The show must go on, Richey Suncoast Theatre supporters say after the institution lost its guiding light, Charlie Skelton.
Patrons plan a Celebration of Life event in honor of Skelton, who died July 4 in Las Vegas. The public is invited to the event at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the theater, 6237 Grand Blvd., New Port Richey.
"No one is allowed to wear black," Marie Skelton, his widow, said Tuesday. Instead of flowers, a Charlie Skelton Memorial Fund has been created, she added. Donations will go toward renovating the theater lobby.
The gathering is intended as a light-hearted tribute to Skelton, who oversaw the community theater the past 12 years.
The downtown theater, built in the 1920s, was in bad shape when Charlie took the helm, Marie recalled. The roof was leaking badly, the air conditioner malfunctioned, seats had deteriorated and the sound and lighting systems were substandard.
At the time, the number of season ticket holders had dwindled to 200. Today, the theater boasts more than 1,400 season ticket holders.
Marc Yacht, the retired former director of Pasco County Health Department, misses his frequent lunches with Charlie Skelton and theater volunteers. The confabs on Tuesdays had become a tradition at Leaning Tower of Pizza.
"Charlie, I and set builders probably solved every problem in America today" at their lunch summits, Yacht said with a laugh. "I was the liberal, and he was the conservative."
Yacht added, "I would consider him a best friend. It was a terrible loss to me."
Both men hailed from Philadelphia. Skelton was an "unusual combination of ex-cop and theater director," Yacht said. "He and Marie did amazing things" saving the theater from ruin, Yacht commented.
"A lot of people owe Charlie for getting into show biz," Yacht said. "That's a very hard road." Student scholarships helped aspiring actors.
"Charlie was just a visionary, a great guy, a funny guy," Henry "Chip" Wichmanowski recalled. The executive director of the Pasco Education Foundation, Wichmanowski had drifted away from the theater, until 2002, when he and his daughter performed in a Christmas play Skelton wrote.
"Kids meant the world to Charlie," Wichmanowski said. "You're going to see a lot of kids there" at the Sunday gathering who are veterans of theater summer camps or productions.
A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson sums up Skelton the best for Susan Dillinger, the director of the New Port Richey Public Library.
"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … to leave the world a better place … to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded," Emerson wrote.
"Charlie had a generous heart and helped many," Dillinger said. "Always a great storyteller, Charlie regaled those around him by the hour. He was a man of vision, integrity and full of wisdom.
"Charlie loved this community and poured his boundless energy into making it a better place," Dillinger added. He served on the board of the Friends of the New Port Richey Library.
"Charlie was fun, full of positive energy and a great inspiration, particularly to the youth," said Ann Scott, the library outreach director.
The theater and library had teamed up to produce Shakespeare by the River and show classic films.
"He was the real deal, a genuine friend and an authentic person who understood what was really important in life," Scott said.
"I find it difficult to grasp the idea that he is no longer around. The last time I saw him, he was giving me a little moral support, bolstering me up regarding a family illness. He was so sincere … that was Charlie," Scott added.
"I don't think I ever saw him angry," Greg Giordano, chief legislative assistant to state Sen. Mike Fasano, said about Skelton. "He always had a smile on his face."
The Skeltons "made the arts accessible to the community," Giordano said. "Together they were a great team. They were inseparable. We extend our prayers and thoughts to her (Marie)."
"I'm trying to move forward," Marie Skelton said. "It's very hard. I'm still waiting to wake up from this nightmare. One day at a time. The theater is my lifeline right now."