by Kellie Abrahamson
The first time I went to the Murray Hill Theatre I was 16 years old. A group of friends and I headed to the venue to check out some punk band and on stage were these hyped up guys with blue mohawks singing about Jesus. I wasn’t a Christian, but I had a good time, listened to some decent music, met some nice people and wasn’t preached to (though there was an informal alter call right after the show- not an unpleasant hell and damnation speech, but a God loves you one). Even though I wasn’t some holy roller, I felt welcome there and it was nice to leave a concert not reeking of cigarette smoke and spilt beer.
For the past 15 years the Murray Hill Theatre has been giving First Coast live music fans an alternative to bar and nightclub scene. Owner Tony Nasrallah never set out for his venue to be the hippest place in town, the place to see and be seen; he just wanted to give people a safe place to go to hear positive music and, if they’re interested, learn about God. He wanted to share with people the experience he had when, as a college kid, he wandered into a little coffeehouse called the Fish Net.
“When I was 20 years old I committed my life to Christ and I decided I would try to walk the straight and narrow and get rid of the crazy living and the excessive drinking and partying,” Nasrallah explains. “I was really struggling as a young man to figure out what to do on the weekends and then somebody told me about this place called the Fish Net… It was very simple, it wasn’t fancy at all. It was just a bunch of young adults hang[ing] out there and they were all interested in things of faith and it was just this cool vibe, it wasn’t stuffy or religious… That place ended up being basically the hub of my social life for a couple years… It just had a huge impact on me.”
After moving to Chicago for a few years, Tony returned to Jacksonville and discovered the Fish Net had been replaced by a shopping center. By this time, he was married with children and he says he probably wouldn’t have gone back there very often, but he was disappointed that it was gone and hoped someone would open something like the Fish Net again.
Soon after, tragedy struck. In November of 1987 the plane that his wife and two small children were on crashed during takeoff in Denver, Colorado. While his wife survived, his sons did not and Tony spiraled into a depression that lasted several years. When he finally regained his footing, Nasrallah attended a three-day church retreat where he was reminded of the Fish Net and left feeling as if God wanted him to open his own place and pick up where the coffeehouse left off. A real estate investor by trade, Tony found out that a defunct movie theater on Edgewood Avenue was for sale and bought the building. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Murray Hill Theatre is a non-profit organization and Tony has been volunteering his time from day one. One or two people collect a paycheck for their work at the venue but Nasrallah’s not one of them. “I [knew] that in the absence of having a liquor license or a beer and wine license that… [the Murray Hill] wasn’t going to be a huge money-making thing,” he says. “For me I wasn’t doing it as a job… I wanted it to be more of a service.”
In addition to giving kids a safe place to hang out, the club made a lasting impression on the community. “In 1995 the Murray Hill neighborhood had really declined quite a bit; there was a lot of drug and illicit activity, prostitution,” Tony explains. “There was some rough stuff that was going on at the time that we bought it, but us being here every Friday and Saturday night [helped], especially the fact that we were here in the evenings. There were people here and the lights were on and we kept an eye on things and if we did see anything illicit we would call the cops or we would make sure they knew we saw them. So our presence here, almost unexpectedly, had a huge impact.”
The Murray Hill has also been a place for local Christian artists to share their music with an audience. Nasrallah credits area bands with being the backbone of the venue. “I think we’ve really encouraged and expanded the local scene quite a bit over the years,” he says. “I think if this venue hadn’t been here there would be less bands out there and a lot of young adults that probably would not have exercised their creativity or gone as far as they have.”
The venue goes a step further by providing local unknowns with valuable insight via their band forums. Tony gathers up area promoters and club owners for these quarterly workshops and teaches artists about booking gigs, promoting their shows and other tips on getting their name out there.
Running the Hill hasn’t been without its struggles. The 60 plus year old building needs near constant repair and keeping it cool is a major financial strain, especially during the hot Florida summer. Sponsors like Jiffy Lube, W.W. Gay Mechanical, Mac Tech Pro and other area businesses have been a huge help in keeping the doors open for the past decade and a half. But for Tony Nasrallah all the effort is worth it.
“It’s got a lot of benefits in the community- keeping kids off the streets, giving them something to do to stay out of trouble… It fosters vitality in the arts,” he says. “It’s certainly a worthwhile organization.”
improving jacksonville- tony nasrallah
by Kellie Abrahamson