Home News Sunrise Theatre legend John Wilkes brought big stars here, worked tirelessly for the community

Sunrise Theatre legend John Wilkes brought big stars here, worked tirelessly for the community

Sunrise Theatre legend John Wilkes brought big stars here, worked tirelessly for the community

FORT PIERCE— There’s never been a more prominent promoter of the Sunrise Theatre than John Wilkes, according to friends, family and community members.

The native Canadian made announcements onstage before every show at the Sunrise — something he had never done previously in his career — greeting customers, asking newcomers to rise and putting a face on the city-owned 100-year-old theater. 

That’s just one memory current Sunrise Theatre Director Sharon Engle recalls of Wilkes, who died Nov. 12 due to health complications, according to his daughter Johanna Wilkes. 

He died just nine days after his 70th birthday. 

“John was bigger than life,” Engle, who knew Wilkes for three decades, said. “He was a friend, mentor and colleague.”

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John Wilkes

Wilkes’ lengthy career in the theater industry dated back to his early 20s, when he was a student at St. Clair College in Ontario. He was student government president and helped attract many popular performers to the college such as Harry Chapin. 

Elton John also performed on campus when Wilkes became the college’s University Centre programmer. 

His career blossomed from there, working at venues such as Ontario Place and Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto; Rebecca Cohen Hall in Halifax; The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota; The Kravitz Center in West Palm Beach and finally the Sunrise Theatre in beginning in 2007. 

Before entering into his full-time role as theater director, Wilkes provided consulting services when Fort Pierce Main Street restored the 1,200-seat theater in the late ’90s and early 2000s, according to the nonprofit’s Executive Director Doris Tillman. 

“John worked endlessly for this community,” Tillman said.  “He was just always there, always willing to given us great advice throughout that process.” 

Former Sunrise Theatre Director John Wilkes (left) seen with Elton John.

In his 11 years overseeing the Sunrise, Wilkes put Fort Pierce on the map by booking famous comedians, musicians and performers such as the Beach Boys, Jay Leno, Willie Nelson, The Doobie Brothers, Tony Bennett, Paul Anka and Melissa Etheridge. 

“The list is endless,” Engle said. “The relationships he had with the biggest agents in the business at the time, and that he carried throughout his entire career, were invaluable.” 

When Wilkes underwent open-heart surgery, many famous people called to check in on him and ask if he was OK, Engle remembers. 

Relationship building was what made him one of the most successful businessmen in the theater industry, according to Johanna Wilkes, one of his three children.

Former Sunrise Theatre Director John Wilkes (right) seen with Ringo Starr, drummer for the Beatles.

One of her fondest memories growing up was going to “The Nutcracker” during the holidays, dressed up with her brother and sister while their father worked. 

“Even though my my dad was there working, it was a way for us to all be there together as a family,” the 35-year-old said. “Still to this day, all three of us have a very special place in our hearts for ‘The Nutcracker’ because it was just such a big part of our childhood.” 

Johanna Wilkes said the theater was like a second family to her father.

“The Sunrise was like the fourth child he never had,” she added. 

Engle agreed, saying Wilkes practiced a “family-first” mantra in his profession. 

 “It didn’t matter who you were,” Engle said. “You could be the volunteer usher or you could be the highest donor. John treated everyone the same.” 

Former Sunrise Theatre Director John Wilkes (left) seen with famous comedian Howie Mandel

Ensuring that theater was accessible in the community, especially to children, was a top priority for Wilkes, Engle and his daughter said. 

Through his belief in the economic potential of the Sunrise, Wilkes aimed to bring talent here for generations to enjoy, Johanna Wilkes added. 

It’s clear he left a mark on Fort Pierce, Engle said. Everyone in the industry agrees on one thing, she said: ‘We lost a good one.’

“His passing was such a shock to me. I’m still dealing with the loss,” Engle said. “I am very fortunate to have been able to work under him and learn from what I call the  master.”


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