The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center officially opened its doors on April 29, 2015 amid a huge fanfare that saw invited guests in tuxedos and gowns enjoying champagne and hors d’oeuvres.
Those roughly 1,000 guests were greeted at the door by Sharon Morse’s children, Tracy, Mark and Jennifer Parr. Tracy Morse serves as design director of The Villages – the same job her mother had before she died of cancer in December 1999. Mark replaced his late father, H. Gary Morse, as The Villages Developer and Parr is the sales director for Properties of The Villages, which handles the sales of all new homes in the community and some resales as well.
The Sharon’s expansive lobby – the remaining portion of the old Church on the Square, which angered some Villagers to lose – was packed that night as talk centered around the memory of Sharon Morse, who also has a medical building named after her, was quite an entertainer herself and is largely considered responsible for the eye-pleasing and functional décor found in so many facilities in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
“This is a very emotional night for us,” Parr said of her mother, who once ran the family’s restaurant in Michigan where she would sing and dance and once appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
The guests had filed into the new performing arts center at 6:30 p.m. for the party that would last until the doors opened at 8 p.m. for The Sharon’s first show, which featured Broadway star Patti LuPone.
“This is a world-class theatre,” said Bill Krone, who regularly performed in Villages’ stage productions. “It’s a tremendous leap forward for The Villages and the arts community here. I think it makes The Villages a better place for everyone.”
Soon after the doors opened, the bash took on the flavor of a huge cocktail party. People were sitting at round tables as Hector Garrido and his Sextet played some smooth jazz and light pop music near the lobby stage. And the atmosphere was quite festive.
“We’re so excited to be in here,” said June Jarvis, who was wearing a black gown and sporting a platinum hairdo. “It’s nice to see people in The Villages so dressed up. It makes everything elegant.”
Migri Lyons, another Villages’ theatrical performer, agreed.
This is really the beginning of a new era,” Lyons said. “You can have opera, ballet and stage musicals here that we’ve never had before.”
Carol Onuschak, Janet Moscatello and Diana Schrak were celebrating the event with a champagne toast at one of the tables.
“To me, this means the greatest entertainment is coming to The Villages,” said Onuschak, who belonged to a local theater club. “I’m glad they kept the stained glass from the Church on the Square. That keeps the old Villages alive.”
Fernando Varela, easily one of the most popular singers in The Villages who has earned worldwide acclaim for his music, attended the opening-night event with his wife, Susan, who also performs and does charity work with him.
“The Morse family has just hit it out of the park with this place,” Fernando said. “The Sharon has been so anticipated and so needed. It’s a state-of-the-art facility where we can bring in big Broadway shows and big names. This place is built for big, professional shows.”
Whitney Morse, Sharon Morse’s granddaughter, and her husband, Jason Goedken, moved back to The Villages from New York to oversee The Sharon and a smaller sister facility, The Studio Theatre at Tierra Del Sol, that opened later. Morse, who has a degree from Columbia University and has worked in theater in Chicago regularly, met Goedken while they were appearing in a play. He also has acted but spent many years working in the technical part of theater while Morse appeared in stage productions around the country.
Prior to opening night, a similar event had been held at The Sharon for Villages department heads and select employees. At that that event, the late Oscar Feliu – the “father of music in The Villages” – became the first person to officially perform on The Sharon’s stage when played a guitar solo designed to show off the acoustics of the venue. The highly popular Villages singer also had put on the final performance at Church on the Square, where he had served as manager before it became a part of The Sharon.
At that private event for employees, which included information about the building of The Sharon and why it is was created in the community, Morse and Goedken also performed with Feliu, who died on Nov. 9, 2015 while on a hunting trip in New York. The Chilean singer who followed the Morse family to The Villages from Michigan in 1989 was remembered during a memorial service at The Sharon six days later and in 2017 Villages High School students were awarded scholarships in his memory.
There was some controversy among Villagers when it first announced that a performing arts center would basically replace Church on the Square. That non-denominational venue had hosted a variety of church services and programs since becoming one of the first buildings constructed in Spanish Springs Town Square in the 1990s when H. Gary Morse insisted that a church was an essential piece of every town.
There also was controversy among local performers who wanted a shot at being on the big stage at The Sharon. Many felt like they should get to perform at the venue over national acts. But it was made clear early on that the Sharon wouldn’t be that kind of theater and local performances would be largely relegated to the Savannah Center and other such venues.
Over the years, the 1,000-seat venue has proven to be quite popular among Villagers. A variety of big-name performers – Jay Leno, KC and the Sunshine Band, George Thorogood, Travis Tritt, the Beach Boys, the Righteous Brothers, Don McLean, Ronnie Milsap, the Spinners, BJ Thomas, Kansas, Bill Engvall, Micky Dolenz, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bernadette Peters and Vicki Lawrence, to name just a few – have graced the stage of the venue. And countless shows and other performances also have taken place there, largely to sell-out crowds.