NEW PORT RICHEY — Jack Mariano slowly pulled back the red, plastic sheet hanging on the lobby wall to uncover two plaques, collage art and a painting dedicated to late theater owner Charlie Skelton.
Mariano, a Pasco County commissioner and president of the community theater, read the engraving on a plaque.
“The Richey Suncoast Theatre, board of directors and patrons dedicate this lobby in loving memory of Charlie Skelton, a respected community leader, father figure to many and true friend to all. Charlie, your shoes will never be filled.”
The crowd of more than 200 applauded as Mariano and Marie Skelton, Charlie’s widow and the Richey Suncoast executive director, dedicated the newly renovated lobby of the community theater to the man responsible for reviving it in the late 1990s.
Charlie Skelton died last July after leaving a legacy through more than a decade of renovations, including refurbishing seats, overhauling the sound system and upgrading lights. Over the years, he instilled the love of the theater into the hearts of countless Pasco children and families.
The lobby was dedicated in Charlie’s memory last Thursday, after $30,000 from the Charlie Skelton Memorial Fund was used to continue renovations on the theatre, which was built in the 1920s.
Renovations included adding new light sconces in the lobby, refurbishing wooden benches to allow for storage, building cabinets near the front door, installing two new sound boards, snakes and monitors, and fixing a leaky window in the office.
The funds also paid for a new assisted-hearing system on the main floor that uses a looping system to feed sound directly into hearing aids and ocular implants for the hard-of-hearing to better enjoy plays.
“Charlie was not the type to want flowers so I thought the best way to honor him was to do something here at the theatre that needs to be done,” Marie said.
Future plans include replacing the worn carpet with tile and placing a marble medallion into the tile at the front entrance. Designed by Charlie, the medallion bears the words “Richey Suncoast Theatre Welcomes You” and incorporates the theater’s logo of the comedy and tragedy masks.
Next, Marie plans to replace the stage floor and re-do the green room.
“We are a working theater so all of our sets are built on stage, and the stage really gets abused because it’s not strictly just for acting,” said Marie about the need for a new stage floor.
Marie’s employees describe her as the “strongest, most hard-working” person they know, so “God forbid something happens to me,” she told a group of women enjoying their refreshments at the reception following the dedication of the lobby.
To prepare for that eventuality, Marie is already grooming 24-year-old Jesslyn Kostopoulos to start running the theater in the next couple of years. Kostopoulos, 24, recently graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in event management and she minored in hospitality and theater.
Kostopoulos has been a familiar face at the downtown New Port Richey theater since she was 9 years old after playing the role of the evil stepmother in the play “Snow White.”
“I just never left,” she said.
Charlie’s mentoring instilled in Kostopoulos a love for children and making the theater a safe haven for them, a key reason she’s the right person for the job, said Marie.
“She used to say when she was growing up here: ‘When you guys retire, I want to take over. I love doing this. It’s so much fun,’ ” Marie said. “And here she is. It’s just so appropriate that she’d be doing that. Within a couple years, she will be able to take over and I will be her assistant. It’s just so right.”
Kostopoulos and Jeff Oles, who often acts in productions at the theater, helped Marie on the night of the lobby dedication by handling the box office. The two reminisced in between handing out tickets about how much they missed Charlie.
“When you think of the Richey Suncoast Theatre, you think of Charlie,” Oles said. “I walk into this theater and still expect to hear him and see him.”
“The saddest part about it,” Kostopoulos said, “what gets me upset, is that all these new people who come and audition and perform will never get to meet him.”
The dedication ended with the crowd dispersing into the theater for the opening night of “Company.” During the intermission, a large cake with an edible photo of Charlie on it was served to all those who had come to call him a friend.