Not everyone knows about one of Punta Gorda’s top entertainment venues, but they soon will.

Unfazed by an inaugural season cut short by COVID, Gulf Theater at the Military Heritage Museum roared back, full of vibrant acts, for 2020-2021.

Even more is on the way for season 3.

Despite then-limited socially distanced seating, theater manager Isaac James said, “The second season still outsold the first by 10%. And Season 3 sales to current ticket holders have already exploded.”

“The night of a show, the museum galleries might be closed but the theater comes to vibrant life,” James continued. “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 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, on April 16, 2019. The Gulf Theater’s first season began there that December, with all proceeds benefiting the museum.

Midseason 2020, the former lecture hall was 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’ve had so much talent appear on our stage,” James said. “But it isn’t just the caliber of the performers. It’s the variety of entertainment Gulf Theater is able to present, all of it family worthy. Many of our shows sell out. I didn’t know the standard could go any higher than that, but this season I’m excited to say that it will.”

This year, preseason shows set the stage with a Veterans Day salute, a Barbra Streisand tribute and more.

Holiday season

Then, the holiday season sparkles with the return of Bob Hope impersonator Bill Johnson’s USO-style Christmas show on Dec. 3. One of the season’s biggest events will be North Port nightingale and “America’s Got Talent” finalist Emanne Beasha, with “A Christmas Wish” on Dec. 10. On Dec. 12 and Dec. 14 are classical holiday pops concerts by Southwest Florida Symphony and Gulfshore Opera, respectively. On Dec. 19, the Suncoast Brass performs holiday favorites from “Joy to the World” to “Hanukkah Suite” and “The Nutcracker” selections. On Jan 21, Tomkats Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece jazz ensemble, will swing in the New Year with jazz, blues and jazz-rock fusion.

“And you know we always pack the house with our tribute shows,” said James. “Patrons are really drawn to the variety.”

Concert lineup

This season’s 25-concert lineup includes more tributes than ever. Many of them have sold out so fast in the past that Gulf Theater plans to stage matinees to handle the overflow from packed evening performances.

You might have missed the last Rolling Stones U.S. tour, but here, The U.S. Stones will put on a real 1970s-1980s Stones show on Jan. 28. Gerry Williams’ “Hotter Than July” brings Stevie Wonder and Lionel Ritchie selections into the house on Feb. 4. The Blues Brothers Soul Band tribute gives Gulf Theater not only soul men Jake and Elwood, but also Tina Turner, on Feb. 11. Latraia Savage presents another twin tribute, this time to The Divas of Soul, Whitney Houston and Donna Summer, on Feb. 18. On Feb. 25, Jonathan Elgart’s “Streetlife Serenader” celebrates piano man Billy Joel like none other. Almost ABBA, on March 4, is the No. 1 touring ABBA tribute. On March 11, The Beach Buoys, a Beach Boys surf-sound tribute, puts on a show that’s sold out twice before. March 18’s Greggie and the Jets 1970s-era Elton John tribute has had more sold out events than can be counted. On March 26, Never Stop Believin’ is a note-for-note double of the 1970s-1980s band Journey. The April 1 show is no joke, but a lot of fun: The Caribbean Chillers are guaranteed to take you straight to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. And, on the theory that nobody doesn’t love Tom Petty, Wildflowers closes out the season’s tributes on April 8.

Classical concerts

But for audiences who prefer that touch of class, Gulf Theater’s three classical collaborators contribute a total of 10 concerts to this season’s program.

“I’m a concert pianist, so I love bringing classical music to an audience,” said James.

He’s doing just that this season, with four concerts, beginning Nov. 13, by Fort Myers-based Southwest Florida Symphony; three piano and chamber music performances, beginning Dec. 5, from Naples-based Grand Piano Series and three lighter musicales from Naples’ Gulfshore Opera: “Holiday Pops” with the Harmony Choir on Dec. 14, “Opera Meets Broadway” on Jan. 25 and “Songs of Ireland” just before St. Patrick’s Day on March 10.

Executive Director Amy Ginsburg of Southwest Florida Symphony said that, because of the size of its stage, “We’re bringing our TinyConcerts to Gulf Theater this year — chamber ensembles of mostly trios and quartets. We love working with Isaac, Punta Gorda has been really receptive to our presence and unique programming, and the acoustics in the theater are fantastic. We’re thrilled to have found this gem!”

“This is an intimate setting,” James agreed. “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.”

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