Visual Brilliance and Acoustic Excellence at Jacksonville's Florida Theatre

By: Gary McKechnie

ADD TO FAVORITES
The historic venue, one of the state's few remaining 'atmospheric' theaters, has endured the Great Depression and Elvis Presley's rolling hips.

By real estate standards, it's an old, high-maintenance building that would benefit from a better location. And it may be haunted.

But when measured by historic standards, the Florida Theatre is priceless. Since 1927, the atmospheric theater has swept more than 4 million guests on a journey from Jacksonville to the Mediterranean. The venue's visual brilliance is mirrored by an acoustic excellence so true that performers can (and do) serenade the audience sotto voce.

It is, observes director of development Angela Gieras, "A most magnificent place."

The Rise and Fall... and Rise

In the 1920s while making movies for the masses, Paramount Pictures' Adolph Zukor was simultaneously building the Publix Theatres Corp., a nationwide chain of movie theaters. In 1927, an elaborate link in this chain opened just in time on East Forsyth Street in downtown Jacksonville. Soon after, the reality of the Great Depression erased the corporation and future fantasy-inspired theaters.

Yet even though the Florida Theatre survived and thrived for more than a half-century, changing tastes, urban blight and B-movies couldn't rustle up an audience, and the curtains came down in 1980. Most accepted its doors would be closed forever before cultural and civic organizations and business and political leaders remembered an old axiom: "The show must go on."

By 1983, individual donations and government and corporate grants resurrected the Florida in an ambitious floor-to-ceiling renovation. In its transformation into a performing arts center, preservationists kept the masterpiece nearly intact, saving the theater's original doors, box office, Spanish tile, plasterwork and wrought iron. Rescued from the trash and again clinging to columns were hand-blown glass grapes and artificial vines.

At the Florida since 2007, director of marketing Kendall Barsin remains enchanted with the stylized accents that flow from the lobby and into the Moorish courtyard, through the promenade and mezzanine and into the great hall where tapestries, starburst lights and pipe organ reeds accent a proscenium arch. Barsin's enthusiasm is borne of the theater's beauty and buoyed by the dedication of its staff.

"After the recession hit in 2008 and sales declined, all of us took pay cuts," she recalls. "We were all willing to do more, to fund-raise more, to wear more hats and share the workload. We operate as a family because we're very proud of this theater."

This fall, when the 13-member staff and nearly 100 volunteers mark the Florida Theatre's 85th anniversary, they'll reflect on a show business history that, in August 1956, made American history.

The Hillbilly Cat

Elvis Presley, just 21 and fueled by high-octane talent, was booked for two days of shows at the Florida in 1956. Alerted by civic groups to Presley's borderline burlesque, Duval County Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding summoned Elvis to his chambers, and according to a 2006 interview with Gooding's son, Judge David Gooding, the two agreed Elvis would be allowed to wiggle from side to side – just not back and forth.

To ensure Elvis stayed true to his word, Gooding (and his three appreciative daughters) attended the shows.

Although Presley toned it down, he never forgot the experience. A dozen years later, while recording what became known as his '68 Comeback Special, Elvis jammed with guitarist Scotty Moore and recalled, with some elaboration, "Remember Florida? The police filmed the show because they thought I was... something. So I couldn't move. I had to stand still. The only thing I could move was my little finger – for the whole show!"

You've Got a Friend

Today the Florida Theatre is in esteemed company. Across the state, only a handful of atmospheric theaters remain: Lakeland's Polk, Miami's Olympia and the eponymous Tampa Theatre.

"It's a fantasy-inspired theatre that puts you in an eclectic Mediterranean setting," Barsin says. "These were movie palaces with a regal setting."

Operating a historic theater is a challenge, and for nonprofits, the hurdles are even higher. Capital campaigns are a constant and bids on performers are largely dependent on donations and other sources of income. Barsin says offering tours of the theater introduce its beauty to newcomers, while rentals for independent productions and awards ceremonies also enhance programming. The Friends of the Florida Theatre program provides needed funds and returns dividends through advance notices and priority seating.

For the past 20 years, Eric and Cindy Norman of Brunswick, Ga., have driven the hour south to see Alice Cooper, B.B. King, Tom Jones, Foreigner, Willie Nelson and a jukebox worth of performers at the Florida.

"There's no theater like this is in our part of Georgia," Cindy says. "There's not a single bad seat here. It's like the performers are playing just for you. At every show, they'll remind the audience how beautiful it is. And when we bring friends, we love their expression when they see the Florida for the first time. It's awe-inspiring."

"And the acoustics are immaculate," adds Eric. "You think you're listening to the world's best stereo system."

To generate more income, the performing arts center each summer returns to its roots as a movie palace with a series of cinema classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Casablanca and To Kill A Mockingbird shown from an actual film projector. Additionally, the program director has been tapping into a new generation of patrons by bringing in acts such as Death Cab for Cutie, Slash and Jane's Addiction. For slightly older fans who recall when music was played on vinyl, the lineup features artists including the Moody Blues, Willie Nelson, Tony Bennett and Gordon Lightfoot.

"Performers love it when they have the chance to play here," explains Barsin. "Even if it's their first time here, they've already heard about us and look forward to it. Weeks before Jewel appeared, she went to our website and then right to Twitter and wrote 'I can't wait to play this theatre! It's beautiful!'"

From Elvis... to Elvis

More than a half-century after Elvis Presley was warned about getting too shook up, Elvis Costello was approaching the end of a three-hour performance, a musical marathon inspired, no doubt, by the splendor of the venue.

When his band disappeared into the wings, Costello, alone on the stage, stepped toward the apron. Nearly 2,000 people fell into silence as he sang "Alison" – a capella. There were no lasers, no effects, no amplification, no pyrotechnics.

In a setting as fantastic as a palace, yet as intimate as a living room, it was the ultimate roots music performance as a sole singer serenaded an attentive audience. From the stage to the spotlights, every whisper and every breath could be heard.

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