When Carson Merry Baillie first approached Atlantic Beach officials in 1993 about staging live theatre in the former City Hall space, it signaled the beginning of a cultural renaissance at the heart of the seaside community.
In 1991, the city administrative offices moved to a new city hall on Seminole Road and the old city hall was converted into a community center and named the Adele Grage Community Center in honor of longtime City Clerk, Adele Grage.
Various community groups and organizations used the building for meetings and social activities. The City Commission granted Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, aka ABET, use of the former commission chambers and adjoining offices. In 2002 a major renovation was completed to add community rooms, a resource center, gallery and verandas to the building renamed the Adele Grage Cultural Center. The new cultural center fulfilled the cultural and community needs of a growing and culturally enlightened Atlantic Beach.
The blood, sweat and tears that went into transforming a charming little cottage-like space into a working community theatre, from the construction of the stage and risers by teams of dedicated volunteers to the relocation of the tongue-and-groove paneling to create a warm and inviting atmosphere, are documented in a new book compiled by Jay Fogg of The Shepherd Agency.
That “labor of love” for ABET resulted in a beautifully bound, 120-page book that details ABET’s 25-year history with photographs, lists of every cast, directors, playwrights and volunteers that have donated time, energy and heart to keep ABET alive. Chief among them, Merry Baillie, Director Emeritus, with three graduates of her drama workshop, who founded ABET to bring more original scripts, challenging plays and musicals to Northeast Florida. As she guided the theatre’s growth during the first 13 years, ABET gained a reputation for producing new plays, some by local playwrights, local premieres of Broadway productions, revivals and classics including the complete works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Barbara Evans stepped in as Managing Artistic Director for the next two years. Celia Frank has served as Managing Artistic Director since 2007, continuing to fulfill the mission to bring bold, daring works to the stage and establishing the ABET Guild to help grow volunteer support.
When the idea was brought up at a Shepherd brainstorming meeting of doing a history of ABET’s first 25 years, Fogg didn’t realize what a laborious task it would be to pour through dozens of dusty boxes and files in Florida heat followed by months of sorting and organizing 25 years’ worth of programs, reviews and photographs to somehow edit into a book. Fogg recently presented ABET’s founder, Merry Baillie with the finished product: ABET – The First 25 Years.
A copy of the book will be auctioned off as a fundraiser during ABET’s 26th season opener Floyd Collins running Sept. 8 through 24. The critically acclaimed musical is the transcendent tale of an American dreamer based on the 1925 story of Kentucky caver Floyd Collins, who, in his search for the ultimate tourist attraction, is trapped in a cave and triggers the first modern media frenzy. Bidders for ABET – The First 25 Years can fill out a form during the run of the production or email a bid to Celia Frank at [email protected]. The winner of the auction will be announced once the show closes.