home in Lake Wales and were in the process of developing Bok Tower Gardens, thought the small but sophisticated city would be an ideal place for the ailing actress to rejuvenate herself. Russell bought a beautiful Spanish-style home at 1426 Via Tuscany and made new friends among Winter Park’s affluent social set. But she was floundering. After a lifetime of working, her days now held little to distract or interest her. Her passion was the theater, and the theater seemed to have passed her by. In 1931, Russell attended a Rollins Players production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candide. Following the performance, which was staged in the college’s Recreation Hall, she and another arts aficionado, Rev. B. J. Thomas of All Saints Episcopal Church, discussed the need for a top-notch theater in Winter Park. Thomas, noting Russell’s enthusiasm for the idea, contacted Mary Louise Bok, who agreed to donate $100,000 for construction of an intimate but ornate performance space on the Rollins campus — if her friend would agree to direct plays and teach theater arts. Holt, the innovative president who sought to build the college’s reputation with celebrity faculty members, agreed enthusiastically. “Now we can go ahead and have the most perfect Little Theatre in the world, given by the most perfect donor, and under the direction of the most perfect director,” he wrote in a 1932 letter to Russell. On January 9, 1932, Russell helped place the theater’s cornerstone, which contained such items as photographs of Russell in various roles, current issues of local newspapers, and a copy of the program printed for the ceremony. A telegram from Mary Louise Bok was read by Holt: “Regret infinitely my inability to be with you today for the laying of the cornerstone of the Annie Russell Theatre. The building is just my loving tribute to you as a woman and artist and dear lifelong friend, but you will give it soul. Your spirit and knowledge and artistic integrity will be the inspiration for the youth of Rollins College privileged to work under your guidance. My love to you and God Speed to the project.” The occasion offered Russell the opportunity to express her appreciation for her friend’s generous gift and to affirm her commitment to making the project an enduring success. “I hope it is significant,” Russell told the gathered crowd, “that the initials of the name of the theater spell ‘art.’ And so I devote my art and soul to Rollins College and her beloved President Holt.” The following month, the college presented her with a doctor of humane letters degree and the Annie Russell Company was formed. Despite continuing health problems and the stress inherent in completing a new facility, Russell plunged ahead with preparations for Robert Browning’s In A Balcony, which would open the theater and mark her return to the stage in the role of the queen. Opening night, May 29, 1932, was an unqualified triumph. Russell and her troupe earned a “deafening” standing ovation from the packed house, and several observers noted that while Russell was onstage, the years and the cares seemed to fall away. A student performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet followed, after which Russell recuperated at her Maine retreat before returning to Winter Park for the 1933-34 season. She directed and acted in The Thirteenth Chair, then staged Hedda Gabler. Russell, and her students, treasured the informal discussion groups the actress would host in the theater’s green room. “I think of you in that exquisite room of yours, looking up to greet me and putting out your hand the way you always did,” wrote one student. “Nobody ever used her hands the way you do!” But one aspect of the season would mar Russell’s reputation for future generations. Thanks to the actress’ fame and the beauty of the theater over which she presided, many traveling companies sought to bring their productions to the Rollins campus. One such production was From Sun to Sun, written by legendary African-American folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, who had Eatonville roots, and featuring an all-black cast. 76 LIVING IN WINTER PARK Even at an enlightened college with a president known for his progressive ideas, there was resistance. W. R. Wunsch, an English professor, pled with Holt to open the facility to Hurston’s troupe. “Break the ground, as it were, to make the students sensitive to the lyric beauty of swamp and citrus grove,” he wrote, challenging Holt’s reticence. “I can think of no better way to introduce the students to the honest-to-the-soil material at their own doorsteps than to present it to them in a program of folk songs and dancers, a group of Eatonville negroes, headed by Zora Hurston.” Holt allowed the performance to take place, but in the Recreation Hall, not the Annie Russell Theatre. And even in the Recreation Hall, black and white attendees were segregated. “Of course we cannot have negroes in the audience, unless there is a separate place for them,” Holt wrote in his response to Wunsch, adding, “I do not think I would advertise it very much outside our own faculty and students.” Russell’s opinions on race are not well documented, but the fact that her theater prohibited both black audiences and theatrical troupes reflects poorly on her. And Holt’s unwillingness to take a stance likewise tarnishes his otherwise stellar legacy. FINAL CURTAIN By June of 1934, Russell was growing increasingly discouraged with what she perceived as a lack of financial support for her productions — despite continued contributions from the Boks — and a lack of theatrical professionalism at Rollins. The relationship between Russell and Holt, usually warm, became at times contentious, particularly when Russell demanded more than the college was able or willing to give. A letter from Mary Louise Bok to Holt shortly after Russell’s death hints at the discord. In discussing possible replacements for Russell, the theater’s patron wrote that professionalism was crucial. “This single point, although I doubt if you realize it, was the basis of whatever unhappiness Annie knew in her work at Rollins,” she scolded. “That the difference between amateur and professional was not clearly understood.” The 1934-35 season brought Russell to the stage one last time, as Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. She then directed, but did not act in, One Day of Spring. But she was wearing down, and contracted double pneumonia. Friends feared that she wouldn’t survive the winter, and Holt, among many others, visited and sent good wishes her way. Responding to a note from Holt, Russell expressed a desire to get back to work. “Your precious Christmas letter has brought me much comfort and courage,” she wrote. “I’ve read and reread it. I have never needed help and courage more than I do now. My situation seems a bit hopeless just now. I just can’t make headway. You have been so good to me — so patient — and I must get well to prove my devotion to you.” But it was not to be. On January 16, 1936, with Mary Louise Bok at her bedside, the remarkable Annie Russell died. From around the world, all those who adored Russell spoke of her with admiration and love. In Winter Park, Holt eulogized his friend and colleague. “As actress, producer, teacher and neighbor, she has been the delight and inspiration of this community,” Holt said. “And ever maintaining the highest professional and personal artistic standards, she has set an example to faculty and students alike of what good acting, and a good actress, should be. Her loss would be irreparable, did we not know that each generation renews itself and somehow, some way, the past blooms in the future.” For more information visit rollins.edu/annie-russell-theatre. The original version of this story was written by Kimberly T. Mould for the Winter Park Historical Association through a grant from the Florida Humanities Council Scholar/Humanist Fellowship. It has been revised and updated with information from other sources for this publication.
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