DOwntown Venice is all abloom

Gold Trees (Tabebula Argentree), common to Central and South America. Presented to the city in honor Ann Fehskens who was president of the Venice Area Garden Club 1999-2001. Now a parking lot, Centennial Park was the parade ground for students of the Kentucky Military Institute who wintered in Venice from 1932 to 1970. See an exhibit on the school inside the Venice Center Mall on West Tampa Avenue.

First off, apologies to Peter Tavino who has contributed so many terrific drone shots to this paper, thanks to his skills of flying his drone and as a photographer. We inadvertently credited a photo of the Urban Jungle to him that he didn’t take. For that, we apologize and attach one of his Urban Jungle photos to this column.

The one in Wednesday’s Our Town showed the socially distanced fans of the theater during the annual pre-season presentation of what's coming. The coming seasn's schedule was in Wednesday's Our Town in case you missed it.

Over the weekend, the theater presented anoter show featuring its resident music director Michelle Kasanofsky and her son as a bonus. One of my friends said the the choice of music was not only just right but the entire performance brought tears to her eyes.

The theater continues to have roped off areas fo scial distancing just as it add circled areas of the parking lot for Monday's presentation. Attendees were asked to park at Centennial Park and bring folding chairs to set up in one of the circled areas for the presentation which lasted just over 30 minutes or so.

The late Allan Kollar was always an important part of the season preview announcement and I know Murray Chase and Krisrofer Geddie were thinking of his contributions to this event in past years. Allan, as the theater's artistic director, was no doubt applauding the coming season from theater heaven. There has to be such a place for thespians with that much talent.

As the area's entertainment area leader in figuring out how to safely offer entertainment during the pandemic, the theater's xpecial pandemic committee did a wonderful job. 

Health questons, temperature checks, masks, social distance seating, and even the selection of shows with tiny casts and no intermission and casts, also masked and keeping their distance from one another. Added to that at Venice are personal escorts to our seats.

If anyone was here prior to 1970 and during the winter quarter residency of the Kentucky Military Institute, they might not recognize the old garage and armory used by the military school cadets as the building that today houses the number two community theater in the U.S. For those who have not heard this rant of mine - It may be number two in the U.S. but its budget and program schedule are not that different and it too has a TTAP (Theatre Technical Apprentice Program) but Venice has a city population of just 23,000 or so and Omaha has a population of some 450,000. While I have not seen the Omaha Theatre's version of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carole," I have seen enough other versions to know that the Venice version is by far the best, with its original music by Scott Keyes and Susan Ott, let alone its cast - most of whom have grown up in the show - moving from part to part as they age. 

Since the KMI left Venice, the building has been acquired by Venice Theatre and undergone several major renovations, including the very important removal of the word “Little” from what has become the second most important community theater in the United States - after the Omaha Playhouse, which is similar in size and programs but not in the number of volunteers, nor in number of area residents.

Venice has 1,500 theater volunteers, which is many more than Omaha but Omaha has many more residents — some 450,000 versus the 23,000 or so that live within our city limits. Omaha tops us in residents, even if we were to annex Sarasota, Osprey, Nokomis, Englewood and North Port. Please City Council memberss — do not even think of such a thing!

In terms of numbers, my vote is always with this city’s theater, its top-notch roster of employees and its 1,500 volunteers and its incredible donors who have really stepped up to the plate during the pandemic.

But then, I am the ultimate Venice snob. In addition to the theater we have a beautiful art center with a talented staff, Loveland Center for the Developmentally Challenged, Venice Symphony, Venice Chorale, Venice Concert Band, South County Jazz Club, the stunning Venice Performing Arts Center at Venice High School, at least 100 important historic homes dating to the 1920s when famous Harvard-trained city planner John Nolen designed the city of Venice and hired fellow Harvard grad Prentiss French to design the initial landscaping.

If those two could see this beautiful city now and see what Bob Vedder and members of Venice Area Beautification Inc. have done, they would be rightfully astounded.

Maybe all this beauty and so many nice people are why sea turtle nesting has been significantly up the past several years. Patrols will be on the beaches early this year — April 15. Prepare to avoid using any sort of lights at teh beach from then until the end of October and to dim lights when drving past the beaches at night. ANd, of course, no bon fires at teh beach - ever!

Mote-trained patrols walk the beaches daily from North Casey Key to about where Caspersen Beach begins. Coastal Wildlife Club takes over from Caspersen Beach and Manasota Key south to Gasparilla Island and Little Gasparilla Island.

And while the homes on Casey Key have grown over the years from the beach cottages which were the norm until the 1970s, sea turtles are still well regarded on those beaches even as the cottages are being replaced by mansions. 

My first job at the Gondolier was as a real estate “stringer.” That meant I only wrote about real estate and covered the area from South Sarasota, Osprey, Nokomis and Venice to North Port.

I rode in a jeep with the late Jacques Cloutier who developed Sawgrass on the land that would be Sawgrass, wrote about several builders at the Plantation, the creation of Venice Golf and Country Club and so many areas around Jacaranda, many also built by Cloutier’s J and J Homes.

I had so much fun doing that and learning about this community that when I heard a full-time reporter’s job was open, I went to the editor and now, more than 25 years later, I am one of the happiest people in this town.

If only John Nolen could see Venice these days If only my parents could see the improvements since they arrived as snowbirds in 196? 

I finally came in 1993, found a lot on the island and built my house.

My mother was an active member of Venice Art Center and often went out to Casey Key, for plein air painting sessions at the beach. I have a painting I did while tagging along with her one year while escaping the snow in Cleveland.

Surprisingly, the cottage where she painted is still there although so much of Casey, especially the northern part, has been transformed with so many “McMansions.”

When the first of those giant houses went up, we would get regular calls at the Gondolier with news that Oprah was building a house there. She never did although Rosie O’Donnell was there for a few years as well as a famous tennis player or two.

Ed McMahon supposedly had a house on Manasota Key which also has had its share of “yuppification” during the same period. Bobby Vinton and Donna Summer are others who have lived there.

Author Stephen King is probably the most famous person on Casey Key — in the gated north section where the late John D. MacDonald lived back in the ’80s. MacDonald's Travis McGee mystery novels were hugely popular in the ’60s and ’70s but he wrote a plethora of other books, too, including one that was turned into the movie “Cape Fear.”

Despite the plethora of multimillion-dollar homes on Casey Key these days, the names of most of the owners would not be recognized by most people.

And a few of the houses are behind such tall walls and gates that no one but owners and visitors can see what the houses are like.

The Cultural Coast is definitely growing up. We can only hope that next generation of Snowbirds and new residents will be as caring of this area and its cultural institutions as those who have supported the institutions that led to the moniker - the Cultural Coast.

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