With just a few simple pen strokes across the back of a paper napkin, Tod Booth signed the impromptu contract that changed the course of his life.
The napkin cemented a deal between Booth and Leon Simon, then-owner of the Alhambra Dinner Theater.
“We were sitting there watching a show, and he said he owned the place, and by the end of the evening I loved working in that little theater with the great acoustics,” Booth said. “I bought the theater from him that night.”
Although he has since sold the theater, he has stayed on as its creative director.
Booth was first introduced to the Alhambra on New Year’s Day in 1984, when the William Morris Agency sent him to Jacksonville to direct a production of Neil Simon’s “I Ought to Be in Pictures.” Once that engagement was over, he flew to Denver to work on another project.
Five weeks later, he returned to Jacksonville and met with Simon. Booth was so impressed with the theater that he made the fateful purchase later that night.
Now, Booth celebrates his 30th anniversary at what is now Alhambra Theatre & Dining with the return of “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” starring Richard Karn — best known for playing Al Borland on “Home Improvement.”
During Booth’s 52-year career, he has worked on an estimated 430 productions. Before moving to Jacksonville, he ran four of the Drury Lane Theaters in Chicago. He’s worked with a multitude of actors ranging from Academy Award winner Don Ameche to, most recently, Eddie Mekka of “Laverne and Shirley.”
In Chicago, he began to feel as if his career had peaked. When the Alhambra fell in his lap, he jumped at the opportunity of running it.
Booth possesses a boundless passion for his work. He looks forward to the daily challenges his job brings.
“You get up in the morning and here are my challenges that I’ve got to face,” he said. “You use every element of your experience and your past and your training to solve those problems. That’s exciting to me.”
Around 8 every morning, he boards the boat where he keeps his office. He spends his time there choreographing dance numbers, working on scripts and hiring actors.
Once a year, Booth travels to New York, to audition 1,500 actors for roles in the Alhambra’s productions. He also hires talent from within the Jacksonville area.
“We like to use local people, if we can,” Booth said. “By using actors again and again, they took up residence here. We have between 50 and 60 union actors living in Jacksonville. They’re like my core group that I pick from.”
Booth and his team work with a tireless dedication to their craft. Unlike most other theaters, which might take a month to put a play together, the Alhambra does it in less than two weeks.
This dedication has not gone unappreciated. Anna Large, a longtime patron of the Alhambra, spoke of her respect for the theater.
“You don’t realize how much work goes into this sort of program. But seeing it live on stage, that’s when you realize the power of the theater,” Large said. “It’s really a lot of hard work to be enthusiastic and energetic every night.”
Psychology plays a huge role in Booth’s job. In college, he studied theater in his undergraduate courses, and specialized in group psychology in his postgraduate work.
He applies his learning often in his work for the theater. He demonstrates the kinetics of audience movement, using Alhambra marketing coordinator Mark Berman as an example of how patrons might react in a traditional theater setup, with seats arranged in rows in front of a stage.
“If Mark’s sitting in the theater, and I’m sitting here next to him, laughing and moving, the kinetics of my movement is gonna affect him, because he’s feeling my movement. They’ll loosen him up in response.”
His understanding of audience response brings focus to his productions.
“You have to make sure that the comedy is there,” Booth explained.
“People coming to the Alhambra are coming for the entertainment.”
In 2009, the Alhambra was hit hard by long-term construction on Beach Boulevard. Audience numbers began to drop. Unable to pay the costs necessary to keep the theater open, he was forced to close its doors and put it up for sale.
Then, Craig Smith stepped in. Smith, an investment entrepreneur, bought the theater from Booth and invested extensively in its restoration. Smith renovated much of the building and got rid of the Alhambra’s traditional buffet-style dinner, in favor of a three-course menu. Chef DeJuan Roy now prepares theme-specific menus, based on the show playing at the time.
A novice to theater management, Smith kept Booth on as creative director.
“He is as good as it gets when it comes to putting a show up,“ Smith said, citing the theater’s run of “Amorous Crossing” in 2010 as an example. “I read this thing, and I said ‘Oh my God, this is going to be awful.’ And by the time he was done with it, it turned out to be our biggest hit.”
“When you imagine a big director, he’s exactly what that character would be,” Smith continued, making his voice boom in parody of Booth.
Part of what makes Booth so effective is his commitment to refining his work. He’s always looking for ways to improve upon a performance, or add a new layer of depth to a story.
This sometimes can lead to Smith intervening in the creative process.
“He sometimes would like to do a show he’s done before, because he knows it, and he knows how to make it better than he did it last time,” Smith said. “Whereas I want us to do more and more new stuff that we’ve never done before, and just push him to be creative and genius like I know he is.”
Booth seems at ease with the fact that he no longer has to worry about running the theater as a whole.
“I’m getting older, so this gives me a little bit more time,” he said.
He spends that time honing his skills and trying to help the younger actors he works with hone theirs as well.
“The main thing is to give back. It’s to take these young people and share my enthusiasm and my aggressiveness and love for the art,” Booth said. “To make them understand it from a more historical perspective.”
He mirthfully elaborates on that historical perspective, saying that actors today are working in a new environment.
“When I was raised, we didn’t have microphones, so we had to learn to project our voices. The kids today, the amplifying helps them.”
Though Booth is feeling his age, he refuses to let it stand in the way of his work.
“I don’t know if I can ever retire,” he chuckled, as his well-worn laugh lines creased his face. “I’d probably be a very bored and very ornery old fart if I didn’t have a challenge.”