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Yesteryear Theater sets the stage at Historic Women's Club
December 20, 2017

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Are you ready to travel back in time?

The Historic Women's Club at 175 Sterling Avenue is in the midst of a major renovation, converting the former school house into a 60s' style speakeasy.

That's right: a private club to forget the trials of 2017 and step back to the golden age of entertainment with the likes of Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli and Bobby Valli.

James "Jerry" Nolan is heading up this transformation to bring something new to Fort Myers Beach.

"I love the old shows," he said. "The legends are gone, the next best thing is impersonators. It's an opportunity for the beach to have something special no one else has."

Nolan, originally a New Yorker, has been working for Junkanoo's since 2005, and said he talked the late owner Alfredo Russo into hosting live shows.

The first show, The Rat Pack and Jerry Lewis, was held in 2015 - and all four performances sold out. Nolan continued the pattern each year, increasing the number of shows and always selling them out.

With the construction of the Estero Boulevard projects at Junkanoo's door, Nolan decided to look for a different venue and found the Women's Club, which was concurrently looking for new ways to make revenue and utilize its meeting space, he said.

With his partner and island resident Bill Peters, Nolan renovated the interior of the historic building with a new paint job and window updates for what he's calling the Yesteryear Theater. Decorators Sue Madden and Kay Cummings helped him set up touches of era-appropriate decorations as well as set up Nolan's massive collection of memorabilia and autographed photos, records and books.

"The beach club scene is rock bands and solo artists," Nolan said. "I'm not knocking them. There's nothing like this, an organized, professional show."

Nolan has a whole line-up of shows for the first few months of 2018. Each evening there will be two performances at different times; tribute singers from around the country will converge on Fort Myers Beach to perform crowd favorites. He's still working on the stage, but the performers equipped with wireless mics will also be walking out into the audience and interacting with guests.

Bob Burgess, who's taken up the role of Nolan's musical director and stage manager, has helped Nolan with past shows. People are so excited to be there, they want to get up and dance and don't want to leave, he said.

"People get all charged up," Burgess said.

Nolan said he's had many attendees come up to him after and say they felt as if they'd stepped back in time.

The first weekend of shows is Jan. 19, 20 and 21. Tickets are $50 for VIP seating and $40 for general admission. The Women's Club can fit about 115 people, and there will be a bar with wine, beer and liquor for purchase.

Nolan said the shows are family-friendly.

"Every seat in the house is the best seat," Burgess said.

Robert Cabella will be showcasing the best of Dean Martin.

"He's the number one Dean Martin in the country," Nolan said.

Cabella has won multiple Dean Martin contests, including one in the original's hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. He's also been invited to audition for America's Got Talent.

"This is not just a tribute show," Nolan said. "These are professionals with 20 to 40 years of experience. You don't last that long if you're not good."

Nolan is also hosting a special New Years Eve show, but because of its size and unfinished renovations at the Women's Club, this show will be held at the Shriner's Club, 19171 San Carlos Blvd. There's two performances of Don Rickles and The Rat Pack at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 at 7:30 and $55 at 10:30. The performers have agreed to stop the show for fireworks at midnight and recommence inside after.

The Yesteryear Theater is bringing a new life to the Historic Women's Club, which has been a variety of venues since it was built. It was the island's first school house before becoming a dance hall for teenagers and then being turned over to the Women's Club in the 50s, said President Claire Langer.

"It's a vast improvement. All the members are looking forward to it," Langer said. "We haven't been doing much in recent years."

In its prime, the Women's Club had 200 members, she said. Its goal was to be like a fraternal organization, built to support the members and the community through donations.

Membership had been dwindling, but Lange credits a turn-around to Bev Milligan, a recent member, who Lange said has helped increase membership and bring in new business.

Milligan said she walked into a Women's Club meeting in Nov. 2016 to enquire about using the facility to hold a meeting for her group, Estero Island Taxpayers Association, and ended the encounter as a member of the Women's Club.

"I decided I was going to help them," Milligan said. "We're going to keep this club as a community facility."

When she joined, the membership wasn't sure what to do with the club, she said. Milligan decided the club could be revitalized by partnering with other community organizations and cultural groups to create a cooperative relationship to help both entities.

"Many clubs are turning over and they need help to bring in the next generation of club members," Milligan said. "It occurred to us, we could incubate and support other community and cultural organizations and nurture them."

The building will remain the Women's Club; it will still meet there for its monthly membership meetings and bridge games as well as rent it to other local groups. The members even get the chance to collaborate with Nolan's project: they've agreed to serve the drinks during the shows.

"It might be more glamorous than we were expecting, but we're very happy," Langer said. "All the members that have seen it have been really pleased."

To purchase tickets, call 810-4587 or email at jgn56bklyn@yahoo.com.*

*Correction: The email address was incorrect in a previous version of this story and has been corrected.

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