The Annie Russell Theatre was a gift of Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist in 1932, in honor of her friend Annie Russell, an internationally known actress of that time. When Annie Russell expressed her joy and amazement at such an honor, Bok responded with a letter, saying: “It’s no doing of mine. The crown was fashioned by your own hands and I am just turning a bit of electric light on that crown. Your lovely art is to endure and you will pass the torch along… I could finance a building, you can do the much bigger thing—inspire the work to be done in it.”
Dedicated jointly with the chapel on March 29, 1932, the ceremonies included a performance of Browning’s In a Balcony with Russell in the role of the Queen. Newspapers across the nation carried glowing features on the new theatre and Russell’s return to the stage.
The Annie Russell Theatre serves as the home of the thriving theater and dance programs at Rollins. Additions in 1977 and 1979 provided a scenery shop, offices and storage. The lower level and balcony areas seat 377 people. The Rollins Players, formed in 1922, currently offer central Florida a season of productions ranging from the classics to current Broadway releases.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1866, Annie Russell moved to Canada with her family at an early age. She made her stage debut at age seven, beginning a career that would lead her to New York, the West Indies, London, back to New York and finally to Rollins College. Russell created the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara under the genius’ direction. Shaw was enchanted, penning notes to the young actress which said, “You have already shown me more about the part than I could have possibly shown you.” And after the show closed: “My dear Major Barabara, all that play wanted was a little more Annie Russell and a little less Bernard Shaw.”
Russell eventually retired to Winter Park. It was here that Bok decided to build a theatre to honor her friend. President Hamilton Holt and Bok were successful in convincing Russell not only to return to the stage, but to serve as the artistic director of the theatre and professor of theatre arts.
Russell, one of the first stars of the American Theater, known to critics as the “Duse of the English-speaking stage,” performed her last role on the Rollins campus. In the 1934-35 Annie Russell Theatre Season, she played Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals.
In January of 1936, she died leaving a legacy of dedication to the theater arts. Actress, director, writer, teacher and inspiration to many, Russell’s tombstone is inscribed, “The curtain falls on a beloved player of many parts.”