Theatre Jacksonville: 90 Years of Entertainment

by Anna Rabhan
Few Jacksonville institutions can boast of having been around when some of our great-grandmothers were young girls, but this year one of them, Theatre Jacksonville, celebrates its 90th anniversary. Jacksonville embraced the infant community theatre in 1919 and sustained it through good times and bad. The River City has seen an immeasurable return on that investment, and now it will have a chance to fete this grande dame of community theatre.
A small group of theatrically inclined residents, The Community Players of Jacksonville, were performing in the parlors of private homes, in social clubs and hotels, and in Hemming Plaza as early as December of 1920. These were the boom years of Florida and interest in the arts was high. By 1926, the group had incorporated as The Little Theatre of Jacksonville. The change reflected a nationwide community theatre movement sparked by the pre-Depression loss of acting jobs and the disappearance of traveling vaudeville acts.
The delightful history booklet, Theatre Jacksonville: A History of a Little Theatre 1919-20, 1987-88, by longtime theatre volunteer Dr. Gerri Levine Turbow paints a picture of what our fair city was like at the time and of the theatre’s longtime place in the hearts of its residents. “Rehearsals and scenery construction and storage were held in the E.M. L’Engle Building on Bay Street and in the J.E.T. Bowden Estate’s building on the Broad Street Viaduct,” one such tale begins. “The warehouse on the viaduct was shared at times by the acting troupe with a group of tramps. If the latter knew a rehearsal was scheduled, these fellow-itinerants often brewed coffee for the cast and crew on an old wood stove.”
Plans for a building to house The Little Theatre of Jacksonville began in 1926, but the Depression made financing impossible to come by. The dream was not realized until 1936 when Carl S. Swisher, of Swisher Cigar Company, took the stage as the company’s leading financial backer. He bought the land for a theatre building and donated half of the cost of construction. The building, which housed its first show on January 18, 1938, is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is a shining example of the Art Deco style of architecture so popular in Florida at the time. The company has been in the same location, at 2032 San Marco Boulevard, ever since.
Having a permanent home allowed the company to expand its contributions to the city. Courses in the dramatic arts have been offered at the theatre since 1938 and still are at the Theatre Jacksonville Training Center. Children and teens were given the opportunity to experience theatre in the very popular Children’s Theatre program. The organization’s involvement in education continues today. Through its Educational Outreach department, the theatre provides study guides for each of the plays presented, sends flyers to area English and Drama teachers advertising upcoming dress rehearsals, which students can attend for $2, and offers discounted student tickets to regular performances. Staci Cobb, Theatre Jacksonville’s Development Officer, who grew up in Jacksonville and attended Douglas Anderson and JU before pursuing stage acting in New York, says, “I came to performances here as a young person and was inspired by volunteers, and then to come back and be onstage and hear another young person say to me, ‘When I saw that show, it made me want to do theatre.’ It’s things like that that make you think, ‘Not everybody’s going to be a Broadway star. Not everybody’s going to be a professional actor, but storytelling is something that every human being is a part of.’ That’s true whether they write, whether they act, whether they are just animated people.”
The Little Theatre has, from the day of its formation, provided entertainment and cultural edification to Jacksonville. Many people don’t realize, though, that scores of Jacksonville natives have found an outlet for their generosity in the theatre, for cast, crew, stage hands, and those who help the theatre function on a daily basis are all volunteers. Staci Cobb gives an example, “We have a wonderful volunteer, Chip Cordes, who does a lot of media stuff, and he mounted and donated all of our monitor screens in May of 2009 just so [actors] can actually see what’s going on onstage.” The company has also continuously offered Floridians a creative outlet by producing their original readings and plays.
In the 70s, the Little Theatre of Jacksonville once again changed its name, in part to reflect its role as representative of the entire community. Its efforts at good citizenship as an organization were never interrupted, though, whether it was raising funds for war bonds and providing free admission to Jacksonville’s numerous servicemen during World War II, sponsoring a Boy Scout drama troop, or touring the city’s rehabilitation centers in the 80s.
While it’s true that not all who cross Theatre Jacksonville’s stage will become professional actors, our city’s “Official Theatre,” as declared by Mayor Tanzler, has produced and nurtured nationally and internationally known talents. Various early actors, such as Wanda Hendrix, got their start here. More recently, Michael Emerson of the series Lost made Theatre Jacksonville’s stage his professional home as an actor and director. Emily Swallow, whose dad Gary still volunteers to handle IT issues for the theatre, has gone on to do Broadway and television work. “I just think that’s exciting,” says Cobb, “that Jacksonville can boast of having an organization that has touched so many lives.”
Many of those whose lives have been touched by Theatre Jacksonville, either as participants or patrons, will gather on February 26, 2010 to celebrate the theatre’s 90 years of creating scenes on the First Coast. This “Ultimate Cast Party” will take place in the atrium of the Aetna building at 841 Prudential Drive. The evening will begin with a cocktail hour at 5:30 and will include entertainment by Denny Leroux and his orchestra and delectable dishes from Anthony’s Gourmet Catering. Tickets are $40 for singles and $70 for couples and are all-inclusive. Purchase your tickets by calling 396-4425 or visiting www.theatrejax.com. While you’re on the Web, friend the theatre on Facebook!
What does Theatre Jacksonville have planned for its next 90 years? The current season continues with a visit from nationally known actress Susan Clark, of Webster fame, who will star in a stage a reading of A Woman of Independent Means on Feb. 27 and 28. Our Leading Lady follows from March 5-March 20. Theatre Jacksonville will then present The Maltese Bodkin and will wrap the season with the ever-popular Nunsense.

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