AVON PARK - Some scoffed 30 years ago when then South Florida Community College started to develop a cultural arts series to present orchestras, Broadway shows and dance and ballet performances.
Former college president Catherine Cornelius said when she first announced her plans for a cultural series at a staff meeting, someone said, "If you don't bring in somebody like the Charlie Daniels Band ain't nobody is going to come."
At the South Florida State College's Theatre for the Perform Arts on Friday, Cornelius and Dean of Cultural Programs Doug Andrews recalled the efforts about 30 years ago that went into to creating a cultural program.
Andrews noted that back then a former professor asked him if it was true that a cultural series with orchestras, bands, concerts and dance performances was going to start at the college.
Andrews told him "yes"
The former professor responded, "nobody in Highlands County is going to buy tickets to come see that stuff."
The story of the cultural series starts with the venue, the college's auditorium.
Cornelius said the building of the original auditorium resulted from a great community effort.
The college's state funding qualified it for a 500-seat auditorium, but the community wanted something bigger, she said. The county, the cities and local citizens raised enough money, and along with two state funding sources, a 1,500-seat auditorium was built in 1978.
When Cornelius came to the college in 1984 the auditorium was used only about four or five times a year for events like the college's commencement ceremony and a high school graduation.
"I looked at this gorgeous auditorium, it was really a beautiful thing with great acoustics and everything, and I said, 'This is a waste,'" Cornelius said. "I came from Daytona [community college] where we did have a cultural series."
Cornelius looked to Andrews to develop a cultural series that would get the community involved with the college.
The college's cultural program advisory committee was comprised of members from the Community Concert Association, which at the time presented a few chamber music type performances annually that drew about 150 to 200 people, Cornelius said.
"It worked beautifully together; it helped meet their needs and it created an even bigger audience," Cornelius said.
Cornelius provided Andrews with a start-up budget of $50,000.
She wanted the first performance to be a "litmus test" with the Nutcracker Ballet.
"If we can sell a ballet we can sell anything," Cornelius said.
It sold out in three days.
The performance was scheduled Dec. 18, 1984.
When she walked into the auditorium to see the show, Cornelius said it was packed with moms and dads with children and grandparents with children.
"I was thinking, 'this is going to wind up being a problem because all these children are in here,'" she said. But when the performance started the kids were quiet, on the edge of their seats and they loved it.
She noted in that first year admission was $25 for all six shows in the Cultural Series and $5 per show, children $4.
Over the years the cultural series included many Broadway shows such as in 1990-91 "Camelot," "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" and "Hello Dolly."
Andrews explained that its challenging to Broadway shows, especially relatively new shows, because they are expensive and large productions.
The shows usually book first for a month at time in large cities, where there is enough population base to fill multiple shows, he said. Then they book multiple shows for a week at a time.
Cornelius said the cultural programs and Cultural Series have had a tremendous effect on the community. Business people said it provided a draw for more senior citizens to the area who became permanent residents and many more stayed for the winter because there was something to do.
In the 1999-2000 season The Cultural Series was retitled the The Artist Series.
Andrews said, "'Cultural' has a little bit of a connotation that some people may construe as being highbrow or whatever and we do more than orchestras and things, we do some fun things that are more entertainment and less cultural."
Some of the notable singers who how have performed in the series include: Jerry Vale, Roger Miller, Robert Merrill, Paul Anka, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers and Judy Collins.
Cornelius noted performers such as flamenco guitarists Carlos Montoya and pianist Roger Williams.
Andrews said it has been challenging to book artists/shows that he believes the community wants to see.
"Even these days, this year for example, we are programming [pop/rock singer] Michael McDonald," he said. "We would have never done that 15 or 20 years ago, not in the Artist Series."
It brings a new audience into the theater, he said. But over the years there were a few bookings that didn't go over well, while other shows did better than expected.
Without providing a name, Andrews said the college had one performer who was so bad that he is referred to as "what's his name."
The performance/show was something different than what he was expecting, Andrews said. He had seen the artist two years earlier at Florida Souther College in Lakeland where he did a solo performance involving audience members on duets.
But when he came here, "he brought a totally different performance; he brought a group of singers and the whole night was improvised," Andrews said. "I've had only two or three of those."
On the positive side, Andrews said the 2003 performance by The Ten Tenors, who were young Australian singers, showed that the Cultural/Artist Series reached a new level.
"People were shouting in the audience," he said. "The production value was incredible; the lighting was spectacular and that night was something I had never seen - that level of response and enthusiasm."
That night the Ten Tenors were booked to perform the following year.
The auditorium was completely renovated/rebuilt in 2009.
The $12.5 million renovation created a larger and updated backstage to accommodate bigger and more technically complex productions.
The old auditorium had about 1,400 seats, all on the ground floor, while the new auditorium, The Theatre for the Performing Arts, has about 1,000 ground-level seats, 300 balcony seats and 200 seats in 20 side boxes for a total capacity of about 1,500.
Most of the seats are "fabulous," Andrews said.
Andrews and Cornelius agreed that the new auditorium is "top of the line."
Andrews said Cornelius had a vision for a cultural series, which wasn't popular at the time, but it grew and was supported by Norm Stephens who succeeded Cornelius as president and continues to receive support from President Thomas Leitzel.
What about the future?
"More and better," Andrews said. "We continue to improve our staffing, our programs and the way we do things. We continue to try to involve the community in a myriad of ways."