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Play commemorates county’s history
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Several men stand on and around an Orange Belt Railway locomotive in Florida, circa 1895. The image comes from the Stokes Photograph Collection found in the University of South Florida Special Collections Library.
Peter Demens
LARGO – “The Orange Belt Railroad,” an original play by Richard J. Budin presented by Dick Budin Productions, is celebrating its premiere engagement through Oct. 28 at the Largo Community Center, 400 Alt. Keene Road, Largo.

Performances are Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call 518-3131.

Presented in partnership with the Pinellas County Centennial Celebration, Budin’s musical revolves around Pinellas pioneer Peter Demens, a Russian immigrant who built a railroad that led to the founding of St. Petersburg.

One man’s history

The North Carolina State University offers a thorough sketch of Demens in its Architects & Builders Biographical Dictionary (ncarc­hitec­­b.ncs­, noting that he first settled in Longwood (now in Seminole County). He became involved in the lumber industry, supplying materials and building station houses for a branch of the South Florida Railroad. When the Orange Belt Railway couldn’t settle its debt to Demens in 1885, the Russian immigrant took over their charter.

According to the NCSU biography, “between 1886 and 1889 he devoted his energy to construction of the Orange Belt Railway from Sanford, Florida, to the Pinellas Peninsula, the site of present-day St. Petersburg, where he envisioned ‘a city of international importance’ at the best natural harbor on Florida's Gulf Coast.”

Demens, a man of vision, was as a shrewd manager of money, men and materials.

To complete the railroad, Demens faced enormous financial obstacles: Fickle backers postponed investments and credit; edgy creditors beleaguered the enterprise demanding payment.

Angry unpaid laborers once threatened to lynch Demens.

Demens managed to complete the rail connection that made St. Petersburg possible.

Today, a historical marker can be found in the St. Petersburg city park named Demens Landing, near the intersection of Bayshore Drive and First Avenue Southeast.

The marker reads:

“This city park is located on the site of the first railroad pier in St. Petersburg, built by Peter Demens in 1889. Peter Demens (pronounced de-MANS) was a Russian nobleman, Pyotr Dementyev, who left Russia in 1881, came to Florida, and changed his name to Demens. He became an entrepreneur, investing in a sawmill and a construction company in Longwood, Florida. Later he took control of the Orange Belt Railroad, which he extended from Sanford, Florida to the west coast of Florida in 1888, to a town he had named St. Petersburg, in honor of the capital city of Imperial Russia. Demens also built the first hotel, the Detroit, and the first railroad depot in St. Petersburg in 1888, and is considered one of the founders of the city. Demens Landing was dedicated as a city park to honor Demens in 1977.”

About the playwright

Budin’s first inclination toward the arts was in the mid-1980s when he encountered the Gasparilla legend.

“Naively, I thought I could write a play about it,” Budin said in an email interview.

His spent time digging through historical texts but found that his research resulted in “a confused and often contradictory collection of stories full of errors.”

“The play was amateurish and I decided that I didn't know enough about the environment for which I was writing,” Budin said. “So began my on-the-job training in several theaters. These experiences transformed a bad actor into a writer with credits in New York City, Missouri and California.”

In crafting “Orange Belt Railroad,” the playwright was keenly aware of the immense impact Demens had on the development of Pinellas.

“In those days the population was small and concentrated in a handful of families,” Budin explained. “There were no bridges across Tampa Bay, travel was long and arduous and there were no bridges joining Point Pinellas to the mainland.”

Budin said that Henry Plant’s railroad stopped in Tampa, “thereby isolating the peninsula from commerce,” except via Hamilton Disston's steamboats.

“Although The OBRR chugged along at only 15 miles an hour, it was the ultimate in luxury travel for its time and where it built stations, towns sprung into existence,” Budin continued. “The Pier, the city of St. Petersburg, Demens Landing, and the Pinellas Trail – built on the site of the original tracks – are still with us today.”

Budin has had several small shows produced locally and has had readings of longer and more complex ones as well.

“This play is the first ‘play with music’ of mine to be exposed to public scrutiny,” Budin said. “I had a vision for this play and with help from people more talented than I, we were able to bring it from a script to a full production and give it life. I'm very grateful for their effort.”

The play reviewed

Budin’s play covers all the major elements in depicting Demens’ struggle.

The blend of history and music evokes “Barnum,” a musical with book by Mark Bramble, lyrics by Michael Stewart and music by Cy Coleman. Like “Barnum,” “The Orange Belt Railroad” focuses on a single historical figure, restricts itself to a specific time period and features real-life personalities.

“The Orange Belt Railroad” picks up with Peter Demens involuntarily taking over the railroad line when the former owners are unable to pay off their debts. The opening number, “What’ll We Do?,” conveys the desperation of businessmen – and their inability to convince Peter that the railroad would be a good investment. A few moments later, Peter – now the owner – has to figure out how to sell the idea to his wife Raisa … and validate the state of affairs in his own mind.

At the heart of Peter’s sales pitch is a real-life claim made by a Baltimore's Doctor. In 1885, W.C. Van Bibber issued a study declaring Point Pinellas the world's healthiest spot. Van Bibber happened to own land on the peninsula.

Veteran local actor Bill Harber portrays Peter Demens. Last month, Harber received a STAR award in the Favorite Actor – Comedy category for his role in Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds From Broadway” at West Coast Players.

In “The Orange Belt Railroad,” Harber is effective as the visionary and pioneer. He captures Peter’s mulish obstinacy and conveys the character’s indomitable confidence.

As Raisa Demens, Mara Martin is equally convincing. Scott Haller’s turn as area developer Hamilton Disston is impressive and memorable – Disston being another figure of local history whose life story deserves to be recounted to modern audiences.

Other standout cast members include Lisa Obst as Tanya, Susan O’Gara as Sarah Williams and Dave Cruz as A.M. Taylor.

“The Orange Belt Railroad” succeeds in illustrating the tenacity of 19th century Pinellas pioneers. As Budin states in his playbill comments, Demens and his partners didn’t buy their way into the railroad business – they built it.

“Borrowing their way into heavy debt, they put everything on the line each time until they achieved their goal,” Budin writes. “The debt they carried is inconceivable even to the average person today.”’

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