click to enlarge Barbara Solomon

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Barbara Solomon

Orlando’s theater community remembers Barbara Solomon, the brassiest booster a cultural community could have 

Just as the fall theatrical season is starting to heat up, Orlando's arts family was chilled last week by the passing of one of its most warm-hearted members. Barbara Solomon was an actress, a writer and – through her Ivanhoe Village antique store Oldies but Goodies – the biggest Jewish collector of vintage Christmas tchotchkes on the eastern seaboard. But most of all, Barb was the brassiest booster a cultural community could ever hope for.

I first met Solomon, who passed away from cancer last Monday, during the early aughts at Theatre Downtown, where her piercing "Noo Yawk" bray was practically a permanent fixture. "Barb was the only person we knew who didn't need a microphone!" recalls Frank Hilgenberg, Theatre Downtown's artistic director and a longtime friend. "Upon entering Theatre Downtown's front door, I would hear that voice: 'Frank, is the coffee ready!?' We loved her and that voice more than she will ever know."

Solomon provided pitch-perfect period furniture for a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night that I stage-managed with director John DiDonna almost 15 years ago. Once we launched the Empty Spaces Theatre Co., she became a key member of our creative team on shows like Bent, working alongside painter Tommy Mangieri, costumer Peni Lotoza and props mistress Linda Ogle (all of whom have now passed away, far too soon). "The thing about Barbara is she never questioned, she just helped," DiDonna remembers. "She was truly part of so many shows here in tour town. I had the honor of working on My Dear Watson with her just this past June, and it was just as much a joy as the first show. I will always cherish our times together."

Solomon was legendary for her support of local shows, whether by renting out set pieces at dirt-cheap rates, writing enthusiastic reviews in the Park Press or simply attending every performance she could – especially if you offered her a comp ticket. Her oversized persona could be called inimitable, but she was impersonated on stage at least twice, inspiring both Al Pergande's play The Mayor of Orange Avenue and a character in Steve Schneider's The Wait List Murders. Her presence on the Fringe Festival lawn was sorely missed this past spring, and I'm glad I got to see her one final time in late July at Winter Park Playhouse, when she "escaped" from hospice long enough to see Gigolo.

But my favorite Barb Solomon story has nothing whatsoever to do with theater. About a decade ago, I stopped into her store with a woman I'd recently started dating, who expressed passing interest in a purse on display. Solomon began calling me incessantly about the bag, insisting that I had to buy it as a holiday present. I agreed, arranging to pick it up from her during a Hanukkah party she was holding, only to discover (upon arriving fashionably late) that I was the evening's guest of honor. And instead of discreetly handing me the gift, Solomon proceeded to make a grand presentation of it to my girlfriend in front of all the assembled guests. I was mortified, but thankfully my date was understanding: We've now been married for nine years.

The Color Purple, Theater West End

As one door closes, another always opens. That truism is the theme of The Color Purple, the first musical production at Sanford's new Theater West End (theaterwestend.com). Previously known as Dangerous Theatre – and the Princess Theatre before that – the newly renovated storefront is the latest theatrical home for producers Derek Critzer and Quinn Roberts, who had most recently been presenting at Eustis's Bay Street Players.

They've done a remarkable job giving the ragtag venue a trendy industrial look, with Edison bulbs and exposed bricks that fit in well among the block's burgeoning bar scene, and the semicircular stage with plush stadium seating and high-tech lighting makes for a flexible, comfortable canvas.

Critzer tells me that he is also among the countless theater artists who received emotional and material support from Solomon. "She drove some people halfway crazy but they still loved her," Critzer says. "I met her while doing Sweeney Todd in 2013, she helped me and had been one of my biggest supporters ever since." Theater West End will help carry on Solomon's legacy by providing a home to Theatre Downtown's traditional Christmas Carol this winter.

With co-director Felichia Chivaugn and an exceptional ensemble of African American artists, led by powerhouse performances from Equity members Amitria Fanae and Dante J.L. Murray, Critzer's company creates a joyful noise that builds into an ending overflowing with honest emotion. Barbara couldn't make it to see Critzer's The Color Purple, but I know that if she could have, she would have been in the front row, leading the ovation with her gravel-voiced "Braaaah-vo!"

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