$75K gift promotes Ringling Theatre safety

December 31, 2018

Al. Ringling Theatre visitors will get more frequent looks at one of its little-known treasures, thanks to a local charity’s gift.

On Thursday the Sauey Family Foundation gave the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends $75,000 to upgrade the playhouse’s fire curtain. Designed to confine any blaze to the stage and protect the audience, fire curtains are rarely displayed in theaters. But the 1915 Ringling Theatre’s original fire curtain, featuring a mural depicting an 18th century French scene, is a work of art.

Thursday’s gift will allow the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends to tie the curtain into the theater’s fire detection system, and to display it more easily. New rigging would make it less of a chore to bring down, giving audiences opportunities to see it more frequently.

“This will be seen a lot now,” Friends Executive Director Stephanie Miller-Lamb said while giving Sauey family members a peek at the fire curtain.

Jason Sauey, CEO of the Nordic Group of Companies, noted the family’s foundation supported the theater’s restoration. “It would be a real shame if we didn’t protect those investments,” he said.

While the $3 million restoration project was far-reaching, it didn’t cover behind-the-scenes technical upgrades the theater needs. Friends President Aural Umhoefer said she hopes the Saueys will be the first of many donors to support work such as improving the theater’s lighting, sound system and dressing rooms.

“It’s a very significant gift,” Umhoefer said.

The theater is equipped with a system that, in the event of a fire on stage, would expose the blaze to oxygen and send it out through ventilation shafts on the roof. Meanwhile, the curtain, made of sealed asbestos, would be brought down, preventing fire from reaching the seats.

New rigging will not only make the fire curtain easier to display, but quicker to prevent calamity.

“What you’re allowing us to do is literally save lives,” Miller-Lamb told the Saueys.

Three firms have responded to the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends’ request for bids on this custom project. The successful bidder will re-rig the curtain, mechanize it in sync with the fire detection system and provide a manual override that allows the curtain to be raised and lowered on demand. The work could begin early in the new year and finish this spring.

Alison Martin, president of the Sauey Family Foundation, said the project may not be “sexy,” but she sold the board on its necessity. “It’s really an important aspect,” she said. “I think for this building to go on, it needs a fire curtain.”

An embroidered patch may be added to the curtain to acknowledge the Saueys’ gift. W.R. Sauey, who with wife Floy Sauey established the foundation to make charitable contributions in communities where Nordic companies do business, said it’s critical to support institutions like the Ringling Theatre.

“It’s important,” he said. “I just love the place.”

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