight,” to name a few.
While not labeling his theatre “experimental,” producer-director Lancaster brought his creative talent to grip with new and intriguing developments in contemporary theatre to enhance the pleasure of the Playhouse patrons. Children’s theatre was also an important aspect of the Palm Tree’s productions with “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel” being among the favorites.
During the regular season, the gracious custom of serving coffee in the charming patio adjacent to the theatre, prior to the performance, was the patron’s welcome to the Palm Tree, and the works of contemporary artists were on exhibition in the small gallery in the theatre’s foyer.
In January of 1957 there were only seven equity winter stock companies active in the United States. It is an indication of the cultural interest and maturity of Sarasotans that a city this size supported one of these unique theatres. Each season brought new challenges to the production staff and new pleasures to the patrons.
Presently, the 1927 “Park-Seventh” theatre building is still in the entertainment business as “Theatre Works.”
(Editor’s note: Today it is called the Gompertz Theatre and is associated with Florida Studio Theatre).