A cast of colorful characters rescues the legendary venue

A cast of colorful characters rescues the legendary venue

“Owners Don and Susan don’t like to ever leave the Parliament House,” jokes local playwright, producer and actor Michael Wanzie. When asked about how entertainment has expanded over the years at the world-famous resort’s Footlight Theater, he adds “If Kenny Howard and I make sure we have plays and cabaret and other stuff here, Don and Susan never have to go anywhere else!”

Then, Wanzie’s infectious, crackly laugh rings through the Art Deco lounge of the theater. This 200-seat performance space with its attached bar area at the Parliament House was for the long time primarily a place for drag shows and contests.

“A man in a dress would come out, lip-synch to a song, collect the tips, and then walk off. That’s it!” kvetches Parliament House owner Don Granatstein; his stories are delivered with quite a bit of vaudevillian charm.

“It was a little boring after a while,” concedes Don’s wife and business partner, the quiet and attentive Susan Unger, who admits to a critical eye for detail.
The couple committed to upgrading and expanding the resort’s entertainment offerings. They knew they needed to find the right partners.

“Michael Wanzie is the key to the theater’s success,” Don beams.

Today, the Footlight is a respected local venue, sponsoring an extremely eclectic mix of drag shows, theme parties, plays, contests, karaoke, cabaret, dance performances, and even bingo. It provides a space for up-and-coming performers, and it sponsors generous fundraisers for many local organizations. The place is covered by Central Florida press and even garners occasional mention in the New York Times and Washington Post.

However, in 1999 when the couple took over the resort, the entire complex was run down. It was a place which only got press because of drug arrests and indecent exposure complaints. The story of how the theater and resort turned itself around is full of lively and committed characters—armed with mutual respect and driven to provide light-hearted entertainment—who made minor miracles happen. In fact, the plot would make a good show.

“What we were really looking at was the property next door,” Don admits when they first considered buying the Parliament House, The Footlight Theater, and the Carolina Moon Trailer Park nearby for possible timeshare property.

“I thought, ‘This is insane!’” Don admits. “It’s beat up, dirty, and the clientele often attracts trouble.”

Susan adds, “I remember being up at 3 o’clock in the morning before closing, asking Donald if we were doing the right thing.”

Donald laughs at their bravado: “We’re two straight people; we’re going to fix this place up, and we’re going to bring people back.”

As amazing as it seems, that’s exactly what they did.

“They spent well over a million dollars that first year to clean this place up,” Wanzie reports admiringly.

Wanzie himself had been coming to the Parliament House since 1977. He’s seen the place through three owners, including years of decline before Don and Susan took over. He first approached Bill Miller and Michael Hodges in 1982 to sponsor his play David’s Time after the gay-themed play was kicked out of two other local theaters. The performances at the Footlight were successful, starting Wanzie on a three-decade artistic relationship with the space.

Even before Don and Susan, the Footlight had productions like Bent. The play was presented here in Central Florida soon after its Broadway run, thanks to the work of legendary local performer Paul Wegman (also known as P). The Footlight also encouraged another local luminary David Lee, who produced Christopher Durang’s Titanic years before he’d cause a splash in the local premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

However, everything changed with Wanzie’s play Carolina Moon in 2003.

“The idea was totally Susan’s,” Wanzie says. “She had pestered me to please write a play about the people in the trailers before the last of them left. It ran for seven months, even three months after I left it. The review in the Orlando Sentinel talked about the landmarks—Chastain’s Diner, Woolworth’s downtown. It made it a trip down memory lane for audience members.”

Suddenly, the Footlight was attracting more than just a gay audience.

“That play was a large part of inviting the straight community to join us here,” says Don, who considers himself and his wife so much a part of the local LGBT community, he often refers to it as “our community.”

What Carolina Moon started, Ladies of Eola Heights—a drag-laden show about local Southern mavens—turned into a cultural phenomenon. That second show ran for nine months, attracting national attention and buses from area retirement communities. The shows integrated the LGBT community into Central Florida history, and audiences quit caring that they were at a notorious gay landmark.

There is a lesser-known fourth person in this creative team: director Kenny Howard, who Wanzie has worked with since 1999.

When asked how he and Howard met, Wanzie quips, “I moved next door to him, and he kept pestering me to come over, have a cocktail, and listen to show tunes.”

When Wanzie finally took his neighbor up on the offer, the two hit it off immediately. Three years later, Wanzie asked Howard to direct Two Men Trapped in Women’s Bodies at Parliament House.

“I knew right then and there his ability was refreshing and fun,” Wanzie says. “It’s now not a question of finding a director for a piece; if I write something, Kenny’s going to be working with me.”

A year ago, Susan and Kenny Howard finally struck a deal to give his and Wanzie’s production company “Wanzie Presents” the theater every Saturday night at 8 pm, before the 10 and 12 am drag shows.

“We write up a contract, we all agree, and then we never sign it,” Howard says with a laugh.

“They are always are so honest and giving,” Wanzie says of the owners.

Perhaps it’s because Howard and Wanzie have so successfully tapped into the local audience, expanding the clientele, maintaining their salacious humor while fostering immeasurable amounts of good will.

“People around here have definitely drunk the Wanzie Kool-Aid!” Howard jokes. “There are so many people—straight people, even elderly people—who come here for the play, stay for the drag, and then go drinking and dancing afterwards.”

“Wanzie is a huge part of the draw here,” Don says.

However, it’s not just Wanzie Presents that enlivens the Footlight Theater. Susan sets up charity events, convincing performers like Leslie Jordan to donate to the Orlando Youth Alliance. She has added choreography and costumes to shows, working with performer Darcel Stevens to turn once-disparate drag numbers into a single cohesive night. Local choreographer/DJ Blue has presented her captivating dance extravaganzas under Wanzie Presents. Wanzie and Howard have invited well-respected talent like Luerne Herrera, Jason Wetzel, John DeHaas, Becky Fisher, Carol Stein, and Andrea Canny to present cabaret in the lounge.

“We want to make sure the gay community is always comfortable, because this place is special to them,” says Don.

“But we also want it to be so much more than that;” says the careful, attentive Susan Unger. “We want to be the whole entertainment package.”

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