Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre & Dining is celebrating an anniversary throughout 2017: fifty years of presenting outstanding on-stage entertainment. As part of the celebration, the theatre commissioned the preparation of “Alhambra Theatre & Dining, 50 Years of Memories,” a commemorative book designed to capture and share the history, events and memories of the last five decades. The first edition of the book, written by Charles Day and edited by Hannah Johnson, was published in December, 2016; we noticed a number of copies being purchased by patrons at the theatre’s 2016 New Year’s Eve Celebration.

As theatre critics, we found reading the book was a pleasure, as we learned things we didn’t know about the early history of the theatre and relived many of the shows we have reviewed during the past thirty years.

It’s a stunning book, 177 pages in a coffee table format that will add a decorative touch to any room: a book designed to keep readily accessible for you to read or share with visitors. And it’s packed with both photos – 248 of them – and narrative. The book is through, and well-paced while conveying the history of the Alhambra from its beginning to the current year. You will enjoy reading about how the first owner, Ted Johnson, selected the location for the Spanish style building and chose its Spanish name.

During the late 60s and into the 70s, dinner theatres were a popular source of mainstream entertainment and a frequent choice of patrons for a evening setting, with 175 or so scattered throughout the country. Due to a number of factors – among them the proliferation of pervasive multi-channel television programming and a more frenzied lifestyle – almost all have closed, leaving only a handful to carry on the tradition. Earlier, retired film and TV actors often appeared in dinner theatre shows, today, stars only occasionally chose dinner theatre appearances; most have found it easier to work in other venues.

The list of former stars who came to Jacksonville to perform at the Alhambra is impressive and included Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney, Imogene Coca, Dana Andrews, and Gig Young. Thanks to photos and records preserved by George Ballis, the Alhambra’s first director his wife Marcy, the theatre’s publicist, the book has an excellent selection of clippings and photos from those early days.

At the end of 1983, Tod Booth, artistic director and executive producer of the Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre, came to Jacksonville to direct an upcoming play; “I Ought to be in Pictures,” a comedy by Neil Simon. Claude Akins portrayed the father, Lisa Valdini Booth, Tod’s wife, was cast as his daughter. Booth liked Jacksonville and he liked the Alhambra; he liked it so much that he bought it.

During Tod’s tenure as owner, he was heavily involved in all aspects of the theatre, casting and directing most of them. Additionally, as he was an experienced and versatile actor, he often appeared on stage in the productions. His wife Lisa, a talented actress and comedienne, was also often seen as a member of the cast. The first show he produced as the owner was “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and it was a big hit. Little known fact: Dick Kerekes, the male half of the Dual Critics, proudly appeared in the show as the mayor.

Paging through the book, we found the story of how “Christmas Carole,” based on Dickens’ classic story, was adapted as a musical. With a script by Janie Nowell and a score by Bruce Allen Scudder, the theatre’s music director, it has become a perennial holiday must-see for many patrons. Tony Triano, a crowd favorite who has appeared on stage as Scrooge nineteen times, currently lives in New York but will be returning recreate the role of the miserable miser at the end of this anniversary year.

By 2009, times had changed, and owner Tod Booth, faced with declining attendance in the middle of a recession and related financial issues, agreed to sell the theatre to Craig Smith and a group of investors. The news of the purchase was celebrated by theatre lovers throughout Jacksonville.

The history under the new owners is remarkable, as they landscaped the grounds surrounding an iconic fountain, remodeled the entire interior, and upgraded the sound system. They also hired Chef DeJuan Roy to manage the kitchen, and replaced the self-service buffet with an upgraded menu of fine dining choices served at the table.

The book devotes a number of pages to tributes to personalities involved with the Alhambra who have given many years of dedicated service. The late Henry Brewster was a versatile actor, who appeared in many different roles, and was an audience favorite. Currently, actors and staffers Ken Uibel, Becky Uibel, and Patti Eyler have all involved in the theatre for over twenty years.

We found topics toward the end of the book were particularly interesting. “Ad Libs” describes off-stage episodes, “Scenery Shop and Staff” provides a glimpse of “the half of the Alhambra no one knows exists,” and “Remembering Ham Waddell” is a tribute to Waddell’s contributions as a set designer and production manager for over 35 years. Additional, all 455 productions performed since the theatre’s opening in 1967 through 2017 are listed.

The final page concludes “That the Alhambra has endured and now flourishes calls for one more rousing “Bravo!” for Craig Smith, his partners Bill Barnett, Fraser Burns, and Karl Fisch and especially their benefactor Harry Frisch.”

“50 Years of Memories” is available for purchase online and at the theatre (12000 Beach Blvd. Jacksonville, FL 32246, phone 904-641-1212). The book, filled with memories, photos, and priceless local history, will be a cherished addition to your collection. And it has a happy ending: the theatre is now the oldest continually operating equity dinner theatre in the nation.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.