The Florida Theatre: Past, Present, Future

When the Florida Theatre first opened its doors on April 8, 1927, it was still the silent film era. The first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, would not appear until that November, but the builders of the Florida Theatre knew that movies with sound were coming, and they outfitted the
projection booth with the new technology. They also built the theatre with
a stage that we continue to use today for art forms that were not even in
existence then. They knew one era was ending, and another was beginning. They wanted to be ready for the future.
When the Florida Theatre opened in 1927, there were already five other theatres on a four

block stretch of Forsyth Street, and the Florida Theatre is the only one that has survived. In the late 1970s when a coalition of civic leaders came together around the idea of buying the Florida Theatre and turning it into a nonprofit performing arts venue to drive downtown economic growth, they were looking to the future too. They knew an era was ending, but they had a conviction that the arts, and preserving a piece of Jacksonville history would provide a way forward.
Since reopening in 1983 as primarily a live performance venue, the Florida Theatre has built a national reputation as one of the most attended theatres in the country. Millions have seen performances there. Its acoustics have been heard on national radio broadcasts, and its architecture has been seen on national television. Since the Florida Theatre reopened, the old Civic Auditorium became the Times-Union Center, the St. Augustine Amphitheatre began to

Snow White at The Florida Theatre, 1938.

host concerts on a regular basis, Veterans Memorial Arena replaced the Coliseum, and the Jaguars came to town and eventually built their own concert venue. The future, it turned out, had a lot of arts and entertainment in it, and the Florida Theatre has been at the center of it for thirty-five years.

My own experience of Jacksonville over the last six years has been that if you provide great programs, people will come. Over the last six years, by making aggressive investments in its own programming, the Florida Theatre has seen a fifty percent increase in its annual attendance. Jacksonville and North Florida residents have a voracious appetite for culture and live entertainment, and love to go see a show in the company of friends and neighbors.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the beautiful Florida Theatre is a place where people love to see a show; not only because it’s indoors and has air conditioning, but also because it is an intimate venue, and an authentic part of Jacksonville for over ninety years. We like to think of Jacksonville as a treasure chest brimming with things to do, and the Florida Theatre as the entertainment gem.

Elvis Presley Concerts at The Florida Theatre on August 10–11, 1956.

Last year alone, 161,000 people came downtown to see 173 events at the Florida Theatre. The economic impact of this activity was $13.9 million, supporting the full time equivalent of 417 jobs, $10 million of household income, $623,000 of local government income and $755,000 of state government income. That’s just the Florida Theatre. Multiply those numbers across the entire cultural community, and the arts are a significant economic driver for the city, and a smart investment in our future economic health.
A treasure chest needs to be replenished from time to time, and my vision, my hope for the future of our city, is that we display the same foresight that the builders of the Florida Theatre did, and the same foresight as the civic leaders who saved the Florida Theatre in 1980, and that we recognize the aesthetic and economic importance of the arts, and fully integrate the arts and culture into our city planning. I’m not an airhead. I recognize the primary importance of public safety, education, health care, and public works. My vision, my hope for the future of our city is that we make Jacksonville a place where the arts are held at the core of our lives, because it’s what makes Jacksonville Jacksonville.
We have a port, a strong transportation infrastructure, a strong military presence, and a thriving health care industry, but so do many cities. We need all of the above to be a well-rounded city, but the one thing that makes Jacksonville unique, and will continue to build its brand beyond our borders, is its culture.

Photo: Tiffany Manning

The Jaguars, the Jumbo Shrimp, the Sharks, the Ice Men, the Gate River Run, and the Florida-Georgia Game are all part of our culture. So too are the Florida Theatre, MOSH, MOCA, the Cummer Museum, the Jacksonville Symphony, Theatre Jacksonville, WJCT, the Ritz Chamber Players, Jacksonville Dance Theatre, Florida Ballet and so many more arts organizations. So too are the late James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, and living artists like Al Letson, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Marcus Roberts, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jim Draper, Dolf James and so many more. So too are hundreds of clubs, restaurants and nightspots.
Culture is what distinguishes us from any other city. My vision, and my hope for the future, is that during the next twenty-five years, our city places our culture at the center of every policy debate, and at the center of everything we do, because that’s good for the business of being Jacksonville, as well as being good for our soul.

By Numa Saisselin

Author: Arbus

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