When the beautiful Florida Theatre re-opened its doors following a major restoration effort in 1983, few people could have foreseen the incredible record of activity and community service that has marked the past 31 years. More than 4,500 different events of all kinds have taken place here, attended by over 4 million people. Approximately 60% of the theatre’s use has been by local not-for-profit organizations of every description, and programs have reached out to virtually every segment of northeast Florida’s population. Without a doubt, the community’s investment in the restoration, renovation and operation of this historic treasure has been returned many times over.
The Florida Theatre originally opened to the public on April 8, 1927, as downtown Jacksonville’s 15th—and largest—movie theatre. With lavish interior decor unmatched in Jacksonville, the Florida Theatre is the city’s last remaining example of 1920′s fantasy architecture and is one of only four remaining high-style movie “palaces” built in Florida during this period. The elaborate interior was designed by R.E. Hall of New York and Jacksonville architect Roy Benjamin. Hall began his career with the prestigious architectural firm McKim, Mead and White and is responsible for numerous theatres, including the Eastman in Rochester, N.Y., the Metropolitan in Houston, Texas and the Keith’s Georgia in Atlanta, Ga. Benjamin, whose local firm was the forerunner of KBJ Architects, built several theatres throughout the South, many of which are now considered historic landmarks.
The Florida Theatre displays many characteristics of the Mediterranean Revival, one of the most prominent architectural styles associated with Florida’s building boom during the 1920s. While designing the Florida Theatre, the architects envisioned a Moorish courtyard at night, resplendent with glittering stars, grand balconies and fountains. An ornate proscenium arch that reaches nearly six stories high dominates the auditorium. The incredible acoustics and near-perfect sight lines make every one of the theatre’s 1,900 seats exceptional. On the building’s original roof garden, patrons in the late 1920s danced under the stars, while the theatre provided a nursery for the patrons’ young children. The theatre boasted many features unique in the 1920s, including central heating, air-conditioning and vacuuming systems.
Like many theatres of its day, the Florida Theatre was designed for both stage shows and motion pictures. A typical evening at the Florida Theatre included six program elements—the news, a comedy short, a cartoon or travelogue, an overture by the band on its moveable orchestra pit (with an occasional sing-along), a live stage presentation and the feature film. Unfortunately, with the advent of talkies and the decline of Vaudeville’s popularity, most of the nation’s great picture palaces became white elephants soon after their heyday.
Thanks to the creative management of Jacksonville’s Guy Kenimer, the Florida Theatre remained active well beyond the Depression, supplementing film screenings with many other forms of entertainment. Although the theatre closed briefly several times, it was saved from bankruptcy by special programs such as “Screeno,” a bingo game played on the movie screen, and “Bank Night,” which gave ticket buyers a chance to win cash prizes. The Florida Theatre’s management also spurred community involvement with such programs as the Happy Hearts Club, which for almost 20 years provided Christmas toys for underprivileged children.
One of the most memorable events in the theatre’s history occurred in 1956, when Elvis Presley came to the Florida Theatre for one of his first headline concert appearances on an indoor stage. Presley, the City of Jacksonville and the Florida Theatre found themselves subjects of a LIFE Magazine feature when Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding sat through the performance to ensure that Presley’s body movements would not become too suggestive.
Throughout the early 1960s, locally produced opera, dance and dramatic presentations in the theatre increased popularity, and civic use—trade shows, fashion shows, benefits and meetings—contributed to making the Florida Theatre a hub of constant activity in Jacksonville.
In the late 1960s, during a period of local and national inner-city decline, the theatre’s management attempted to draw the public back into the theatre by installing the then popular rocking-chair seats and upgrading the quality of films being shown. First-run films such as “Hello, Dolly” and “Paint Your Wagon” were shown, but ultimately failed to bring in large enough crowds. From the early 1970s, until the Theatre was closed on May 8, 1980, B-grade and action movies were shown and the theatre remained only marginally profitable even with concession sales.
In 1981, grants from the State of Florida and City of Jacksonville, combined with substantial private sector commitments made it possible for the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville (now the Cultural Council) to save the Florida Theatre. The proposal for the building’s renovation was enthusiastically supported by the Mayor, City Council and Duval County Legislative Delegation. Only one year later, a $4.1 million capital campaign was launched to support restoration, renovation, equipment and start-up operating costs. The restoration and remodeling of the 1,900-seat facility began in January of 1983. The grand reopening of the theatre as the Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center on October 1, 1983, was the culmination of the most ambitious and successful arts project ever undertaken in Jacksonville. The entire Jacksonville community—businesses, government, foundations, professional and civic organizations, and private individuals—generously supported the restoration effort.
A new chapter in the theatre’s history began on October 1, 1987, when the theatre officially separated from the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville and became an independent entity, legally and financially, governed by its own board of directors. Today, the Florida Theatre is home to about 200 different events annually, with more than 100 days each year used by local not-for-profit organizations. It serves not only as a permanent home for many Jacksonville arts institutions such as Theatreworks, the Jacksonville Film Festival, the Florida Ballet, Jacksonville Ballet Theater and the annual Community Nutcracker, but also functions as a true community center, hosting special events, fund raisers, lectures, private receptions, conferences, school programs and corporate meetings. Scores of churches, hospitals, public and private schools, social service agencies, charitable organizations and civic organizations regularly use the theatre. While preserving both its original Mediterranean design and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the theatre provides modern stage equipment to meet the complex technical requirements of today’s artists and performing attractions.
The Florida Theatre has been increasingly progressive in programming over the past several years, emphasizing those artists and artistic disciplines which might not otherwise be available to Jacksonville audiences. Last season alone, the theatre sponsored more than 70 cultural and entertainment events ranging from family shows, ballet and jazz to rock concerts and classic films—truly something for everyone.
The Florida Theatre gratefully acknowledges the support of the City of Jacksonville and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Many of the events of The Florida Theatre’s annual Performing Arts Series are sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Arts Council and The National Endowment for the Arts.