With the opening of White Elephant Theatre, Orlando gets a sorely needed new performance space

But the clock is already ticking on its expiration date

Robert Crane goes trunks-up at his new White Elephant space
Robert Crane goes trunks-up at his new White Elephant space photo by Seth Kubersky

An unprofitable business venture or poorly planned construction project (like Orlando's infamously incomplete Majesty Building) is sometimes referred to as a "white elephant," but in Southeast Asian cultures that same pale pachyderm is considered a symbol of beneficence and prosperity, especially when depicted with its proboscis pointed skyward. Robert Crane, the founder and artistic director of White Elephant Theatre (whiteelephanttheatre.com), is taking a "trunks up" attitude to the upcoming opening of his company's cozy new cabaret space, and after recently getting a tour of Orlando's newest theatrical venue, I think he may just have something to trumpet about.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Crane has been on stage since the age of 10, and came to Central Florida in the mid-aughts as a Disney entertainment cast member. After retiring from the Mouse in 2018, he dove into the local theater community through the annual Orlando Fringe Festival, presenting popular LGBTQ-oriented productions like F*cking Men, The Gay '90s Musical and Miss Gulch Returns. But Crane didn't set out to operate his own venue until he unsuccessfully attempted to find an affordable downtown location to stage an event during Come Out With Pride a couple years ago, and made the same sad discovery as other independent artists.

"There was literally nothing available, and what was available was so expensive that as a small, newly established not-for-profit company we couldn't afford it," recalls Crane. "So that's when I began my search, and made the decision to find a location of some kind that could not only be used by us a couple of times a year, but it became obvious that the rest of the arts community needed additional space too."

After over an 18-month search, Crane stumbled upon a Facebook Marketplace advertisement for a small former church just west of I-4 on Fairbanks Avenue that wasn't even listed in the MLS real estate database. Although modest on the outside, it's blessed with a surprisingly spacious A-frame sanctuary that Crane has already converted into a 100-seat cabaret theater, with a piano lounge and bar in the rear, along with full backstage dressing facilities. Even more importantly, the property is blessed with ample free parking, and is conveniently located between Winter Park and College Park in unincorporated Orange County, bypassing the red tape and impact fees that scuttled White Elephant's initial efforts to establish themselves in the Parramore neighborhood.

White Elephant plans to present its own work at the venue, featuring musical talents Crane has previously collaborated with like Bert Rodriguez and Brett McMahon. But I'm especially excited by their intention to open the doors to other arts groups seeking space.

"Our whole concept was to give as much access to the facility for as many artists as possible, which is why we came up with the cabaret/theater concept, and why we have two different entertainment slots available each evening," explains Crane. "By offering a cabaret [in the] early evening, we can give our vocalists and pianists and music-makers an opportunity to come in and entertain and make some money, and then switch over and transition into a stage or theater production later on that evening. So we hope to cover the gamut five days a week."

Although another venue like White Elephant is sorely needed, Crane's lease is only for two years, so no matter how well it does the venue has an expiration date. "We would have liked to have had a longer lease, but we needed someplace to get established to prove that this concept will work for the arts community," says Crane. "Over the next two years, with the blessings of the theater gods, the community will come and use this and make this their home. And then, as we progress after our lease is up here, then we'll have that history and we can show what we've accomplished for the arts communities."

Crane and company will kick off their new venue with a gala event on June 12. Two nights later White Elephant will host its first play, Bill C. Davis' Catholic comedy Mass Appeal, produced by and starring Michael Wanzie.

"The sole reason we're here is to provide this space for underserved and disenfranchised production companies who just don't have a home," says Crane, who encourages anyone who wants to perform, donate or join the board of their 501(c)3 organization to contact [email protected]. "We're not going to place restrictions on anyone. We want this to be an open stage for all theaters, so no matter who they are or what they are, if they want to present their art, they can come in and do it here."

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