In late 1947, several aspiring actors who also were members of the Bradenton Junior Women’s Club organized a community theatre group known as Manatee Players. Their first performance, a Christmas season operetta called Hansel & Gretel, was performed in the Bradenton Women’s Club and netted $1,600. The troupe was thrilled and the community wanted more. On January 25, 1948, the traveling troupe of thespians received its charter as a non-profit organization The Manatee Players, Inc. The following year the fledgling organization presented a full season of performances at either the Women’s Club, Palmetto Women’s Club or Ballard School, playing to expanding audiences and gaining popularity with every production. Rehearsals were held at the Bradenton Pier, the Armory, the Elks Club, the Girl Scout’s Little House, and the Water Works building. Many rehearsal sessions also were held in private homes. A season membership cost $12.50.
In 1953, through the inspiration of The Manatee Players’, Inc. first president, Dr. W.D. Sugg, and the generosity of Mr. Edward & Mrs. Lillian Bishop, who provided start-up funding, an undeveloped piece of land on the Manatee River was leased for fifty years from the City of Bradenton for $1 per year. Within weeks, construction began on the new performance hall, to be called The Riverfront Theatre. Total cost of the new building was $60,000.
With great fanfare and excitement, The Riverfront Theatre, the first community theatre in Bradenton’s history, opened in December 1953 with I Remember Mama. The following year the theatre’s performance of Oklahoma was the first production of the musical by a non-professional group in the U.S. Over the next sixty years, The Manatee Players would produce some of the best live theatre in Southwest Florida, at The Riverfront Theater.
But after six decades of hard use, the organization’s small facility severely limited the company’s ability to grow—in revenue, in production capacity, and in program additions such as children’s theatre, acting classes and experimental productions. In addition and just as important, the building did not meet the most current ADA requirements and lacked proper sight lines for the visually impaired.
In 2001, the Board of Directors conducted a comprehensive facility needs assessment that revealed three priorities: 1) dedicated space for education programs; 2) on site rehearsal space, and 3) enhanced patron services areas. In order to meet the needs and expectations of theatre participants of all ages, The Manatee Players, Inc. hired project architects to design a facility that incorporated some of the finest amenities found in nationally recognized theatres, while also ensuring that the architectural design maximized the location on the beautiful Manatee River while also complementing the historic nature of the surrounding downtown Bradenton community.
The capital campaign’s lead gift of $2.3 million from Mrs. Cora May Stone was predicated on the challenge to The Manatee Players, Inc. to have the foundation of the new building coming out of the ground before October 2006, the one-year anniversary of her death. If that challenge was not met, The Manatee Players, Inc. would forfeit Mrs. Stone’s gift. Thanks to nearly Herculean efforts on the part of the board and staff, as well as the campaign committee, that deadline was met a month early. Continuous fundraising allowed the facility to be built out in stages and opened to its first audience in March 2013.