Boots Tolsdorf looks back at 20 years of RPP performances

March 21, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY BOOTS TOLSDORF – With no lines to memorize this year for RPP, (yea!) I have turned to other endeavors, not unlike most of you. One of them was to organize 22 years of Royal Palm Players and me into scrapbooks. Hard to believe that in 2002, I came down the Community Center aisle dressed as a plumber in the smash musical hit written by Bonnie and Charlie Tyler titled “Empty Nest.” What great fun we had with that, which included such notables as Gay Carozzo, John Goyert, Mike Maine, Bob Young, Al Williams, Peter Sholley, Linda Noyes, and Chris Bertler. And the “cockroaches” were played by Dan Headington, Pat Carey, Sue Cain and Linda Rollyson whose costumes were fashioned by the creativity of Jane Moore. Many of these old-time favorites have either moved away or have left us way too soon. We ran for three nights, and the tickets were $10. Stage Managers were Liz Ghrisky and Renae Sieglaf with the very first Artistic Director of RPP, Tina Johnson, as Director. Bring back some memories?
Well, here are some more. An interview with Jim Grace shed some light on the first 10 years of RPP under Tina Johnson’s tutelage. There was a tiny talent pool back then and Tina would beg for performers and so it seemed that Charlie Tyler and Jim Grace had carte blanche. Jim relates, the two of them and in one case, Deb Baker were in three 20-minute “plays” that took place outside, where the audience came and sat in their golf carts and it was free.
The first one was a kind of Rod Sterling Twilight Zone and was called “Escape from the Gas Station” and it took place in front of our now long-gone gas station (corner of 4th and Park). It seems the actors drove in an old car, and the show rolled on. A second one was called “Escape from the Golf Course” took place on the Croquet Courts and the third was “Escape from the Beach.” Similar slants on the same theme, 20-minutes long, free and golf carts or chairs provided the “seats.” Jim also played Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Jr. in the Community Center and sang. As Jim says, and I quote, “I can’t sing, but I did, and nobody left!”
The first play that came to mind to both Jim Grace and Terry Seitz was the play they did with Steve Seidensticker and Dennis Domres called “The Wild Guys,” a comedy about guys sharing a “men’s awareness weekend” in the woods. This was the very first production I saw here, and it was a hoot. Those guys had a great time together on this one.
There were times plays were performed in the Cigar Room in The Gasparilla Inn, in front of, quite obviously, a small audience. Many musical evenings at Christmas in The Inn encouraged a great Christmas spirit as we wandered through the living room area singingcarols and forming a Cha-Cha dance line to the original Tyler song about Christmas in Boca Grande. Many of these were directed by Elizabeth Spicer. We also performed Christmas Music with Lisa Arundale directing at the original Inn Beach Club, and at the Community Center. It was a super well attended Christmas tradition for years. The same singers noted above welcomed Joyce Stetter and Ruth Ann Spurgeon. We were happy to include young home-grown Island School kids like Devyn Maine, Clara Marra, Connor Byrnes, Abby Garner and Amber Peterson. These “kids” have now grown into adults! But we have not aged at all. Right.
The Power House was another venue used for Broadway Musical events, where the crowd sat around tables for 8 and enjoyed dinner served by the incomparable Jimmy Searles, former chef at the Boca Bay Pass Club. The “core” singers were joined by some outstanding singers, Melissa Cripps and Dawn Carpenter. We performed songs from South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, to name a few, with Denise Clemons and Joan Kulakundis joining us. Through the years trusty Alex Newberry was always there making us look good under the lights in any venue for years and Tracy Bowe was either costumer, or helper and later, acted with us, as in “Deadwood Dick” which we performed in the old Gasparilla Inn Bar. First time I wore a wig, and there have been plenty more since then. The Crowninshield House has also been used. Perhaps you remember “Art?”
Those early days the “core” group was cast in pretty much everything. We could act, dance and sing and that was pretty much a requirement. And it was a much smaller pool of talent! It was not until we started to do readings, like “Lysistrata” in 2003 that more joined us. Ann and John Shaw, Fred Berger, Alice Gorman, Carol Sundberg were some names you might remember with Sherry Watts directing and JoAnn Barwick assisting. We were a close family for sure. Later the reading of “Bus Stop” brought in newcomer Ann Fletcher.
We have also performed in the back bar of the Caribbean Room of the Temp. One of my most beloved roles was in “Who’s Happy Now?” where I portrayed a woman abused by her harsh and often violent husband Horse, Jim Grace. Dan Headington was the salty bartender, and we had two YOUNG cast members, my son Daniel May and Horse’s flaky mistress, Melissa Clough who we imported from Georgia and Baltimore. It was Sunday, our matinee performance. At the end of the first act, Jim Grace starts verbally and physically abusing me and I make some bravado statement, rip open my blouse (which has snaps so it’s easy to do) throw it at him, and run away out the back of the restaurant. On the tree limb outside the Carib room is my prop, another blouse to put on. Only it was not there! And across the street there were a group of Harley Davidson riders holding up my blouse and cracking up.
Yes, there are many moments behind the scenes and of course on stage as well that you might not notice, but of course we do. There was the time in “Steel Magnolias” when one of the actors left the stage completely forgetting the main secret she was to divulge. There was no way we could continue so we had to get her back on stage ASAP. Improv moments like these are cause for desperate measures. But as an ensemble, we always make it work.

And I cannot forget the time, show and name unmentioned that I walked on stage opening the show with a fellow actor who had somewhat over-imbibed. As it was discovered at call time, an hour earlier, we had time to brew some strong coffee. But it did not take affect right away leading to some creative coverups!

When I interviewed Terry Seitz for this review, he told me about his role in the play “Tuesdays With Morrie.”  A few weeks before the play, Terry lost his mother, and he told me, with tears in his eyes, that crying in the final scene came easy to him. The play allowed him to experience his grief. Similarly, when I was in “California Suite,” I learned Saturday, tech day, a week before we opened, my sister died quite unexpectedly. I shared it with my “family” who gave me permission to lean on them. The show had to go on, and so it did. Life goes on and there have been less dramatic moments, but nevertheless, everyone is impacted. A cold or laryngitis can be energy depleting.

The Royal Palm office has gone through a bit of growing pains. Not pains, exactly. More like growing UP!   At first it was in a small room, with props and costumes in it as well, in the building near where Gasparilla Adventures is now. Then it moved to the 2nd floor above the (now) Gasparilla Adventures. But soon having outgrown that, RPP moved to the Community Center where it is now, with our props, costumes and sets off island in storage. We now have costumers like the very talented Arnie Preston who joined us in time to make our musicals come alive.

We have had super directors come and go. John Margulis for one who came from NYC. Todd Patterson,  Joshua Gold and Michael Raabe. And, of course, our very own tireless Meryl Schaffer, Tad and Kate Ingram, and Erica Ress Martin. And some of our actors have directed and/or stage managed as well. We have had expert stage managers like Marcia Spencer, right up to Robbie Stanley and Andrea Neilson.

Many have volunteered time to write up stories about our productions for the Boca Beacon. Kathy Futch and Becky Schellenger wrote in the early years. This has been a great way to bring people into our theatre as well as the good ol “word of mouth” advertisement. I also wrote a column called Backstage with Boots where I wrote a bit about a lot of things. I also wrote for the “other” paper, The Gasparilla Gazette and always about RPP.

Our RPP Gala of the Year was in the early years held at our homes, where all of us became bartenders, food purveyors, entertainers, prep and clean-up crew. This was a super event, and everyone felt a real part of it.  Now with the 30th Anniversary celebration coming up at some point, it has turned into a very large and encompassing event. Because of all of you – our audience –  who has passionately and devotedly come to fill our seats and our hearts over the years. We could not have come this far without your support.

So RPP is alive and thriving! COVID has been merely a road bump. We have simply put off for a year what we had planned for the 2020-2021 year like every other theatre small or large has done in some way.

We shall return, bright eyed and rested and ready to go! This year hopefully. Help us by staying safe, wearing your masks, and getting your vaccines.

P.S. Obviously I have not mentioned every actor, director, manager, producer, set designer, costumer, volunteer, show. You know who you are, and you know you are equally important to those mentioned.  I have merely tried to catch a small “snapshot” of the days before many of you “youngsters” arrived. Apologies.