A THING OF BEAUTY, A PALACE OF DREAMS
In 1927, on the same day that the Florida Theatre first opened its doors to the public, the World News Service in New York City carried this report: “For the first time, men sat in New York and looked 200 miles over a telephone wire at other men in Washington, D.C. Television was pulled out of the dictionary and into the world of fact.” Thus, on the same day, the largest theatre in the State of Florida had its Grand Opening, and the seeds of its eventual demise as a movie house and resurrection as a nonprofit arts center made news too.
But on the night of April 8, 1927, however, all was splendid in Downtown Jacksonville. The next day, the Jacksonville Journal reported, “On the spot where once stood an unkempt police station that had housed in its sordid career many of the riff-raff of the world there has come into being a thing of beauty, a palace of dreams. This masterpiece of art is the Florida Theatre, which today became an integral part of advancing Jacksonville, following its dedication last night before an audience packed the playhouse to capacity….”
A THEATRE CONTRIBUTES TO THE WELFARE OF THE COMMUNITY
Construction on the Florida Theatre began in the summer of 1926 when building permit #1345 granted Southern Enterprises, Inc. permission to construct a seven-story concrete, fireproof theatre and commercial building with a roof garden on the corner of Forsyth on Newnan Streets in downtown Jacksonville. The application indicated that R.E. Hall & Co., Inc. of New York were the architects, with Roy A. Benjamin of Jacksonville as Associate Architect. The George A. Fuller Company of New York was the general contractor, and the building’s value was estimated at $1.5 million. The new Florida Theatre would be the sixth theatre on Forsyth Street alone, where the Savoy, Empress, Imperial, Palace, and St. Johns Theatres were all in a row in a four-block stretch.
According to the Jacksonville Journal, foundation work began around June 20, 1926, and the first steel was erected around August 10. A derrick with a 115-foot mast and a 105-foot boom was used to erect the 1,200 tons of steel shipped by rail in over 40 rail cars. Four thousand five hundred cubic yards of concrete were poured for the slab. One aspect of the Florida Theatre’s construction was historically significant; it was the first job anywhere in the South to use ready-mixed mortar to lay the bricks. As a result, it only took 21 days to lay one million bricks. The structural framing of the balcony was unique in that two-thirds of the massive balcony was supported by just two steel trusses, each spanning 90 feet with a depth of approximately 8-1/2 feet. One balcony girder alone weighed 65 tons. The balcony was formed in ten days, and the concrete was poured in three. The plaster work was conducted using a scaffold suspended from the roof trusses instead of the modern method of using the ground-supported stand.
When the theatre finally opened, Sam Katz, President of Publix Theaters, the arm of Paramount Pictures that constructed and operated theatres, told the Times-Union newspaper: “A properly conducted theatre is of the same importance to a community as a school or a church. Such a theatre contributes to the community’s welfare because wholesome recreation is essential to its well-being.”
Nine and a half months after breaking ground, the theatre opened.
TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT!
“Tonight’s the Night!” proclaimed the Florida Theatre’s advertisement in the Friday, April 8, 1927, Florida Times-Union, and Loy Warwick Jr. reported in the next day’s Times-Union, “Long before the town clock tolled the hour of opening, the sidewalks and streets were fairly littered with people.” “A stream of men and women…poured through the portals until the auditorium was filled to the last square foot of carefully arranged space.”
The new building manager was Guy A. Kenimer, promoted from the Center Theatre down the street, also owned by Publix Theatres. Kenimer would rise to Division Manager, responsible for 36 theatres, and retire almost 30 years later, in 1955. The Center Theatre was also known as the Arcade Theatre because its entrance opened arcade-style to both Adams Street and Forsyth Street, which run parallel. Ironically, over 50 years later, on September 5, 2002, the Arcade Theatre would collapse, making the Florida Theatre the last historic theatre standing of the eight other downtown Jacksonville theatres, which in addition to the theatres on Forsyth Street, included the Temple Theatre on North Main Street, the Casino Theatre on West Bay Street, and the Strand Theatre on West Ashley Street.
On opening night, the Florida Theatre projection booth held, according to a 1973 retrospective in the Florida Times-Union: “Inventory: 3 silent film projectors equipped with high-intensity arc lamps, two huge spotlights, one effect machine with an assortment of colors and scenes to project stereopticon slides, two motor generators with 250 amperes for generating carbon arc light, two turntables and a musician for non-synchronized mood music, and a staff of 3 projectionists, with a fourth to be added as soon as the sound came in.” It is interesting to note that although the first motion picture with synchronized sound (The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson) would not open for another six months, in October 1927, they already knew the new technology was coming.
The Florida Theatre’s Opening Night program began with a fanfare from the American Legion Bugle Corps, followed by a live stage show, Pageant of Florida, and Frank Morris and the Brilliant Florida Orchestra, an 18-piece ensemble that rose into view on the moveable orchestra pit. The feature attraction was a two-real silent movie, Let It Rain, starring comedian Douglas MacLean, who played a tough Marine who falls in love, and then goes to sea. Robert E. Mitchell accompanied the silent film on the theatre’s new $100,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ.
On opening night, Margaret Brewster was named “Personality Girl,” beating out 100 other young ladies who had competed to be the official hostess in a competition sponsored by the Jacksonville Journal. The Journal reported that she was “A beautiful blonde with unbobbed hair arranged simply and becomingly,” and at 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds, she wore “A bouffant skirt and diaphanous silver cloth lining,” gold and silver slippers, and “flesh-colored” hose.
The dignitaries included Sam Katz, the President of Paramount Publix Theatres, Jacksonville Mayor John T. Alsop, and Police Chief Abel Roberts. Before the theatre was built, the former occupant of the corner of Forsyth and Newnan Streets was a police station and city jail. When the old police station was demolished, the cornerstone was taken out by Mayor Alsop and presented to Chief Roberts. When the Florida Theatre opened on the same site, the newspapers reported on the Chief’s review of the new theatre: “People used to pay to get out, and now they pay to get in.”
Fire Chief MacMillian was also on hand, and the ornate façade was bathed in floodlights and lit by flares so brilliant that he took the precaution of informing the public in advance that the flares and lights should not be mistaken at a distance for flames. It was, after all, just 25 years since the Great Fire of 1901, and many Jacksonville residents still remembered first-hand the devastation wrecked by the third-worst urban fire in the history of the United States.
After the program, select patrons danced to orchestra music in the open-air rooftop garden, overlooking the city and the river from the seventh story.
UNSURPASSED ARCHITECTURAL BEAUTY AND PERFECTION
The theatre owners of the 1920’s believed that showing movies alone was not enough to draw crowds and that a live stage show and a lavish interior were of equal importance to the film. Thus, the stage of the Florida Theatre was designed to accommodate live performances in addition to the motion picture screen, and no expense was spared on the theatre’s interior appointments, either. The Florida Theatre was the largest in the state at the time, and the Florida Times-Union praised its “Unsurpassed architectural beauty and perfection of appointments.”
The original owner of the Florida Theatre was Publix Theaters, the theatre construction and owning arm of Paramount Pictures. They also built such notable venues as the Paramount Theater in New York, the Tivoli in Chicago, the Olympia in Miami, and the Tampa Theater in Tampa. (There is no relationship between Publix Theatres and the modern company known as Publix Supermarkets.)
The Florida Theatre was designed by architect R.E. Hall, who worked for the firm of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. The Florida Theatre auditorium resembles Hall’s earlier design for the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York, which opened in 1921. The local architect was Roy A. Benjamin, who built several other theatres in the South, including, in Jacksonville, the Center Theatre (32 West Adams Street), the Imperial Theatre (26 East Forsyth Street), the Palace Theatre (32 East Forsyth Street), the Riverside Theatre (1028 Park Street, now the Sun-Ray Cinema) and the San Marco Theatre (1996 San Marco Boulevard, still in operation).
The Florida Theatre’s interior resembles the Tampa Theatre, which dates from one year earlier, in 1926, because the Michel Angelo Studios of Chicago designed the elaborate interiors of both venues. In each theatre, the décor included French, Spanish, and Italian motifs and furnishings in a grand style, including marble. It wrought iron railings, marble and decorative tile wainscoting, decorative columns and moldings, terrazzo and tile floors, wrought iron and amber glass, light fixtures and chandeliers, and coffered ceilings. Built-in the Spanish Eclectic Style, more commonly known as Mediterranean Revival, the terra cotta ornamentation on the exterior, the glass and copper entrance doors, the wall hangings woven in France and Italy, and the furniture obtained from collectors in Morocco all evoked the Mediterranean region and style.
Maxey Grunthal and Bros. supplied two Haddorff Grand Pianos, and the Wurlitzer organ was the second-largest Wurlitzer anywhere. According to The Wurlitzer Co., the organ was “The second-largest unit of its kind manufactured” and the “Biggest instrument of its type ever installed in a Southern amusement house.” The Florida Theatre was the first theatre in the city with central air conditioning, and its then-modern systems also included central heating, central vacuuming, and a nursery.
Henry Satter, Inc. of New York was the decorator, and the theatre’s Act Curtain was the finest they had ever manufactured. The design and fabric were from France, requiring nine months for delivery, and the fringe, at 36 inches high, was the largest ever attempted.
A DATE ON A DOLLAR AND A HALF
When the Florida Theatre began operation, admission was 25 and 50 cents for matinees and 25 and 60 cents at night. The “palace of splendor” was open 12 hours a day, from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. There were daily deluxe presentations at 3:00, 7:00, and 9:00. These extra special showings included six program elements: a Paramount Newsreel, a comedy, a travelogue or a cartoon, an overture by the live orchestra, a stage presentation, and a feature film.
The diverse entertainment was not limited to the live stage or the screen. For many years, WJAX, the City-owned radio station, often broadcast from the Florida Theatre, including performances by Frank Morris and His Variety Vendors, Blue Steele and His Internationally Famous Radio Orchestra, Kay and Betty the Children of Jazz, and Banjo James.
Stars of the stage and screen were frequent visitors. Over the years, Sally Rand, Paulette Goddard, Paul Whiteman, and Kay Kyser all appeared on the Florida Theatre’s stage. The elegant star Adolphe Menjou, a star of the original A Farewell to Arms (1932) and the original A Star is Born (1937), plus 143 other productions, visited in 1929 and, in a letter, lost backstage and found years later by a workman, he marveled at the chill the air conditioning produced. George Jessel and Eddie Cantor visited during the Depression and forthrightly announced to the audience, “We’re here because we’re broke.” Bob Hope reportedly read the newspaper through the full screening of a movie, indifferent to what went on around him.
IT WAS REALLY A DREAM WORLD
On the occasion of the theatre’s opening, Sam Katz told the papers, “It is the idealism that is put into theater operation that changes a business into an institution. There is a strange fascination about this business that keeps its servants at high tension and bubbling over with enthusiasm for the new problems continually confronting them.” The Publix Corporation put a premium on personal service by its staff; over the years, the people made the theatre a special place.
Bob Mitchell was the organist on opening night. His successors at the $100,000 Wurlitzer organ console included Lee Hamrick, Hal Stanton, Addie Berry, Jack Courtney, and Jimmy, for many years, Knight.
Guy Kenimer was the Manager on Opening Night, and the Manager for some 20 years after he was promoted was Bob Heekin, who met his wife on the roof garden. Heekin got his start at the theatre as a Boy Scout working for free passes, and he rose from the doorman to District Manager at his death.
The projectionist for 40 years was Bender A. “Dock” Cawthon. When he retired in 1972, the Times-Union ran a multi-page feature story.
Margaret Land was the nurse in charge of the nursery, which did not close until 1952.
Just two years after opening, the Great Depression began, and like the rest of America, its effects reverberated through Jacksonville. The theatre closed several times during the Depression but was saved from complete and total failure by special programs created by the extraordinary people who comprised its staff.
Screeno was a bingo game that employed the giant movie screen. Bank Night, on Monday nights, gave ticket buyers a chance at a $100 prize. The Happy Hearts Club, begun at the Arcade Theatre by Guy Kenimer and brought to the larger Florida Theatre when it opened, provided toys for underprivileged children during the holidays. The Happy Hearts Club continued throughout the Depression, World War II, and beyond for almost 20 years.
Promotional tie-ins to publicize the featured movie were common. The ushers would routinely eschew their uniforms for costumes thematically tied to the featured film, from Hawaiian shirts and leis to tuxedos. Beauty pageants and trips to faraway cities were common. In 1937 a double wedding was celebrated on the stage to promote the movie Double Wedding, and the lucky couples each received Philco radios as wedding gifts. A giant fake airplane was suspended above the marquee in 1957 to promote the movie Test Pilot.
On May 13, 1973, Times-Union retrospective, one customer looked back on those days and said, “You could have a date on a dollar and a half. When things were fairly grim outside the theatre, it was a dream world because it was a beautiful place…pure escapism….”
Over the years, the building would go through some but not many changes. The biggest was that in 1938, the rooftop garden, the open-air portion at the center of the seventh floor, was closed and enclosed to make room for additional offices that could be rented out, primarily to lawyers. However, because it was built during the tail end of the vaudeville era and just before the beginning of the “talking picture” era, the Florida Theatre had a complete theatrical stage, with wing space, flys, and dressing rooms, and that would make the theatre desirable for many other functions. In addition to the movies, over the years, the theatre hosted opera, dance and theatre productions, trade shows, fashion shows, charity benefits, and civic meetings, all making the Florida Theatre a hub of community activity. Well into the late 1950s and early 1960s, events like The Kiddie Show for Talent, headed first by Ralph Feather and later by Jack Dew, packed the house. The Jacksonville Opera and Choral Society, under the direction of conductor C. Carter Nice, filled the seats for productions of operas like Die Fledermaus and La Perichole and musicals like Kismet.
ELVIS HAS ENTERED THE BUILDING
The most notable live performances in the Florida Theatre’s past or modern history occurred on August 10 and 11, 1956, when Elvis Presley, then riding high on the hit singles “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” played six shows over two days. Over the years, these six performances have been heralded variously as Elvis’ first indoor performances or his first theatre performances. These claims are pure mythology. The Jacksonville performances came at the end of a seven-city, nine-day, twenty-five-show tour. In just the previous seven days alone, he had played the Olympia Theatre in Miami (7 shows), the Tampa Armory (2 shows), the Polk Theatre in Lakeland (3 shows), the Florida Theatre in St. Petersburg (3 shows), the Municipal Auditorium in Orlando (2 shows), and the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach (2 shows).
However, the Jacksonville shows became famous anyway, even infamous, for other reasons. Elvis had played Jacksonville a year earlier, and the reaction of Jacksonville’s teenagers so disturbed a faction of the city’s leadership that a committee was formed before his return. Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding prepared arrest warrants with charges of “impairing the morals of minors.” He invited the young Mr. Presley to a meeting in his office, where he threatened to execute the warrants if Elvis’ bodily movements on stage were too suggestive. Life Magazine chronicled the entire episode, and Jacksonville, Elvis, and the Florida Theatre received extensive national coverage. The judge himself sat through several shows in the back row, and police were seated in the orchestra pit. It was unclear whether they were there to keep the audience from rushing the stage or as a visible reminder to the performer to behave.
Elvis got the upper hand, though, and teased the judge during the show by wiggling his little finger, and according to guitar player Scotty Moore, “That’s where the curled lip and the little finger thing got started.” Mostly, however, Elvis behaved, and although Elvis himself and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, would claim that they had not adjusted the show even one little bit, Scotty Moore says, “He stood there flat-footed and did the whole show.”
Elvis himself talked about the episode in his 1968 NBC-TV Comeback Special. To contemporary reporters in 1956, he said he didn’t do “Dirty body movements” and that local preachers asking their congregations to pray for him were “Just looking for publicity.” He noted that he had been a church-goer “Since I could walk.”
None of this affected sales, however. All six performances were sold out, and over 10,000 people saw Elvis at the Florida Theatre. Two of those in attendance included future Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold and his future wife Jean, who were on a date. Twenty-five years later, Mayor Godbold would play a vital role in restoring the theatre.
A week later, Elvis went to Hollywood to begin his first movie, and a month later, on September 9, 1956, he made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Years later, Judge David Gooding, Judge Marion Gooding’s son, himself now a Juvenile Court Judge, would observe that despite how the media depicted the meeting between his father and Elvis as a showdown, his father allowed his sisters to attend the concerts. Marion Gooding would remain a lifelong fan of Elvis, watching whenever he was on TV.
During the years of segregation, most theatres throughout the American South were separated whites and blacks in separate seating areas, with whites usually sitting up front, and blacks in the back or on the balcony, with individual bathrooms and often with separate entrances as well. The practice of Jacksonville’s entertainment venues was for the entire theatre to be racially segregated. When the Florida Theatre first opened its doors in 1927, there were thirteen other theatres in the north bank area of downtown, and the Florida Theatre was one of the “white only” buildings. No photographs of “white only” signage at the Florida Theatre survive because it was not needed. It was commonly understood which buildings welcomed the white population and which welcomed the black population. The latter included the Strand Theatre (West Ashley and North Jefferson), the Center Theater (West Adams Street), and the Ritz Theatre (West State and North Davis).
Shannon West, a present-day audience member, recalls, “In the words of your average genteel middle-class Southern adult at the time, ‘It isn’t done. They have the places they go, and we have ours. It’s best that way, and they are happy with that.’”
Present-day audience member Toni Lang Philips remembers, “I did not go to the Florida Theatre for movies, ever. My mom says she didn’t either. We went to the Center Theater downtown and the Strand, the Roosevelt, and the Ritz.”
Several present-day audience members remember that, in the words of one gentleman, “The Florida Theatre didn’t have to be segregated. The black community just went to the Ritz instead.” Of course, this thought process comes perilously close to justifying a Separate but Equal policy. It ignores the fact that if a racially integrated audience were welcome at the Florida Theatre or any other “white only” venues in the first place, separate platforms would not have been necessary.
Integration of the audience at the Florida Theatre began in the mid to late 1960s. Then in 1972, the last mainstream movie shown at the Florida Theatre was The Concert for Bangladesh, a documentary of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s benefit concerts for flood victims in South Asian countries. (Ravi Shankar himself would later play the Florida Theatre on April 17, 1993.) The late Will Henley, Publisher of EU magazine, was a young employee of the Florida State Theatre movie chain, then the private owners of the building, and he remembered that the very next day, the theatre began showing Black Adventure films (once known as Blaxploitation movies) like Super Fly, Blacula and Foxy Brown, and overnight the audience makeup went from slightly integrated to almost entirely black. It was a typical survival strategy employed by aging movie palaces in downtown urban areas, which were then trying to survive the rise of cinemas and the flight of the white population to the suburbs. Along with Kung Fu movies, these films remained staples of the theatre’s schedule until it was sold and closed in 1980, reopening in 1983 as a nonprofit performing arts center whose first four performances included an African-American act, The Spinners, best known for their hits “Then Came You,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “Games People Play” and “Rubberband Man.”
MORE THAN JUST ANOTHER $5 MILLION RENOVATION PROJECT
Even though the Florida Theatre Office Building contained the statewide headquarters of ABC Florida State Theatres, by the late 1960’s television and the population shift to the suburbs were affecting attendance. One attempt to woo audiences who were defecting to the shopping malls and the theaters was the installation of rocking-chair seats in the theatre. However, even major motion pictures like Hello, Dolly, and Paint Your Wagon, both released in 1969, we’re failing to draw crowds. By 1970, the theatre was rundown, showing primarily martial arts and racial exploitation films. A 1973 Times-Union article reported that the sculpture La Vergagnosa, a fixture in the lobby for as long as anyone could remember, had gone missing. The theatre was such disrepair that only 803 of its more than 1,900 seats were still functional. The last civic event to be held at the theatre was a car show by the Ford Motor Company, and the theatre finally closed on May 8, 1980.
However, the theatre was still an architectural gem rich in history that held the seeds of its resurrection. According to Architectural Historian Ann McDonald, in an application to the State for historic designation, “The Florida Theater Building is the last remaining movie palace in northeast Florida. Built during the golden age of movie palaces in the 1920s…It is an excellent example of Mediterranean Revival Architecture which dominated Florida building in the 1920s.”
Its unique status as the last remaining movie palace in northeast Florida could not be ignored, and soon another convert to the cause of preserving it was Mayor Godbold, but for an entirely different reason: economic development. “All successful redevelopment plans in the United States today are using the arts as a lure to build a core city,” he told the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal. “We’ve seen this work in other cities. It will bring people downtown.”
Thus was born the effort to save and preserve the Florida Theatre for cultural and civic uses, with the Mayor, the City Council, the Jacksonville delegation to the State Legislature, and the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville collaborating to repurpose the historic building for the good of the community. Using a $500,000 State of Florida grant, a $350,000 City of Jacksonville Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant, and $150,000 in fundraised and borrowed funds, on October 31, 1981, the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville, a nonprofit corporation, purchased the theatre from Plitt Southern Theatres, Inc. for $1 million.
The Arts Assembly, led by Board President Jeffery D. Dunn and Executive Director Trinita Logue, immediately began work to ensure the building’s preservation as a historic landmark and restore it for cultural uses. William Nash, then the President of the Southeastern Region for Prudential, was enlisted to Chair a capital fundraising drive, which in 1982-1983 sought $4 million for restoration, renovation, equipment, and start-up operating costs.
Walter Taylor, Senior Vice President of KBJ Architects, and Herschel Shepard of Shepard Associates Architects and Planners, both of Jacksonville, were enlisted to steer the project. The selection of KBJ was exciting. The firm of original 1920s architect Roy Benjamin had evolved into Kemp, Bunch, and Jackson, or KBJ for short.
Other firms participating in the renovation included general contractor D. Coleman, Inc.; Paxon Electric Co.; Van Wagenen and Searcy Engineers; Alexander Smith Carpet Mills; Country Roads Seating; Bolt, Beranek, Newnan Acousticians; Southern Ornamental Stone; White Historical Reproductions; Miller Electric; Ray’s Plumbing; Bill Williams Air Conditioning and Heating Co.; and the W.D. Brinson Co. for the general plaster work.
The restoration began with a Kick-Off Party held on Forsyth Street on Saturday, September 25, 1982, from 8:00 p.m. to midnight in the street. One thousand attendees danced to dance music of the 1930s and 1940s provided by the dance band Illumination and enjoyed an open-air catered buffet. The theatre was open “as is” for one last look before renovations began.
Renovations included the restoration of the original balcony seats, replacement of the rocking chair seats installed in the orchestra in the late 60’s or early ’70s, and the addition of a wall at the rear of the orchestra seating section, which had been open to the rest of the lobby as had been customary in the 1920s. The concession stand, dating from the 1950s, was retained, as was the current marquee, which also dates from the 1950s. However, many of the theatre’s other features required minimal reconstruction, and a significant amount of the building’s “original equipment” features and fixtures remain intact and in use today.
As renovations began, on December 28, 1982, the theatre was officially accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places, adding national significance to the entire enterprise.
WE HAD A DREAM. WE’VE BROUGHT THAT DREAM TO BE.
On August 26, 1983, the Florida Times-Union reported that Jeff Woodruff was the newly named Manager, and the Grand Opening would be in October. The Florida Theatre Box Office opened for business again on Wednesday, September 7, 1983, at 11:30 a.m. Mayor Jake Goldbold cut the ribbon and told the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, “Several years ago, we had a dream. We’ve brought that dream to be.” The first 100 patrons received a commemorative brass Florida Theatre ticket on a key chain. Every 50th ticket buyer received a free ticket of “his choice” to a performance during the Grand Reopening Week. Missy Crelia of Jacksonville, a secretary with the Health Department, was the first customer, served by Karen Riley. Missy had seen her first live performance ever, the Nutcracker, at the Florida Theatre. She bought tickets to the screening of the movie Starstruck, sitting in Row E, Seats 13 and 14. She told the Times-Union that she was a fan of the local bands The Attitudes, Lynyrd Skynryd, and .38 Special, had seen Bob Dylan and was a member of the Jacksonville Film Institute and the Jacksonville Library Association. The Box Office phone number was, and still is, 904-355-ARTS (2787).
When it reopened, the restored Florida Theatre’s 1,900 seats filled a niche between the Coliseum’s 10,000 and the Little Theatre’s 600 seats, and an entire week of events was planned for the Grand Re-Opening, to demonstrate what the theatre was capable of.
On October 1, the Grand Re-Opening featured the London Symphony Orchestra String Quartet, the Cole Porter Revue “Some Like it Cole,” and fiddler Vassar Clements. The next day the Times-Union said, “By all accounts, the grand reopening of the Florida Theatre was a smashing success. Nearly all the theatre’s 1978 seats were sold out and, given the relatively high ticket price of $50, the renovated theater has a bright future.” Vassar Clements, a Florida native, closed the show with “Orange Blossom Special.”
October 2 was The Mayor’s Family Street Festival, with the No Elephant Circus and the Excelsior Brass Band from New Orleans. October 3 was the premiere of Starstruck film, an Australian punk rock musical that the Jacksonville Journal called “…neither serious nor dull…infectiously high spirited.” The Jacksonville University Orchestra shared the bill, playing a program of movie themes. October 4 was R&B night with the Spinners, and October 5 was opera night with mezzo-soprano Patricia Miller. October 6 was country music night with Tammy Wynette, who canceled just two days before the show when she became sick and was hospitalized in West Palm Beach. Tanya Tucker replaced her. October 7 was the Marcia Plevin Dance Company, which the Times-Union called “…bizarre, yet intriguing,” and October 8 was classical music satirist PDQ Bach with the Jacksonville Symphony Pops. Prices for these programs ranged from $4.00 to $50.00.
The rest of the first season was equally spectacular. Between October 1, 1983, and March 4, 1984, 69,593 people attended 73 performances of 53 different events, from civic events, award shows, and corporate parties, to performances by local artists like the Florida Ballet, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra Pops, and the Big Orange Barbershop Chorus, to performances by national touring artists like Twyla Tharp, Spyro Gyra, George Carlin, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the English Chamber Orchestra, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Gordon Lightfoot.
On September 25, 1983, the News-Journal was most prescient when it declared: “The Florida Theatre has become more than just another $5 million renovation project. It symbolizes hope to a tired populace and a signal of progress to a city government that the long-awaited renaissance of Jacksonville’s heart is here.”
Sadly, just days before the official opening, on September 17, the theatre’s original manager, Guy Kenimer, passed away. His passing was noted in a Memoriam in the opening night program: “Guy Kenimer, who died on September 17, was manager of the Florida Theatre from its first opening in 1927 to his retirement in 1955 as General Manager of 36 Theatres across the state for Florida State Theatres. Mr. Kenimer was invaluable to the Arts Assembly in preparing historical information for the Capital Campaign. Mr. Kenimer’s influence is largely responsible for the nostalgia many Jacksonville residents feel towards the Florida Theatre.”
ONE EXTREMELY ACTIVE PARANORMAL THEATRE
Because the First Coast region was settled by Europeans in the early 1500s and inhabited by the indigenous Timucua and Mocama people for thousands of years before that, and the corner of Forsyth and Newnan Streets was the location of a city jail before the theatre was built, it is no surprise that Void Magazine calls the Florida Theatre, “One of the Top Seven Most Haunted Places in Northeast Florida.”
Over the years, various members of the theatre’s staff have reported a presence in the projection booth, doors closing without explanation, and lights and equipment going on and off seemingly of their own accord. Staff members have reported humming noises that continue even after nearby electrical equipment and appliances have been unplugged. EU Magazine states, “Strange sounds, disembodied voices, and full-body apparitions mark this movie palace as one extremely active paranormal theatre.”
Psychics routinely report a presence on the balcony. Jill Cook-Richards, a psychic consultant to a 1997 WJCT Public Television production, claimed that a male ghost spoke to her and said he wanted to be called “J” for Joy, which is what he felt for the theatre. “He said he didn’t need a name from his past, that he wanted a name for his future,” said Cook-Richards. She also reported that J, or perhaps Jay, was there to protect Joe Collier, the building’s maintenance manager. This has led some to speculate that Jay was a former building manager.
In 2001, House Manager Saundra Floyd told The Daily Record about giving a school tour: “I took a group of children through the theater,” said Floyd. “When we got to the balcony, some children ran toward the projectors, and I told them not to do that because of the ghost. They said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I told them the lights go out when he gets upset. Just as I said, the corner light went out.” After they left, the light went back on. “The teacher asked how I did that. I told her I didn’t.”
In 2010 the CW17 TV show Local Haunts conducted a paranormal investigation of the theatre and captured video images of a ghostly apparition of a man sitting in the balcony in Section 500, Row E, Seat 2. Steve Christian, who led the team, called it “The Holy Grail of paranormal investigation.” The intriguing part of the investigation was that they could not see the man with their own eyes at the time. It was only upon later viewing of their video recording that the ghostly apparition could be seen.
This attracted the interest of the SyFy Channel shows Fact or Faked, who visited the theatre to investigate for themselves. The show’s Bill Murphy, Austin Porter, and Chi-Lan Lieu tested several possible ways that the Local Haunts video could have been falsified. All of their attempts to recreate the Local Haunts video were unsuccessful. They then conducted their paranormal investigation. They heard noises using Infrared cameras, thermal imaging, and EVP recorders. They discovered heat signatures in the orchestra section and in the balcony seat where Steve Christian’s apparition appeared. Their conclusion? They found “zero proof” that the Local Haunts video was faked.
In the summer of 2020, the Florida Theatre replaced all of its seats with brand new, historically appropriate ones. However, the Ghost Seat and its companion seat were the only seats that were not replaced. They were fully restored at the factory of Irwin Seating in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and returned to the Florida Theatre and reinstalled in their former location, where presumably Jay continues to find joy in the Theatre.
THE FLORIDA THEATRE TODAY
Over the intervening years since 1983, millions of people have walked through the Florida Theatre’s front doors to experience the magic of a live performance or watch a classic movie on the theatre’s big screen. The Florida Theatre, the Tampa Theatre, and the Olympia Theatre in Miami are the last remaining examples in Florida of elaborate, atmospheric theatres built in the 1920s. Still, they remain vital components of the state’s cultural and civic life, and the Florida Theatre continues to anchor the cultural life of the Northeast Florida region.
The building has been seen on national TV, including Larry Willmore’s 2012 Showtime Election Special, Katt Williams’ 2017 Netflix Comedy Special, and in 2015 Lynyrd Skynyrd taped two nights for AXS TV, playing their first two albums in their entirety. The building has also been heard on Sirius Satellite Radio’s 2013 New Year’s Eve broadcast with Gregg Allman and JJ Grey and Mofro and twice on the National Public Radio show Whad’ya Know? in 2008 and 2016. The building has also hosted several film premieres and previews, including Brenda Starr, Glory, and Recount.
Local performers such as Gregg Allman, JJ Grey, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi (together and as solo artists) have all played at the Florida Theatre on numerous occasions. The theatre has hosted some of the most significant performing artists our nation has to offer, from cultural artists like the White Oak Dance Project, Wynton Marsalis, and Pat Metheny to bona fide rock stars like Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, and Roger Daltrey.
Sadly, the Florida Theatre has also hosted several legendary artists who are no longer alive. However, Jacksonville is still lucky that it had a theatre that made it possible to spend time with artists like Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Gregory Hines, Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, Gregory Peck, Bernie Mac, Richie Havens, Andy Williams, and Dan Fogelberg, in addition to the George above Carlin and Elvis Presley, to name but a few.
On the occasion of the theatre’s 10th anniversary as a performing arts venue in 1993, critic Rick Grant looked back on the last ten years in the May 7, 1994 edition of the First Coast Entertainer. He estimated that he had reviewed 60% to 70% of about 1,500 acts. His highlights included the television host Morton Downey (“most bizarre”), the play 1941 Radio Hour (“Most unique live theatre show I’ve ever reviewed”), movie star Burt Reynolds (“Just a good ‘ole Florida boy and has a generous heart”), and actor Hal Holbrook in his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” (“completely convinced me he was Samuel Clemens”).
Among the many honors that the Florida Theatre’s restoration and ongoing operations have received over the years are recognition and awards from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Vision, the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects, Folio Weekly’s Best of Jax Awards, and Pollstar Magazine’s Worldwide Ticket Sales Top 100 Theatre Venues.
Today, the Florida Theatre’s mission is “To enhance the quality of life in North Florida by providing diverse and memorable arts and entertainment experiences and by maintaining a unique historic Jacksonville landmark.” Less officially, the theatre still strives to be “A thing of beauty, and a palace of dreams” and a symbol of hope and progress in its city.