This time last year, Art was playing mid-run on the Cook Theatre stage delighting audiences with Yasmina Reza’s Tony and Olivier Award-winning wit. Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project was still on the horizon, with My Old Lady to follow. That was the Banyan Theater Company tradition—three summer shows, each an incisive exploration of the human condition—and in the all-too-short span of 14 seasons it became a legacy. With the March passing of founder Jerry Finn and the company’s disbandment, SRQ looks back at a man who left his indelible mark on Sarasota theater.

A retired lawyer, Finn landed on the Suncoast in 1999 and enjoyed the easy pace of Sarasota life for a scant couple of years before founding Banyan in 2002. “It didn’t seem like retirement but his passion was clear,” says David Finn, Jerry’s eldest son and member of the Banyan board. The venture surprised David as it did much of the family—they’d known Jerry tried drama in college, but didn’t think of him as “a theater guy.” “But once [the Banyan] got here, it made sense,” says David, who saw his father in a new light as his golden years shone. “Maybe he had thoughts of making that a career before I came along.”

An inherently risky move, Jerry didn’t make starting a theater company any easier on himself by focusing his efforts on the summer months at a time when off-season theater was relatively unheard of. With snowbirds migrating north taking their wallets with them, accepted wisdom said to wait for surer audiences to offset up-front production costs, but that was never Jerry’s way. “There was always a question about how the community could support summer work,” says Greg Leaming, director of the FSU/Asolo Rep Conservatory for actor training, whose students often populated the Banyan stage. “But Jerry was absolutely tapping into the interest of people here year-round.” As the town emptied, Banyan Theater productions held the air of a Sarasota secret—a special treat for the locals.

Not only did Jerry show the Suncoast skeptics that summer theater could succeed, but he did so without the pandering and placating one may have found from a less-assured leader. With only three shows a year, each had to represent “theater of literary merit,” a phrase frequently invoked in Banyan-related conversation. Classics from George Bernard Shaw abutted modern masters such as Donald Morgulies for programming simultaneously “contemporary and somewhat conservative but never aggressively avant garde,” according to Leaming, who directed Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession for the Banyan in 2006. Whether the audience took note of Jerry’s style, artists certainly did. In its time the company amassed a cadre of regular cohorts in its artistic endeavors, with actors and directors such as Don Walker and Jim Wise returning summer after summer to work in the shade of their favorite Banyan. Said Leaming: “The great thing about the Banyan was that it was driven by a man who was passionate.”

And that passion built a legacy but came with a price. “He was not a delegator, my dad,” says David, who only recently took a more active role in the theater in the wake of Jerry’s flagging health. Each season brought its own struggle, with Jerry wrangling pieces into place during the summer with little thought to the next. It was full steam ahead, come what may, and Jerry performed much of the heavy lifting himself. As the Banyan’s leader slowed with age, it became increasingly difficult and it wasn’t unheard of for him to release a frank call for support in the face of an uncertain season. “The big challenge is putting your efforts into developing and fundraising as much as production and Jerry was a one-man-band,” says Leaming. “It was getting tighter and tighter, and challenging for him to keep all those balls in the air. The Banyan didn’t have a lot of money but it had ideals.” Exacerbating the problem, Jerry played it all “close to the vest,” says David, and when his health finally failed there was no easy way to quickly pick up the pieces. Jerry’s disinclination for delegation left no clear line of succession and with a season already well behind schedule due to earlier health-related setbacks his sudden absence amounted to a perfect storm, bending the Banyan to the point of breaking. Days before Jerry’s death the board dissolved the company; the memory of that decision still elicits a string of exclamations and heavy sighs. “Because [Jerry] would have made it happen whatever it took,” says David, “the most difficult thing was letting down the Banyan family.”

But the memories remain, such as the time David’s daughter Rosie joined the Banyan on a college internship and the three generations walked backstage together, Jerry swelling with “joy and pride.” And the legacy stands tall, evidenced by the growth in summer theater and the countless letters received over the years and since Jerry’s death from artists and audiences who loved the Banyan. “The outpouring of support and love from the community has been so gratifying and on a scale that surprised me,” says David. “I’m really proud of him.”