Studio@620: An Intimate Stage For Talent & Creativity In St. Pete

High-energy tap dancer Ted Louis Levy beats an impressive percussive staccato rhythm as he dances to a standing-room only crowd at Studio@620, an innovative creative arts venue in downtown St. Petersburg.

Musicians take to the stage to wow the audience with jazz tunes by icons like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Bob Devin Jones, Studio@620's artistic director, reads poetry by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. 

Surprise guest, Buster Cooper, St. Petersburg's legendary trombone player, talks about his time in Paris playing with singer and dancer Josephine Baker.  And at the community desert table, a novel idea for which the studio is known, guests are enjoying free pumpkin pie and corn bread.

The eclectic evening, a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, represents an ongoing collaboration between the studio and the Florida Orchestra, The public enjoys a unique evening of entertainment in an intimate setting at the same time the orchestra gets a chance to do something a little different and fun, says Ella Frederickson, principal librarian of the Florida Orchestra. 

"Bob and I bonded over a cup of coffee at Kahwa and started talking about what we could create together. One thing led to another,'' jokes Frederickson. "Now we plan the theme for each event and see where it goes from there. It's really a labor of love.''

Over the past 10 years, since co-founders Devin Jones and Dave Ellis launched the studio, this small arts venue has become known for its unique programming and for the ability to blend diverse creative elements into a common theme.

"We tent-pole around people; bring people together around an idea and expand on it with complimentary programs,'' says Devin Jones. "We're always affirming that we’re the place where the community gathers, a place where the answer is always yes when someone wants to partner with us on an idea.''

Alizza Punzalan-Randle, director of community and media relations at Eckerd College, and president of Studio@620's board of directors, says the studio reminds her of a mini-version of the 92nd Street Y, the well-known cultural arts venue  and community center in New York City.

“We have everyone from Nobel Prize laureates to emerging artists coming through our doors,” says Punzalan-Randle, of Studio@620. "There's nothing else like this in Tampa Bay. It's homey, personal and high quality – that's an unusual combination to sustain.''

A Little History

In the 1990s, Dave Ellis had just completed his tenure with St. Petersburg's children museum, Great Explorations, the Hands On! Museum. He was hosting events in his backyard that he called, "On The Rocks.''

Devin Jones, an actor, producer, writer and director originally from Los Angeles, had come to St. Petersburg to direct a play at American Stage Theater and decided to stay. He was considering starting up a theater company in St. Petersburg. The two were neighbors in St. Petersburg’s Old Southeast neighborhood.

"Bob was famous for his cooking and my wife Astrid and I came to dinner a lot with Bob and his partner Jim Howell,'' says Ellis. "The four of us started talking one night.''

Not long after, Howell, a contractor who had been scouting venues in the area for another arts group, came across a vacant, run-down building that once housed a blueprint shop. "Jim called and said I found this building,'' says Devin Jones. "He thought it might work for what we had in mind.''

Howell got the needed permits and started renovations, while Devin Jones and Ellis brainstormed their vision for the center, put together a board of directors and asked local investors and friends for support.

"We didn't have a business plan and we didn't have a lot of money, but we just kept going,'' says Ellis. 

Studio@620, named for the building's location at 620 1st Ave. S., broke ground on June 20, 2004. The inaugural event, "Grand Ma's Hands: One Hundred Years of African American Quilting,'' kicked off during St. Petersburg's First Night New Year's Celebration.

"The studio was the only time in my life where I had total artistic freedom,'' says Ellis, who retired five years ago and now serves as artistic director emeritus. 

"It was about opening the door to new experiences, creating a space that is inclusive of everyone and offering a safe place to express ideas and a diversity of social issues,'' Ellis said. "We're still true to that philosophy today. The result has been a huge community effort. I am really proud of it.''

Donors, Volunteers Make It Happen

Funding for the nonprofit arts organization comes primarily from donations –- a combination of membership fees and sponsorship levels, along with a small number of grants and nominal fees charged at the box office. Many programs are free thanks to underwriting sponsors.

The studio’s goal is to always be accessible and affordable for everyone, says Devin Jones. "We never want to turn anyone away so we keep our prices low,'' says the co-founder. "Creative ideas fuel the organization. It's about breaking bread with people, about hospitality and the eclectic nature of the studio.''

A staff of four people is supplemented by a large number of volunteers.  "We couldn't do without them,'' says Devin Jones.

Devin Jones is especially proud of the studio's role in serving as an incubator for young talent. Local students, including those from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School, have had the opportunity to work with Devin Jones to write and produce plays. The studio has also hosted opening receptions for student art shows and served as a venue for music CD releases.

Twenty-year-old Josh Brown started working at Studio@620 two years ago as a stage manager for one of the plays. Now his position has grown into a full-time job as house manager. "For me, being at the studio is like school, mentorship and creative workspace all rolled into one,'' says Brown, who is an artist, writer and poet.  

One of the events Brown helped create, "The Imginatrix@620: Poetry Art Music,'' showcases young emerging artists with an evening of music, live art, poetry and spoken word.

"It gives young artists a chance to step up and have a platform,'' says Brown. "For people who have never performed before, it gives them the chance to see that it's not some far off dream. They can see their friends doing it and know that they can do it too.''

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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