Immerse yourself in Florida's performing arts history at some of the state's most historic theaters and venues.
By Rayme Samuels
From the bright lights of Broadway to local community productions, there’s no question that theater plays an important role in the fabric of American culture. What is less well known, however, is the contribution that the State of Florida has made the genre. Here are just a few of the historical theaters that arts and culture enthusiasts will want to know about.
The Dixie Theatre in Apalachicola
Located on a tiny peninsula southeast of Panama City lies one of the oldest theaters in Florida history.
The Dixie Theatre is located in the historic downtown district of Apalachicola, a quaint fishing village that once was known as the oyster capital of Florida. With a bold marquee supported by red columns, the theater makes an impression at first glance.
Built by a former sponge diver with a penchant for the arts, the Dixie Theatre opened in 1913 and played host to a wide array of local and imported theater troupes. In 1915, it was converted into a cinema and was the entertainment center of bustling Franklin County until it closed in 1967.
In 1994, it was purchased from the city by the Partington family, Virginia transplants who restored the venue to its original glory. After four long years of renovations, most of which were completed by referring to photographs of the original, the venue was reopened to the public in 1998.
The Dixie Theatre now hosts a series of performances each spring that includes comedies, mysteries and musicals, as well as the ever-popular series “The Dixie does Nashville.” In 2004, the Partingtons handed over ownership to the daughter, who coincidentally is also named Dixie and has continued to honor the legacy of the theater.
With budget woes causing the theater to reduce to a three-month running season, the Dixie Theatre needs funds to stay open. The only theater in the entire county, the Dixie is the lifeblood of the Apalachicola arts scene. Referring to the theater’s future, Dixie said, “Everyone that leaves says it’s the best [theater] they’ve ever seen. We’re not going to stop what we’re doing here.”
While in the area, be sure to check out a few other cultural institutions and historic theaters in Florida. The Apalachicola Museum of Art, erected in 1845 by riverboat captain Daniel Fry, and the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, which captures the maritime history of the Gulf coast region, are sure to pique your interest. Pontoon boat river cruises are also available.
The Florida Theatre in Jacksonville
Jacksonville is well known for its impressive skyline, beaches and Civil War landmarks. The next time you’re in this northeast city, make sure you drop by the historic Florida Theatre, a landmark venue with a special past.
Built during the Mediterranean Revival building boom of the 1920s, the theater opened in 1927, one of many movie houses built around that time. This one-of-a-kind space brought an innovative air to the local landscape as architects tried to re-create a Moorish courtyard, using reams of red velvet and gilded accents to achieve the look. Engineers added creature comforts rare in the 1920s, including central heating and air.
More than 5 million people have crossed the threshold at this lavish venue, which has presented operas, films and even a very special performance by Elvis Presley in 1956. A full-scale renovation in 1983, funded primarily by private donations, along with the State of Florida and City of Jacksonville, preceded the acquisition of the venue in 1987 by a private buyer. Throughout all of the changes, it’s safe to say that the Florida Theatre has stayed true to its mission of providing high-quality entertainment and educational experiences.
“The Florida Theatre provides an outlet to a variety of unique and diverse forms of entertainment, ranging from Grammy award-winning musicians to eclectic cultural experiences,” said Kendall Barsin, director of marketing at the Florida Theatre. Plans include continuing a progressive programming schedule in order to best serve the local community.
Other nearby cultural points of interest include the Ritz Theatre, the Alhambra Dinner Theatre and the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, which houses the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.
The Asolo Repertory Theatre and More in Sarasota
Head to the southwest part of the state, and you’ll find the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, which is unique in that its productions take place in three theaters, two of which are historic theaters in Florida and one of which is imported from Europe. The Florida State University Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts is home to the primary venues, the Mertz Theatre and Jane B. Cook Theatre, where the Asolo Repertory Theatre acting company performs regularly. The Historic Asolo Theater, where the Asolo Repertory Theatre also occasionally performs, is housed on the Ringling Museum property.
In 1960, the Asolo Theatre Festival began performing in the Historic Asolo Theater an 18th century “jewel-box theater” at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Brought over from Italy, the 18th century theater was an instant hit and the theater company went on to become an acclaimed member of the League of Resident Theatres, the major not-for-profit regional theaters of America.
In 1989, the success of the company prompted a rapid expansion, which led repertory directors to turn to Dunfermline, Scotland, sister city of Sarasota. “Our patrons had grown fond of a European-style theater, so we wanted to re-create that environment and sought out another European theater,” said Linda DiGabriele, managing director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre.
It was across the pond that they found the Mertz Theatre, a turn-of-the-20th-century opera house. Its 500-seat capacity and top-notch acoustics proved to be a perfect match for the needs of the repertory. Restored and replicated by artisan craftsmen hailing from Europe and the United States, the opera house was pieced together in such a manner that DiGabriele and her staff now have a hard time distinguishing between original features and those added later.
The adjoining Jane B. Cook Theatre was opened in 1994 as a primary performance venue for the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training Program and to host Asolo Rep productions, rounding out the two theaters that comprise the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. The Center will surely become a prominent historical venue in decades to come as Asolo Rep continues to garner worldwide acclaim for the strength of its education and programming. For visitors who are interested in learning more, tours of the theaters are available.
“The Asolo Rep is one of the first and most distinguished cultural institutions in Sarasota,” said DiGabriele,. “and the repertory is a leader in sparking passion from the community through their participation and interest in the performing arts.”
After taking in the sights and sounds of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, stop by the nearby John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art as well as the Sarasota Ballet and Sarasota Opera for more culture.
Florida’s longstanding dedication to promoting the arts can easily be recognized by visiting the countless historic theaters located across the state including the Vintage Garden Theatre in Winter Park near Orlando. I invite you to enjoy a performance at each and immerse yourself in Florida's performing arts history.
If you go:
The Dixie Theatre, 21 Avenue East, Apalachicola, FL 32320; 850-653-3200; www.dixietheatre.com
Florida Theatre, 128 E. Forsyth Street, Jacksonville, FL, 32202; 904-355-2787; www.floridatheatre.com
Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34243; 941-351-8000; www.asolorep.org