By Sue Wade
A mere 18 months ago, a cry rang out across Punta Gorda: “Don’t let the music die!”
The chant, sparked by a debate over the city noise ordinance, would prove sadly prophetic. In March, live music throughout Florida and the nation did die, when the coronavirus pandemic silenced all performing arts.
As many local venues continue to postpone live performances and others inch back cautiously, one Punta Gorda theater will reopen its doors in November. Residents hungry for live performances will find them, with many new precautions in place, at the Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum.
“The night of a show, the museum galleries might be closed but the theater comes to vibrant life,” said theater manager Isaac James. “It’s great to see so many people here, and many of them come back later to tour the museum.”
The 17,000-square-foot, nonprofit Military Heritage Museum opened on West Marion Avenue on April 16, 2019. The Gulf Theater’s first season began there in December, with all proceeds benefiting the museum. Its last two shows, canceled by COVID, have been rescheduled into the 2020-2021 season.
“We have been so blessed to have had so much talent appear on our stage,” James said of their inaugural season. “But it wasn’t only the caliber of the performers. It was the variety of entertainment the Gulf Theater was able to present, all of it family worthy. Many of our shows sold out. I didn’t know the standard could go any higher than that, but this season I’m excited to say that it will.”
Midseason last year, the former lecture hall was also totally renovated. They added hand railings for safety, as well as theatrical sound and lighting, and replaced sound-muffling carpet with a treated concrete floor and a wood-plank stage to ensure crystal-clear acoustics.
“We packed the house with last season’s tribute shows,” said James. “It showed us that patrons were really drawn to the variety.”
So, this season’s 15-show lineup is two-thirds tributes.
Tribute acts this season include Almost ABBA on Nov. 28, already nearly sold out from last season’s canceled show; on Jan. 30, Never Stop Believin’, a note-for-note double of the 1970s-1980s band Journey; on Feb. 6, The Brooklyn Boys, a two-in-one tribute to Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond; on Feb. 12, The Rat Pack Now, a swinging Vegas-style tribute to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.; on Feb. 20, Streetlife Serenader, celebrating piano man Billy Joel; on Feb. 26, The Beach Buoys, the Beach Boys surf-sound tribute that sold out last season; on March 6, Beatlemaniax-USA, reprising songs from the Fab Four’s touring and studio years; on March 13, The Caribbean Chillers, who’ll take you straight to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville; on March 26, The Rocketman, official Elton John double Rus Anderson’s re-creation of the young Elton John, with flamboyant costumes actually worn by the star; and, on April 17, the season’s wrapup—Latraia Savage’s twin tribute to The Divas of Soul, Whitney Houston and Donna Summer.
“I’m a concert pianist, so I also love bringing classical music to an audience,” said James. He’s doing just that this season, with three classically tinged performances and two in which he’ll participate.
The season opener on Nov. 15 returns world-class piano virtuoso Yi-Yang Chen to the Gulf Theater roster, after cancellation of his March performance.
One of the season’s biggest shows will be North Port nightingale and America’s Got Talent finalist Emanne Beasha, with A Christmas Wish on Dec. 12. Isaac James will accompany the 12-year-old soprano on piano.
On Jan. 16, soprano Jodi Keogan will belt out The Best of Broadway, effortlessly crossing over from Broadway to classical and big band songs.
On March 20, an exclusive centennial event celebrates Charlotte County’s 1921 founding. All That Jazz, co-produced with the Charlotte County Florida Historical Society, is a narrated concert performed by the Jazz Phools and guest vocalists Kirsten Joyer and Isaac James, with original music, photographs and words of the 1920s.
Letters From Home: Reviving Patriotism brings high-energy USO-style music, from World War II to Vietnam, on stage on April 10. Nearly sold out last season, it’s the perfect patriotic performance for the Military Heritage Museum.
“This is an intimate setting,” said James. “Unlike venues seating close to 1,000, we seat only 247. You can see the performers from the back row, not a bad seat in the house.
“I always want to please an audience, to have them leave here glowing because they’ve had such a good time.”
James is also excited to report that, for the first time this season, TT’s Tiki Bar from Punta Gorda’s Four Points by Sheraton will be the theater’s season hospitality sponsor, serving a full cash bar and refreshments at each event. Artists’ hospitality sponsor Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante will feed performers.
Gulf Theater will fog-sanitize the entire venue and wipe down door handles, railings and armrests before and after each show. Staff and guests (but not artists) are required to wear masks in the building and throughout the performance. Hand sanitizers and temperature checks at the door. Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum is located at 900 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda.
For tickets and schedule, go to www.militaryheritagemuseum.org or call 941-205-8545.