by WILL HENLEY
“Watch your head,” the Florida Theatre building maintenance foreman said as we ducked into a four-foot-by-four-foot opening just at the bottom of the stage-right stairs leading backstage. The small tunnel, as it appeared, was part of the central air-conditioning and heating system. Nestled some 20 feet inside were a dozen or so gold plated music stands once used by the orchestra. It was 1972, and the grand downtown movie palace had just finished showing its last mainstream, first-run feature, The Concert for Bangladesh. For the next eight years, amid a general downtown decline, the theater remained active by showing mostly blaxploitation and martial arts features. Then in 1981, the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville purchased the building and launched a two-year restoration project to resurrect the entertainment castle of Jacksonville.
The Florida Theatre has experienced a myriad of metamorphoses over the years. When it first opened on April 8, 1927, it was the fifteenth movie theater in Jacksonville. The opening-night crowd delighted to a fanfare from the American Legion Bugle Corps, followed by a live stage show, Pageant of Florida. An eighteen-piece orchestra, which slowly rose into view on its movable orchestra pit, added to the spectacle. This was followed by the movie feature, a silent, two-reel comedy titled Let It Rain accompanied by Robert E. Mitchell on the “Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ. After the program, patrons danced to orchestra music on the open-air rooftop garden, overlooking the city lights and riverfront from the seventh story. Earlier that year the Riverside Theatre (5 Points and now Sun-Ray Cinema) had opened in March with Don Juan starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor as one of the first theaters in the state equipped to show “talkies.”
Since 1987, Erik Hart has steered the theater to regain its significance and to feature live entertainment, hosting hundreds of music, dance and cultural functions. Erik himself is a cultural landmark, often casually sitting on a bench in front of the theater in the afternoon, greeting the Downtown lunch crowd passing by. He will retire next year, but his experience and helmsmanship will still be essential to the new Florida Theatre President, Numa Saisselin, throughout the transition.
Numa C. Saisselin, a performing arts professional with over 25 years of broad programming, fundraising and historic theater management experience, is the nonprofit organization’s new President. “I really look forward to being part of this theater’s rich history,” said Saisselin recently. “We have work to do, but there’s a great foundation already here, and we’re thrilled at the potential and the opportunity.”
Mr. Saisselin says, “We are all just temporary caretakers of this historic theater, and I am very pleased to be able to play a part in the very first transition of the Florida Theatre’s leadership during its life as a nonprofit arts organization. Erik shepherded the theater through 25 years, which is no small feat. The Florida Theatre holds special memories for several generations, from Vaudeville to recent concerts by artists like Chris Isaak, and over the next few years I hope to bring my own experiences and perspective to the theater’s current activity, built upon in the 25 years, and leave an improved venue with new memories for the next generations.”
Numa Saisselin and his wife Laurie, along with their two Great Danes, have recently moved to Avondale. “It was perfect,” he explained. “I just love it here. We can walk everywhere, take our dogs to the parks, and the neighborhood is so friendly.”
A french horn player who worked his way through college as a stagehand, Saisselin is a graduate of the Fredonia School of Music, where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education, and Adelphi University, where he received an MBA.
From 1992 until 1997, Saisselin was the Executive Director of the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, New York, a 1,000 seat theater from the 1930s. From 1998 until 2002, he was the Managing and Artistic Director of the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island Performing Arts Center, a five-theater complex with venues ranging from 150 to 900 seats.
From 2002 until 2012, Saisselin was the CEO of the Count Basie Theatre, a 1,500 seat circa 1926 historic theater in Red Bank, NJ. During his tenure the theater grew from a $1.5-million-a-year organization with an ongoing annual deficit to an $8.5-million-a-year organization with nine consecutive years of cash surpluses. In 2002 the theater hosted about 50 performances a year, mostly all rentals, and by 2012 it was hosting almost 200 performances a year, about half of which were promoted or produced by the theater itself. Twelve million dollars of preservation work during this ten year period won the theater six major preservation awards.
Many folks around here have fond memories of the Florida Theatre in its heyday. Giant banners would span across Forsyth Street announcing the newest John Wayne feature. I have a vague recollection of the nursery on the third floor, and in the mid-50s there was a TV watching room inside the theater as well. I first saw The Wizard of Oz there, and when those flying monkeys hit the screen I was small enough to crawl under the seat in front of me. Then, in the second grade a friend’s mom dropped us off to see 13 Ghosts–a 3D black-and-white feature–yeah, there was one before Frankenweenie.
Jacksonville has a long, rich and somewhat tattered history with movies. We ran the film makers out of town for attempting to film on a Sunday, and the treatment Elvis received from the local judiciary is the stuff of legend. The Florida Theatre has long been the Grande Dame of Downtown entertainment, with its rich Moroccan architecture and dynamic acoustics. It shines a beacon forward to a new era of management and wonderful performances to come.
Looking Back…Gazing Forward
by WILL HENLEY