Lasting Legacy: Celebrating 100 Years of Theatre Jacksonville

Happy 100th birthday to Theatre Jacksonville! With its Art Deco-inspired historic playhouse an anchor of San Marco Square, the centenarian institution is the oldest continuously-running community theatre in the state of Florida – and one of the oldest in the entire United States. 

The roots of Theatre Jacksonville run deep into the heart of Jacksonville’s theatre arts scene, and the impact of its cultural significance, educational value and innovative creativity in the lives of countless North Florida residents over the last century cannot be understated. 

“It is invigorating to be celebrating one-hundred years of bringing high quality participatory foundational theatre to the Jacksonville region,” says Executive Director Sarah Boone, who cut her acting teeth as a teenager on the stage at Theatre Jacksonville. “So many people have been touched by their experiences here – from our artistic and artisan volunteers to the students we teach to the thousands of audience members that we reach each season. At the same time, being here for one-hundred years means there is a risk of being taken for granted. This season, we want to spread awareness of who we are and what we offer, and to secure our future so many more generations of North Florida residents can benefit from Theatre Jacksonville.”

Theatre Jacksonville is kicking off the season with a 100th Anniversary Endowment Campaign, with the goal of securing a $1million nest egg to assist with future operating costs. According to Boone, the endowment will allow the theatre to maintain affordable ticket prices and continue to expand its educational programming, which opens up the theatre to even more members of the community. 

Here are some historical highlights from the last one-hundred years:

I Remember Mama, 1945-1946

The Earliest Years

 Post WWI, more than a hundred community theaters were established, often replacing professional playhouses that had closed or converted with the advent of movies. This included The Community Players of Jacksonville in 1919, which ultimately became Theatre Jacksonville. The founders desired to provide weekly/monthly programs with quality play readings and performances, giving talented residents the opportunity to explore the dramatic arts and audience members the experience of quality creative theatre. The organization changed its name to the Little Theatre of Jacksonville mid-century and had grown to more than three-hundred members by 1926, with memberships costing $5 for the November to April season.

Sister Act

Also in 1926, plans first began to form for a Little Theatre playhouse. Until now, the once-a-month all-volunteer performances and readings had been staged in various borrowed venues around the city, including the Woman’s Club, the Windsor Hotel, the auditorium of the Chamber of Commerce, and the Temple, Morocco and Duval Theatres.

Architectural plans featuring a Spanish-style arched building were drawn up, and the board even placed a binder on a corner downtown lot at State and Market streets, valued at $8,000. All that was needed was a generous financier (or two) to cement the deal. Instead, along came the Florida Land Boom and the Great Depression. Membership began to decline, and building plans were tabled.  

The Little Theatre Playhouse

 In 1936, in an effort to boost membership, membership chair Carl Swisher offered to donate a San Marco site and nearly half the financing for a new playhouse. Ivan Smith (Reynolds, Smith & Hills) served as architect, and Joseph Davin (Whatley-Davin) was the builder. Groundbreaking for the $37,000 venue took place on August 14, 1937, and opening night on January 18, 1938, included a spirited black-tie party and performance of the comedy Boy Meets Girl – with the sparkling semi-elliptical lobby decorated with flowers and palms. With renewed energy and high demand, membership numbers for that year were raised to seven-hundred and fifty, with annual dues of $6.

Read MoreBy Laura Jane Pittman

Author: Arbus

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