Arthur Britton ("A.B.") Edwards was born in Sarasota in 1874. A true business pioneer, he not only established the first real estate office in Sarasota in 1903, he became the first mayor. Archival photos reveal Sarasota as a simple hamlet with buildings of wood and riddled with bungalow hideaways. The handsome little town was beginning to take its place on the resort map. Edwards had a vision for Sarasota, and with the infusion of an increasingly healthy real estate market (due largely to the efforts of John Ringling) he set out to realize his dream. Mr. Edwards commissioned Jacksonville architect, Roy A. Benjamin to design a "multi-purpose" building that could accommodate all types of entertainment- including opera.
On April 10, 1926, the A.B. Edwards Theater was unveiled. The Sarasota Herald Tribune hailed Edwards for "having admitted Sarasota into a fairyland of costly decoration, rich furnishings and never to be forgotten artistry". The entrance facade of the theater was designed in the very popular Mediterranean Revival style of the era. Cream colored stucco embellished with ornamental plasterwork and imitation stone delighted the opening night audience. The elaborate three-story entrance contained 8 shops on the ground floor, 12 offices on the second floor, and 12 furnished apartments on the third. All floors faced a central atrium. The theater auditorium, stage and fly tower occupied the remainder of the building. A glorious Robert Morton orchestral pipe organ completed the stunning scenario. Edwards had realized his vision.
The theater became a popular venue for a variety of entertainment's over the years. The top headliners of the time were to grace its stage: Will Rogers (1927), Sally Rand (1937), the Ziegfeld Follies (1928), and even (in 1956) the young Elvis Presley. On January 31, 1952, it became host to the world premiere blockbuster DeMille movie, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which had been filmed in Sarasota. Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Dorothy Lamour brightened the town with stardom.
The years were not kind to the original integrity of the Edwards Theater. New management renamed the building "The Florida Theater." In 1928, a hurricane irrevocably damaged the magnificent Rogers Morton pipe organ. Late modernizing included stripping the structure of many of its most exquisite Art Deco charms. To accommodate the ever-changing entertainment industry, further alterations were made. The theater became a movie theater, complete with plastic laminate and linoleum. Then in 1973, the theater was finally dark, neglected - and vacant.
Meanwhile, a non-profit organization called the Asolo Opera Guild had been hard at work bringing opera to Sarasota. With modest beginnings, they presented chamber-size repertoire in the Asolo Theater, a small 320-seat playhouse located on the Ringling Museum grounds. By 1974, they began to produce their own operas. With public support rapidly growing, they clearly needed a home to call their own. In 1979, the Guild purchased the old Edwards Theater for $150,000. The Association became the 7th opera company in the United States to own its house.
A series of renovations during the early 80s and 90s were undertaken to bring the theater back from the brink and to make it a viable operatic venue. Work was done as funds permitted. By 1984 the stage, orchestra pit, and orchestra section were done to open the theater with its first production, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, under Victor DeRenzi's baton with leading roles taken by Stephanie Sundine, Mimi Lerner, Marc Embree, and Jerry Hadley. The balcony was ready by 1990, and by 1993 the lobby and facade had been restored. The company also built the adjacent Artists Wing in the early 80s and purchased the Ringling Terrace Apartment complex, where the Apprentice Artists are housed. In the mid 90's the adjacent building was also acquired to become the Pavilion building, home to the Jonas Kamlet Library, the Peterson Great Room, and the Culverhouse Room.
However, years of neglect had taken their toll and a more extensive overhaul was indicated. From March 2007 to February 2008 Sarasota Opera embarked on the first holistic renovation of the original 1926 structure. The interior of the auditorium was gutted to allow the digging of a new larger orchestra pit and a regrading of the orchestra section floor to improve sightlines. New seats and historically appropriate decorations enhance the theater space. The backstage facilities were updated and the orchestra fitted with an hydraulic lift. The lobby features a restored three-story atrium as well as additional restrooms, lounges, and other audience amenties. At the completion of the $20 million project Musical America called the Sarasota Opera House "one of the finest venues for opera in the United States."