Last Updated: 8:59 a.m.
The Flagler Playhouse, for 46 years a mainstay of the performing arts in the county, lost the rustic theater it has occupied and packed with audiences since 2006 in Bunnell as a fire destroyed it Sunday night into early Monday. Flagler County Fire Chief Michael Tucker said the building was irreparable.
The old building and its white steeple, once the home of First Baptist Church until the playhouse bought it in 2006, had been a landmark in the heart of Bunnell, across the street from the old courthouse (now a private school), and an older portion of it had once been the only movie theater in town, in the 1930s.
“Forty-nine years ago, I got married the first time in the church,” Bunnell mayor Catherine Robinson, who stood in disbelief before the smoking structure around 2 this morning, said. “At 19 I got baptized, my mother and I got baptized together in the church. Both my children were baptized as teenagers in this church. When I moved back here to Bunnell, when Rick and I got married and we both moved back here, we went to that church for a while.” On Sunday, Robinson had spent part of the day at the current Bunnell Baptist Church on Commerce Parkway, for a festival.
The cause of the fire is not known at the moment, though a state fire marshal was expected at the scene overnight. By dawn this morning the 150-seat theater’s white cinder block walls still stood, as did the now-skeletal steeple, charred and gleaming against the rising sun, but the building had been ravaged from within. It’s front entrance stood gaping amid heaps of burnt wood.
Old Moody Boulevard remains closed from Cherry Street to State Street (U.S.1). It is now a no man’s land but for a few photographers and the puddles from the night’s cascades of water.
“Due to the amount of water needed to put out the fire, residents and businesses in Bunnell may experience lower than usual water pressures,” a city advisory issued this morning stated. “While the Water Treatment Plant works to replenish the water supply, Bunnell water customers are asked to try to limit water usage today.”
The last of the fire trucks left around 7 a.m. Jerry Smith, the county’s fire marshal, was getting ready to conduct a preliminary investigation inside at 8, but said the bulk of the investigation would be conducted by the state fire marshal, and that it would be days before some conclusions could be drawn. Smith had already been in the building once, and noted that the asphalt shingles beneath the metal roof had kept burning and giving firefighters trouble, causing much of the damage.
No one was hurt as firefighters from Flagler County Fire Rescue, the Palm Coast Fire Department and the Flagler Beach Fire Department surrounded the old building with ladder trucks and doused it from a battery of water canons, but only to contain the flames and keep them from spreading to the theater’s annex, lounge and offices, which appear to have been spared. That mean the theater’s documents, its costumes and its props may have been saved, as has JJ Graham’s art studio and his own large collection of art works, which he had just moved into a portion of the theater a few months ago.
Flagler County Emergency Management Director Jonathan Lord got to the scene during the fire to lend his division’s hand in the effort.
A devastated Jerri Berry, the Flagler Playhouse president, stood with a fellow board member across the street from the theater, watching, as flames, black smoke and torrents of water engulfed the white roof and the steeple nearing midnight. Berry had been at the theater earlier that day, as had its technical crew for a tech rehearsal, in preparation for what was to be its season opener Friday–“The Play That Goes Wrong.”
“I was here earlier in the annex, looking at furniture and things like that, I was at the football field, I was here most of the afternoon,” Berry said. “I’m just shocked.” She said the organization had recently invested in updating its air conditioning system and other improvements over the years. The theater was exploring launching a capital campaign to improve parking and to invest in a new sound system. “This comes as a complete shock.”
A passerby alerted authorities of seeing smoke rising from the back of the building just before 10 p.m. “We got on scene and the crews encountered heavy smoke conditions coming from the building,” Tucker said. “We made a quick attack from the front side of the building and from the side of the building. Once we got inside the conditions deteriorated that fast that we actually had to evacuate.” The crews were in the theater and the proscenium before they were forced out by the deteriorating conditions, for their safety, at which point they took the more defensive approach of containing the fire to keep it from spreading to the annex and other portions of the building.
“The offices are in the very back. That’s been saved,” Tucker said.
Created in 1977 as the Little Theatre of Palm Coast, the Flagler Playhouse led a nomadic existence for 30 years until the 2006 purchase of the old church in Bunnell for $865,000. At the time, Diane Ellertsen was the president, and had led the fundraising drive and the purchase.
“It was the only perf space of its kind in the county,” said John Sbordone, who led the Playhouse with Ellertsen until 2011 and directed innumerable shows there before founding City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast that year. “The amount of time, time money and love that went into refurbishing that place, transforming it from a church into a theatrical space is incalculable. There is no other space. I rem ember when we were looking to fid a place for the Little Theater of Palm Coast before it was Flagler Playhouse, we looked high and low, over 100 spaces to house the theater, and found that gem that the Baptist church was vacating. Diane and I loved it–the pews, the nooks and crannies from the older construction, it was just a marvelous, unique space.”
The frame inside was concrete and cinder block. Everything else was wood.
“We will do anything we can to help out,” Sbordone said, including lending the City Repertory space, though it seats only 50. Before the Playhouse, the company in its nomadic days would perform on stages at schools, though mid-year, Sbordone said, those arrangements might be difficult. Another possibility: the First Methodist Church of Palm Coast on Belle Terre Parkway, which is slowly migrating to its new home at the north end of town and has long used its current location for performances.
“It’s just a blessing that nobody was hurt and nobody was on campus,” Berry said. This afternoon’s tech rehearsal had ended in mid-afternoon. The building is insured, Berry said.
“It is devastating. It is devastating,” the Playhouse president, who took over during Covid, said. “It’s really our second home. I invest more time here than I do at my full time paid job.”
For culture and the arts in Flagler County, it is yet another blow in a crushing year that has seen the disappearance of four–now five–of the county’s long-standing cultural pillars for different reasons–the Flagler County Art League, the Palm Coast Arts Foundation, Gargiulo Art Foundation, JJ Graham’s Salvo Art project, an now the Playhouse’s theater.
City Manager Alvin Jackson, who was also at the scene around 2 a.m., said he will speak with Flagler Playhouse officials. “I’m sure we we will sit down with the Playhouse and see where they want to go from here,” Jackson said. “Not sure what the state of the building is going to be, whether or not they’re going to have to demolish the site. But what I would hope is that, basically they will keep the Playhouse here in Bunnell and reconstruct or rebuild here on this site.”
Graham had moved into the back building on the second floor three months ago, with a large part of his accumulated art work. His son Gabe, 16, had been part of the tech rehearsal earlier that day. “This was going to be his first play. He was going to do the sound,” Graham said.
The Playhouse itself is not over as an organization, of course. It had net assets of $908,000, according to its 2021 tax filing, though the lion’s share of that is the building’s value. It had $127,000 in cash and investments, and had lost $25,000 in 2021, a year severely hampered by Covid, with its revenue almost halved from 2019. There’d been no season in 2020. Berry said the organization may look for alternative venues to still put on its 2023-24 season.
[This is a developing story.]