The Villages Daily Sun

Benefit Shows Give Local Groups a Rallying Cry

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Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2017 8:00 am

A month after hurricanes Maria and Irma ripped through Puerto Rico in September, vocalist Fernando Varela approached the staff at the Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center with the idea to host a benefit concert to raise money for relief in the country where he was born.

By Nov. 7, he had a full production live and ready to perform twice in one night.

While the performance itself raised around $108,000, patrons have continued to donate online since the concert, bringing the total amount of money raised to $917,380. The donation goal has increased from $100,000 to $1 million, and it is likely that goal soon will be met. Donations continue to pour in at fernandovarela.com.

“I am blown away by the generosity and outpouring of love and support from our patrons, Fernando’s fans, Villages residents and many more,” said Elizabeth Constant, booking coordinator at The Sharon. “I’m truly impressed and in awe of Fernando for putting together an outstanding benefit concert in four quick weeks.”

Benefit concerts like Varela’s aren’t uncommon in The Villages, with fundraising entertainment options filling social calendars throughout the year. Whether it’s a large-scale performance put on by a big-name artist or a show put on by a local resident group, every act of charity makes a difference.

“The Sharon performing arts center is a blessing for those who work here, those who are entertained here and those who entertain here,” Constant said. “When shows come in through the building with a charity associated with them, the organization knows they’ll have the opportunity to highlight their charity’s needs to over 1,000 people in one night.”

The Villages Opera Club organizes an annual show at The Sharon called “Three Tenors Plus One” to raise money for the group’s Harold S. Schwartz Music Scholarship, which benefits local budding singers.

The concert, which features teenage performers and a guest singer for an evening of entertainment, raised around $25,000 this year, according to Gerri Piscitelli, president of The Villages Opera Club.

“Nobody goes into music for money,” Piscitelli said. “They do it for passion. And if we want to be entertained, we better support the people who create entertainment.”

The scholarship was started by the club in the late 1990s and has grown tremendously over the years, Piscitelli said.

The group also organizes the annual “Enchanted Evening,” a show featuring Julliard musicians that also raises money for the scholarship.

“This is such a privilege and a joy,” Piscitelli said. “I cannot believe I’m in the position I am. It gives me such energy. Even though I put so much time into this, it doesn’t feel like work for me because our board is so unique.”

The next “Three Tenors Plus One” shows will be at 3 and 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at The Sharon. Tickets range from $20 to $40 and can be purchased online or at any box office in The Villages.

The Villages Jazz Lovers Club is another resident group that puts on shows to raise money for a scholarship fund.

The group organizes an orchestra show at The Sharon, and the venue gives them select seating to award to club members through chance drawings.

In February, the Duke Ellington Orchestra show made around $4,000 for the group’s Bob Washington Jazz Scholarship, according to club President Walter Griffith.

For the past three years, the group has been able to collect enough money to award more than $15,000 to between eight and 10 students per year.

“Young people come to us from all over the state of Florida,” Griffith said. “We are very well represented.”

The students who win the scholarship can use the money for tuition, private lessons or to pay for the repair of an instrument.

“It’s really rewarding,” Griffith said. “We’ve had young people who have won awards with us come back as professionals as part of the orchestras who help us raise funds. Our membership feels really gratified to know that we’re helping jazz musicians keep going in their chosen profession.”

The group’s next show at The Sharon will feature the Glenn Miller Orchestra on Jan. 15.

A number of benefit concerts at The Sharon and Savannah Center are put on by Get Off the Bus Concerts.

The company was founded by Joe Bamford, who owned a bus company for entertainers 20 years ago.

Through that profession, Bamford made a lot of connections with performers, which is what influenced him to start Get Off the Bus.

“The idea was for people who rode our buses to get off the bus and perform and maybe help out a charity,” Bamford said.

To give back, Bamford approaches a charity and asks if representatives would like to set up in the lobby before one of his shows. The artist performing signs a guitar for the charity to use in a chance drawing.

On Dec. 9, the members of Kansas signed a guitar before their performance at The Sharon, and the chance drawing benefitted Villagers for Veterans.

When a charity group comes to a show and sets up in the lobby, Bamford said people are able to put faces with the organization.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “The feeling is easy to describe. When I first started managing bands years ago and my band played the first time to a sell-out crowd, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I get the same feeling when we can put on a good show at The Sharon.”

In 2018, Villagers can look forward to Get Off the Bus performances from Classic Albums Live, Badfinger and “Late Nite Catechism.”

The giving isn’t just at The Sharon, though — it extends throughout The Villages to Savannah Center and other venues in the area.

Many resident community theater groups use their shows to donate to Honor Flight, The Villages Regional Hospital Auxiliary, SoZo Kids and more.

One of the big benefit concerts at Savannah Center in 2017 raised money for the multiple sclerosis research, with artists Mary Jo Vitale, Clark Barrios, Dawn DiNome and Mark Steven Schmidt.

Brian Russo, director of entertainment, said the MS benefit will enter its ninth year in 2018.

“A lot of the performers on stage either suffer from MS or have close family members or friends who do, making it an extremely personal performance,” Russo said. “This really shows on stage and turns into an incredible performance every single time.”

The giving is sure to continue into 2018, so get out your calendars to plan ahead for another year of entertainment that gives back.

Kristen Fiore is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5270, or kristen.fiore@thevillagesmedia.com.