ANNA MARIA – A piece of Island history is celebrating its roots and looking to its future and its 70th season.
The Island Players spurred on by entertainment-hungry tourists and locals, took over a historic home, converted it into a theater and began the business of providing opportunities for would-be thespians to entertain.
According to records at the Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, it all began in 1912 when area pioneer farmer William Gillet had a house built at the north corner of 121st Avenue East and 72nd Street East in Parrish.
The Gillet family sold the house in the 1940s to Bill McKechnie, a longtime manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it was towed by barge to Anna Maria Island for use by ballplayers during spring training. It was later given to the city and used as Anna Maria’s first city hall, a community center, a tourist information center and eventually, the Island Players Theatre. They held their first performance in 1949.
The building fell in disrepair in the 1960s and its only use was as a theater. In 1971, at an Anna Maria City Council meeting, Mayor Harry Cole faced some opposition to having the termite-ridden building placed under the city’s care. It had some nostalgic value, but it would be a drain on the city’s budget, opponents said.
After much debate, the Island Players, who were planning to build their own theater, agreed to use the building and presented plans for a new stage, seating and to remove some of the building that would be unnecessary for a theater.
Over the years, the Island Players’ productions became a favorite for locals, snowbirds and tourists. Within the past 25 years, they replaced the seats and the curtain with one that is a regal red shade.
Today, the players have the support of Island businesses that sponsor its productions and advertise in its playbooks, and there is an Offstage Ladies of the Island Players group that supplies volunteers as ushers, in the ticket booth, and behind the stage.
There is also a corps of actors that appear regularly as well as new faces, young and old, who make their acting debut here. Island Players President Sylvia Marnie, a veteran of several plays, said there is a lot of love that goes into each production.
“It’s like a family,” she said. “People know you, and they enjoy that.”
Due to its small size, the Island Players use more than the stage. They sometimes stand in the aisles and say their lines
“We do a lot, considering our size,” Marnie said. “At the Island Players, you’re only limited by your own imagination.”
As the Island Players celebrates seven decades of fun, they won’t take too much time out because, as they say, “The show must go on.”