by John Bechtel
As a theatre-goer for many years, beginning with adolescence in Brooklyn, New York when I used to sneak over to Manhattan to buy one of the cheap seats at mid-week matinees, shortly after my wife and I moved to the New Port Richey area last summer we started looking for local, live-theatre venues. I was delighted to make Jimmy Ferraro’s acquaintance and later, that of his wife and professional colleague, Dee Etta Rowe, and to attend two performances at their Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatre. The first performance was a fundraiser for acting and voice students in need of financial aid. Mr. Ferraro and Ms. Rowe give voice and acting lessons on site, in addition to producing and directing live performances, and their students learn far more from them than mere technique, I am sure. With about 80 years of experience in their profession between them, they are an ideal choice to mentor new entrants whose choice of career path will most likely permanently alter the course of their lives.
I learned the hard way that these performances at the Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatre are routinely sold-out; I was politely turned away at the door by Jimmy the first time I tried to purchase any. Their students and graduates of voice and acting lessons are frequently among the performers at these events, and their unique training programs and productions have become a performing arts incubator for students who not only want to perfect technique, but who also seek inside advice on succeeding in the profession from mentors who have quite literally done it all.
During that first fundraiser event, we were treated to everything from a troupe of belly dancers, operatic soloists, an exquisite mime performance, and we watched and laughed as Dee Etta Rowe and Jimmy Ferraro moved fluidly and effortlessly from serious to comedic and back again in virtuoso performances that enthralled all of us in their packed out audience. One of the problems with getting older is the easy accretion of disappointments as so many experiences fail to live up to expectations; one tends to consciously lower hopes for excellence. This, however, was not one of those occasions. Judging by the sustained applause, we were all feeling immense satisfaction with an evening well spent. It is that after-theatre, after-laughter glow that becomes so addictive; a sense of well-being and oneness with everything that is good in the universe.
Soon after I met Jimmy, he invited me to take a tour with him of the immediate area, including Sim’s Park, the Pithlachascotee River that wends its way through downtown New Port Richey, lined by beautiful homes; as pastoral a downtown as I’ve ever seen. And then Jimmy told me about the New Port Richey that almost became the Hollywood of the East. I don’t remember exactly how much Jimmy told me that day and how much I learned from research after I went home, but the story goes something like this:
During the roaring 1920’s when everyone was living the high life and feeling no pain, Hollywood was in an expansive mood, and celebrities, then as now, were earning more money than they really knew what to do with. A well-known star of the silent films by the name of Thomas Meighan had decided he wanted a second home (or third, or fourth, or whatever) in New Port Richey. So he had a palatial home built on the river (yes, that river), and as the story goes, he persuaded some of his Hollywood buddies, both men and women, to come and take a look. A new theatre was built, christened the Thomas Meighan Theatre, and it was intended to be one of the finest in all of Florida for that time period. It was built within a few months of the construction of the Hacienda, a Spanish architecture new hotel a block west of the new theatre. The glitterati came to poke around, to see and be seen, and debate whether they too wanted to build on the river and become part of the vanguard of the Hollywood of the East as New Port Richey began to be called.
Unfortunately the Hollywood of the East was not to be. This thing called the Great Depression got in the way. The celebrities went home. Thomas Meighan died in the early thirties. No movies were filmed in New Port Richey. The Thomas Meighan Theatre went out of business, changed names and ownership multiple times, until at last it in 1972 it became the Richey Suncoast Theatre, which it remains to this day.
Interestingly, in that same year of 1972 a young graduate of the University of South Florida named Jimmy Ferraro began his singing and acting career, and made his Broadway debut in “Fiddler on the Roof”, with eventually two Broadway National Tours, over 2500 performances, and directed by Jerome Robbins in 2012. To this day, the character Tevye in “Fiddler” remains Jimmy’s signature role. Jimmy Ferraro and his wife and professional colleague would be considered cultural icons in any artistic community, and New Port Richey is fortunate to be home to them and their Studio Theatre. They are operating a performing arts incubator in a small town of 15,000 people that has not one, but two successful live theatres. This may be the Suncoast, but this couple are not coasting, or even slowing down. In their personal performances, they can still reach the high notes and rock the room.
My perception is that New Port Richey is seeking to gentrify its downtown and compete more aggressively with its big-attraction neighboring cities in its near-south. Achieving momentum in the development of the arts in a community is essential to creating the intellectual and cultural buzz that draws its people downtown. Sims Park is beautiful. We have some relatively new restaurants within a block of both the Richey Suncoast and Jimmy Ferraro Studio Theatres. The Hacienda seems to be lurching towards completion of its makeover. This community has art history, great stories, a present with modest momentum, and potential for a fabulous future. If we had some big Hollywood names poking around this town right now, it would create a lot of buzz, just like it did in the 1920s. But without fanfare and hoopla, what we do have is a performing arts incubator mentoring the next generation of stars, and two live theatres quietly turning out consistently high-quality performances. As a newcomer to the community, it seems to me some of the basics for great things are already into place, but things seem to move forward a little sleepily. We should have guided tours in good weather that tell the stories of downtown, then and now, and there should be well publicized and welcoming places downtown for apres-theatre socializing, and the riverside is begging for some new thought leadership.
This is not intended as criticism. It’s just that when an awesome theatrical production has just concluded, and everyone is engaged and energized and happy, and then you see everyone getting in their cars and going home or going somewhere else, something’s missing. Right now it feels a little bit like mid-production of Waiting for Godot. For those of you who haven’t read or seen the play, it’s this dreadfully boring story about everyone waiting for this guy Godot to show up. He never does. Does New Port Richey really want its main claim to fame to be as the Hollywood of the East—that almost was?