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Annie Russell Theatre at 80: The woman behind the Rollins theater

With Rollins College opening its 80th season in the Annie Russell Theatre this week, I was suddenly struck by the notion that I don't know all that much about the theater's namesake.

For enlightenment, I turned to an expert. Jennifer Cavanaugh, Rollins associate dean of arts and sciences, spent years examining Russell's letters and piecing together her life. The results included a scholarly article on the actress and a biographical play, "Stage Fright," both co-written with Rollins student Joseph Bromfield.

"She was an amazing woman, a fantastic woman, a mysterious woman," Cavanaugh says of Russell. "She was one of the most popular American actresses at the turn of the century. She was considered one of the great melodramatic heroines."

Russell's heyday as a stage actress was from the late 1890s into the early years of the 20th century. She specialized in ingénue roles — but not by choice.

"She was often called a 'delicate flower,'" Cavanaugh says. "But what's ironic is she was an incredibly strong-willed women. She hated these roles."

She even developed a derogatory nickname for such fragile heroines: "Annie-genue roles."

"She thought of theater as a high calling," Cavanaugh says. "She longed to do more interesting theater."

So she formed her own theater company at a time when it was highly unusual for a woman to do such a thing. With her own company, she was able to do shows of her liking — Shakespeare, comedies such as "She Stoops to Conquer" — but the dream didn't last. The company fizzled out after about a year and a half, unfortunate proof that artistry can't always trump what the people want.

"The irony is people would have paid forever and ever to see her play a delicate flower who faints at everything," Cavanaugh says.

She married twice and divorced twice, again uncommon in that time: "She was very disappointed by the husbands in her life," Cavanaugh says drily.

Luckily she found solace in close friends.

"She always had powerful relationships with other women," Cavanaugh says. One of them was Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist, who donated the theater to Rollins College and named it in her friend's honor.

Russell had retired from the stage in 1918 and moved to Winter Park. Her friend's extravagant gift re-energized her: Russell attended the dedication in 1932, became artistic director — and returned to the stage.

She continued her involvement with the Annie until her death in January 1936. In Russell's honor, the theater is presenting a season of plays featuring strong lead female roles — no delicate flowers, thank you very much. Opening Friday, Sept. 21, is "The Miss Firecracker Contest."

I'll bet Russell would approve.

Last act

Meanwhile, the Annie is now our oldest continuously running local theater. That's because Stetson University in DeLand has demolished its historic Stover Theatre — which had been home to Stetson's stage productions since 1930.

The building had been water damaged over the years, university officials said. Built by a contractor with no experience in theater construction, the deteriorating building had also become too small for the theater program. Expanding the structure would have been difficult; renovations alone would have cost millions.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Stetson shows will now be performed in a theater at the Museum of Florida Art, adjacent to campus. Four decorative pillars from the Stover lobby were preserved to memorialize the theater. But the curtain has fallen on that particular piece of Central Florida theater history.

'Miss Firecracker Contest'

What: Beth Henley's examination of beauty and femininity framed by a Southern woman's search for acceptance through beauty pageants

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and Saturday, Sept. 22; 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23; 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29; through Sept. 29

Where: Annie Russell Theatre, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park

Tickets: $20; $10 students ($25 adults, $15 students on opening night, which includes reception)

Call: 407-646-2145

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