Orlando’s loss, Baltimore’s gain: Cultural leader Ron Legler announces new job

By : Tom Dyer
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Orlando- There had been rumors, and close friends may have been quietly in the know. But on Feb. 18, when the Orlando Sentinel announced that Florida Theatrical Association (FTA) president Ron Legler was leaving for Baltimore, the news hit the local arts community like a ton of bricks.

“It’s like people were reading my obituary,” a still-stunned Legler says. “There were something like 400 comments on Facebook. I felt like Tom Sawyer peeking in at his own funeral.”

But the incredulity—and outpouring of love and support—should come as no surprise. Since taking over the reins at FTA 13 years ago, Legler has become the handsome, smiling, “can do” face of the local arts community. And an enormous source of pride for the local LGBT community.

“Ron Legler is a man who has revolutionized the way art is experienced in Orlando,” said Metropolitan Business Association and Come Out With Pride president Mikael Audubert.

Since arriving in 2001, Legler doubled Orlando Broadway Series season subscriptions, making a long-awaited new performing arts center financially viable. But as a transplant from New York and Miami, he also saw potential in rapidly evolving downtown Orlando.

In 2004, Legler opened Pulse nightclub, an upscale gay bar that demonstrated the viability of what is now the SoDo district. And in 2010, he introduced The Abbey and The Mezz, flexible performance and event venues that showcased the likes of filmmaker John Waters and Broadway star Norbert Leo Butz. Legler also opened these beautiful downtown venues—designed by his friend Ted Maines—to local non-profits.

“We’ve raised over $3 million for different groups,” Legler told the Sentinel. “Some of the biggest fundraising that happens in this community happens there. I’m super proud of that.”

Legler is a former chair of the Downtown Arts District, a vice chair of the Orlando Fringe Festival, and a board member of See Art Orlando, which recently installed eight sculptures in high-profile public spaces downtown. In 2011, he was named the Orlando Business Journal’s Most Influential Non-Profit Businessman. The following year he was designated Downtowner of the Year by the Downtown Orlando Partnership. And last year MBA honored him with its Debbie Simmons Community Service Award. Just months ago, Legler stepped in as interim executive director for the Orlando Ballet to help steer the 40-year-old organization through a difficult transition.

But in late 2012, Legler found himself caught in a squeeze play. The board at the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts [DPAC] announced that it would disengage from FTA and self-produce shows in the 2,700 seat Disney Theater when it opens this coming fall. A surprised Legler responded that FTA—with 8,500 season subscribers and a contract with Broadway Across America securing exclusive rights to 70% of Broadway tours—would present at a competing venue.

Pressured by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and DPAC donors like Disney ($12.5 million) and the Orlando Magic ($10 million), DPAC offered to co-present shows with FTA for five years. But the agreement reduced FTA’s role, and Legler found himself at an unexpected crossroads.

“I thought there would be a natural transition [with the new performing arts center]. I never thought I’d be leaving,” Legler says. “But after everything was said and done, it was clear that if I didn’t find something locally I would have to find something elsewhere. And nothing in Orlando seemed to work out time wise.”

After Legler’s move to Baltimore was announced, some expressed outrage.

“After everything this man has done for our community, no one was able to find him a suitable role in the new arts scene dynamic?” Maines shared on Facebook. “Orlando is finally headed in the direction that Ron paved the way for, and there is no room for him at the table he helped build.”

But predictably, Legler sees numerous opportunities for himself and his partner, Andrew Springer, in Baltimore.

“Now that it’s sinking in, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity,” he says.

He will be president of the 2,300-seat Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. Renovated 10 years ago, the 100-year-old theater “would remind you of the biggest and best Broadway halls” according to Legler.

As in Orlando, the renovated Hippodrome is the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown that suits Legler’s entrepreneurial instincts.
“The first thing I did was Google to find the best gay real estate agent,” Legler laughs.

And in fact, Legler’s Orlando home sold in a day.

“Sometimes the universe makes things easy,” he says. “But believe me, leaving Orlando is not something that is easy, or that I take lightly. It’s difficult on a personal level… so many people have done so many wonderful things for me.”

He and Springer plan a house-hunting trip to Baltimore in mid-March. They’ll move a month later, and Legler begins work at the Hippodrome May 1.

In the meantime, there’s a going away party at The Abbey on April 1. And Legler hints at a parting gift before he leaves.
“There just may be a major announcement concerning the Orlando Ballet,” he winks.

Yes… this man will be missed.

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