Judy Lisi’s at the Center of it all

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Straz and its leading lady.

click to enlarge WARDROBE! Straz President/CEO Judy Lisi hangin' out in the facility's costume shop. - Bryan W. Leighty
Bryan W. Leighty
WARDROBE! Straz President/CEO Judy Lisi hangin' out in the facility's costume shop.

As the Straz begins to celebrate its 25th anniversary season, publicity materials invite us to look back on all the great shows the entertainment complex has presented to Tampa Bay.

Name after star-studded name, just one stands at the center of it all: Judy Lisi.

The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center opened its doors in 1987. changing its name to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2009 to honor its leading benefactor. Lisi joined the center as executive director in 1992 (later becoming president/CEO), and since then has overseen a remarkable period of growth — from a $3-million debt to packed houses for splashy Broadway shows and concerts, grounds beautification, improved community outreach, the name change, the addition of a mammoth lighted sign and the opening of the Patel Conservatory.

She has lived through moments of triumph and heartbreak. Lisi expanded the reach of Opera Tampa, for which she’s artistic director and premiered Maestro Anton Coppola’s Sacco and Vanzetti, and she produced Forever Plaid, the longest-running musical in Florida. But another play she produced and took to Broadway, Wonderland: Alice’s New Musical Adventure, flopped — and she’s had to contend with reductions in federal dollars to the arts and a tragic loss in her family.

“If you could see this picture of me holding onto a pole in the wind… I feel like we’re all like that, but we somehow get through,” Lisi said with a laugh.

CL paid a visit to Lisi during RNC week. The Daily Show was setting up in Straz’s Ferguson Hall as we chatted at her Patel Conservatory office on the third floor. “I can give you the morning traffic report,” Lisi joked while peering out her office window at I-275. From her third-floor space, you can see the Hillsborough River, the University of Tampa and Raymond James Stadium in the distance.

Lisi’s workday varies but is usually quite long. To decompress, she watches House Hunters International at her home on Harbour Island, where she’s lived with her husband of 43 years, Ernie, since starting at the Straz two decades ago. Her cultural curiosity will take her to the Middle East in November on a mission called “Experience Israel through the Performing Arts.”

She gives high priority to diversity at the Straz, but gives credit to the staff, namely another Judy — Judy Joseph, VP of programming — for bringing in hip, alternative forms of entertainment like Andrew Bird, who’s performing next month, and National Geographic Live!, a series Lisi mentions as one of the coolest recent additions.

Speaking of alternative, Lisi helped set up a home at the Straz for Jobsite Theater. She fondly recalls converting “a shed where we kept lawnmowers” into the Shimberg Playhouse, home to the Straz’s critically acclaimed resident theater company.

What lies ahead? For now, Lisi has operational projects in mind, such as moving the corporate offices out of the Patel Conservatory into a new building, expanding parking, improving traffic flow, remodeling the restrooms and replacing the A/C.

Lisi’s career as an arts leader didn’t begin in Tampa. Before moving here, she helmed the Shubert Performing Arts Center in Connecticut and was general director of the New Haven Opera Company, where she met Maestro Coppola and produced more than 20 operas with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

“We’re really going to miss him,” she said of the recently retired music icon and uncle of the famed movie director.

The arts informed Lisi’s life from an early age. She was reared in a hectic, fun and musical Italian-American family by a mom who taught her “to get it done right and get it done now.” That same no-nonsense perfectionism drove her to practice piano and flute as a child, and later to earn a double master’s degree in theater and communication arts from St. Louis University. She even studied opera at the Juilliard School of Music.

Lisi planned to be a nun after high school and spent three years in a convent. “She could have been the singing nun,” wrote Straz VP Michael Kilgore in a publicity bio. One might say that there’s a touch of the Mother Superior in the way she runs the Center — minus the ruler, of course.

But she isn’t always the iron lady in charge, even if she admits she sometimes has to be. Judy has her soft side. The prominent leader, who dines with millionaire donors and operates the area’s largest performing arts complex, likes the smaller things in life, too. Literally. She scurries to point out a laminated image of her 1-year-old miniature Schnauzer puppy Journey, and describes a poster made by employees that shows the canine’s “actual size” at 5 months. A childlike glint brightens her big hazel eyes.

A feathered haircut softly frames Lisi’s face, which belies her 65 years. She’s the mother of two: Joel, 39, and the late Rachel Lisi. Joel is a musician known around Tampa for his work with local bands such as Beanstalk; he and his wife are a month away from giving Judy her first grandchild.

Rachel Lisi, suddenly and tragically, died of a pulmonary embolism two years ago, two days shy of her 40th birthday. She was a published poet, an amateur photographer and a graduate student who worked for several years as a supervisor in the Straz box office. Jobsite Artistic Director David Jenkins once described her as “a staunch supporter of the arts and someone who would brighten a room simply by inhabiting it.”

“It’s the kind of loss that doesn’t get easier with time because I’m constantly missing her and wishing I could share things with her,” Lisi said. A memorial fund has been set up in Rachel’s name to help low-income patrons afford tickets to shows.

Not one for self-pity, Lisi manages to remain positive. “If anything, it makes a lot of things seem a lot less important,” she said with a laugh as her eyes welled up.

When asked if dealing with Rachel’s loss helped bring out different strengths in her character, she said, “I wish I could answer that. I’m probably the last one to ask. Other people around me might have the answer. I’m just happy to come to work every morning and do well by everybody. I’m still not the most patient person in the world. I still have to make sure things get done. I owe it to them to keep a high standard here. … If I were to change too drastically, they wouldn’t recognize me!”

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