Florida Theatrical’s Ron Legler is back to business

By : Tom Dyer
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Just a few weeks ago, the controversy surrounding presentation of Broadway touring shows at the $400 million Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts looked as though it would hang like a dark cloud over the remaining 18 months of construction. And one of the most recognizable faces in Orlando’s LGBT community, Florida Theatrical Association president and CEO Ron Legler, was in the thick of it.

FTA has successfully produced Broadway shows at the city’s Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre for 24 years, with Legler at the helm the last dozen. On Dec. 13, the DPAC board announced that it would disengage from FTA and self-produce Broadway shows in the 2,700-seat Disney Theater when it opens in fall 2014.

A surprised Legler responded that “with 8,500 season subscribers and a contract with Broadway Across America securing exclusive rights to 70 percent of Broadway tours” would present shows at a competing venue, possibly the Orange County Convention Center. Dropping a handkerchief, he also announced that FTA had secured The Book of Mormon for its 2013-14 season.

DPAC shot back that its decision was strictly business, intimating that it was also final. But according to the Orlando Sentinel, pressure from Orlando Mayor Buddy and prominent donors like Disney ($12.5 million) and the Orlando Magic ($10 million) forced the parties into negotiations.

On Jan. 31, there were sighs of relief when DPAC announced that it had reached a deal to co-produce shows with FTA through 2019. For the time being, it means that Legler will remain at the crossroads of Orlando’s cultural community.

In addition to running FTA, Legler created The Abbey and The Mezz, two new arts venues that have changed downtown Orlando. He’s also a part owner and co-creator of Pulse, the trendy gay club that is the nightlife anchor of the emerging SoDo district.  Recently named the Orlando Business Journal’s Most Influential Businessman”and the Downtown Orlando Partnership’s “Downtowner of the Year,” Legler has held office or served on the boards of See Art Orlando, the Central Florida Performing Arts Alliance, the Downtown Arts District and the Orlando International Fringe Festival. Legler’s also a Tony-voting member of the Broadway League.

But he doesn’t fit the downtown business guy mold. With laughing eyes and child-like kinetic energy, the boyishly handsome Legler could play charmingly ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, not stuffy corporate titan J. B. Biggley, in Broadway’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Over lunch at City Fish near FTA’s offices at The Sanctuary, a sometimes emotional Legler doodled on a napkin between bites of shrimp salad. He was tightlipped about the DPAC agreement, but opened up about his fascinating path to the theater and the extent of his investment in Orlando arts.

The Engineer
The sixth of seven children, Legler “grew up poor” in Erie, Pennsylvania. His father worked at the local GE plant, but left home when Legler was just two.  His mother, a nursing assistant, once had to sell the bunk beds he slept on to make ends meet. He and his brother rolled out their sleeping bags and slept on the floor.

“We were on food stamps and we ate a lot of government cheese,”Legler said. “We hid from the electric company so they couldn’t get in our basement to shut the power off. Mom did the best she could.”

But things improved when Legler and his siblings grew old enough to work. Before he was 12, Legler was shoveling snow and delivering newspapers. Habits of hard work and self discipline paid off in high school, where he was president of student government, captain of the swim and water polo teams, and voted Homecoming King and “Most Likely to Succeed.”

At 15, Legler volunteered on future Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge’s first congressional campaign, and was soon running the phone room, getting free pizza and soda delivered for fellow workers. Ridge was so impressed that he bought Legler his first suit – brown corduroy – and paid for him to attend his inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Legler won a scholarship to Thiel College in nearby Greenville, where he continued to overachieve. Again president of student government, he was also president of his Phi Theta Phi fraternity house, president of the Alpha Psi Omega theatrical fraternity and manager of the student radio station, where DJ Ronnie played the weekly top 40. He worked as a lifeguard during school, and 90 hours-a-week as a waiter and then manager at the Elks Lodge during summers.

“It was a great time for me,” Legler recalled. “I was living on bingo tips from old ladies, but I was running my own life. And I had a light blue Cadillac Eldorado with white leather interior that got six miles to the gallon.”

Legler says he was driven by his background. “When you grow up poor, you don’t want to be that way again.”

But he was also increasingly aware of a secret.

“I was so afraid someone would find out that I was attracted to boys, and that if they did all this stuff would go away,”he said. “So I became like The Engineer in Miss Saigon. I made everything work for everyone – and I was good at it.”

Unbeknownst, he also found a role model. As a freshman, Legler signed up for Introduction to Theater to satisfy a liberal arts requirement. The charismatic teacher and one-man theater department, Dr. William Robinson, would commandeer a school bus and take his students to touring Broadway shows in Pittsburgh.

“The first time I saw Les Mis it changed my life,” Legler said. “I knew I wanted to be part of something that could produce that kind of effect on people.”

Legler tried out for a part, and by his junior year he was playing the lead in all of Dr. Robinson’s productions. When Legler came out to Robinson years later, his former professor said, “Duh, me too.”

“I always wanted a gay friend while I was in college,” Legler said. “It turns out that I had the best gay friend a guy could ever want all along. We’re still great friends.”

“Maybe I can do this”
After college, Legler landed a plum job with an innovative software company. He bought an “arctic white Chevy Camaro” off of a turnstile on the Erie dealership’s showroom floor – “It took them two hours to get it down” – and loaded his portable television in the back seat for the drive to California. But it wasn’t a good fit.

“They were not impressed with my Camaro,” Legler laughed. “Or my flannel shirts and jeans. I was not a sophisticated guy.”

So he quit his job and drove to Miami, where some fraternity brothers were on spring break. And he found the courage to venture into his first gay bar.

“All I knew about homosexuality was the scary stuff I’d uncovered in the card catalog at college,” Legler said. “So when I went to Uncle Charlie’s and got all this attention from all these great looking guys I thought, “Hmmm, maybe I can do this.'”

And at the Jackie Gleason Theater, Legler found an unexpected career in the performing arts. His first job was processing mail order subscriptions for minimum wage. But when a group sales staffer left, Legler filled the position and implemented an ambitious marketing campaign to active retirees. He also created an automated system, modeled after one developed by his former software employer, that soon built an unprecedented sales database. Legler eventually directed group sales at theaters in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

He also fell in love with a “gorgeous Cuban hair stylist,” with whom he remained for ten rocky years in South Florida. In that time, Legler helped his partner strike it rich on QVC and HSN with a wall-mounted hair dryer caddie, then build an unsustainable lifestyle that imploded when the market for their product soured. Legler admits that it was painful, but they remain close friends.

“We should’ve ended it after three years,”Legler said. “But I think I learned everything you could possibly learn from a single relationship.”

When it ended Legler moved to New York, where he continued to work in theater marketing. He also went to every show that opened.

“It was my escape,” he said.

In New York Legler ran into Miles Wilkin, the president of Pace Theatrical Group – now Broadway Across America. Wilkin shared that the organization needed help in Orlando, and asked if Legler would consider a move. At first he declined.

“I knew nothing about Orlando!” Legler said.

But he changed his mind and arrived on a Tuesday night in February 2001. It was opening night for Les Mis at Bob Carr, and Legler took it as a sign.

“It was like God was saying, “You’re going to be okay,'” Legler said.

Better than okay, really. In the past 12 years, Legler has almost doubled Orlando Broadway Series season subscriptions. And with tireless and innovative community outreach, he has raised the profile for all local arts, contributing to a healthy cultural ecosystem that offers nourishment for all.

Legler also found love, on the revolving dance floor at Mannequins in Downtown Disney.

“It was a Thursday night, and the most handsome man I’ve ever seen walked in,” Legler said. “It was like all the wind was sucked out of the room.”

Legler and Andrew Springer have been together since 2003. A writer, actor and model, Springer also coordinates special events at The Abbey and The Mezz.

Legler is justifiably proud of the two multi-purpose venues. They’ve functioned as movie theater, concert hall, performance venue, political forum and funeral parlor, to name a few. And they’ve hosted events for The Orlando Ballet, The Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, The Metropolitan Business Association, Come Out With Pride, and many more groups.

“These are exactly the classy, convertible rooms we need for this community,” Legler said, with a nod to designer Ted Maines. ÔIf you have a dream, these places were built for you.”

The DPAC board likely feels the same way about the state-of-the-art facility currently under construction. Legler endorses that belief, and an ambitious future for the performing arts in Central Florida. And he remains touched by the support he received when that future was uncertain for him.

“This community gives me everything I ever wanted or needed,” he said. “I don’t think I’d want to live anywhere else.”

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