The MEMORY Business

Penny loafers and tuxedos with tails. Elegant gowns and fancy shoes. It was all just a night at the theater. There was a glamorous room that attracted the upscale, the elite, and the power brokers of Jacksonville. If you were somebody (or aspired to be somebody), you attended opening night of a production at the Alhambra Dinner Theater. A little uptown, a dash of class, and the closest thing to Broadway Northeast Florida would know for decades.

In a classic Alhambra photo, original co-owner Ted Johnson and artistic director George Ballis sit across from one another at a table in an empty field. A lace tablecloth, matching napkins, silverware, stylish china plates, coffee cups, tall crystal glasses and an elegant candelabra adorn the table. The photo was staged in celebration of their winning a special liquor license and rezoning for a small parcel of land on Beach Boulevard.

The political backstory pits the two men along with Alhambra financier, Leon Simon, and a large number of culture-hungry denizens of Jacksonville against church leaders—and the politicians whose ears they held—who ascribed to the notion that the launch of a dinner theater wouldn’t be proper for this quaint, pious city. Going against the “old boy” network, the young entrepreneurs quickly learned to play the game. Lawyer Barry Zisser massaged the legal and social fabric that allowed the theater to open its doors on December 13, 1967 with magnums of champagne flowing freely throughout the night.

“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Alhambra,” a voice would call throughout the theater. “If you will, now extinguish the lights on your table.” Guests blew out their own tabletop candles and the house lights went black, sterno flames the only light visible as the stage rolled to the center. When the lights came on, dramatic music played and Chef “Cadillac” Bob, in traditional chef’s whites and hat, smiled and beckoned the guests to dinner.

Opening night galas were must-attend events. Regularly filled with socialites, politicians, military brass, civic and business leaders, it was the place to be seen. Dinner theater was a formal affair, and, for a time, one of the most exciting things happening in Jacksonville, let alone on a patch of grass surrounded by trees on Beach Boulevard in the late 1960s.

The 1970s were the height of dinner theater, creating a new circuit for then-famous actors and actresses and luring patrons to see their favorite artists up close and personal. By 1974, there were 146 dinner theaters in operation. Even Burt Reynolds opened one in Jupiter, Florida in the late 1970s, not wanting to miss out on the action.

This heyday lasted into the mid-1980s. Actors and actresses who were once lured for a weeklong theater production could make more in an afternoon shooting a commercial or guest starring on daytime TV. Cable television provided more options for entertainment, and the general impression of dinner theater became stale and cheesy.

“When I came here and I bought this place, it was going downhill,” said Tod Booth, who moved to Jacksonville and purchased the Alhambra in 1985, after directing all four of the famed Drury Theatres in Chicago. “It had been there for 18 years and I bought the place. An article appeared in Jacksonville Magazine—it was a very negative thing—that dinner theater had run its course and that there was no future … that the big guy with all the experience coming to town was a waste of time. But I lasted 25 years very successfully.”

The decline of dinner theaters nearly wiped out the entire industry. At one point, the number of theaters totaled less than 10. Nevertheless, Booth was able to not only maintain the theater, but grow the operation in stature, seating capacity, and relevance. Under his tenure as owner, he produced seven shows a year (today Alhambra Theatre and Dining produces nine shows a year and periodic concerts). While the press attacked him when he purchased the theater, he was hailed as “entrepreneur of the year” in 1987 by business and civic leaders.

The Alhambra works with the national professional actor’s union, making it the only equity theater in the region. The closest equity theaters are Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, which gives the Alhambra access to professional talent from around the country that wouldn’t otherwise come to Northeast Florida. The list of notable celebrities who have performed at the theater is overwhelming—a very brief list of better-known names include Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney, Morgan Fairchild, Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island), Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows), Vivian Vance (I Love Lucy), Sally Struthers (All in the Family), John and Keith Carradine (Deadwood, Dexter), Don Ameche (Cocoon), Vera Miles (Psycho), Jamie Farr (M*A*S*H), and Playboy Playmate Julie Wilkinson (at the height of her career she was called “the most photographed nude in America”).

In 2001, yearly attendance was at 155,000. By 2008, that number was down to 85,000. For many years, busloads of tourists numbering 200-300 per year were a major part of expected revenue, but by 2009, barely over a dozen came to the theater. Around this time, the city of Jacksonville began major construction on Beach Boulevard, making the road inconvenient and driveway appear inaccessible. As if the drop in attendance and traffic weren’t bad enough, the economy crashed, bankrupting the bank, which held the note for Booth’s loan to purchase the theater–his note was due immediately. With the theater on its last leg, Booth announced his intentions to close the Alhambra.

Craig Smith, a friend of Booth’s son, caught wind of the impending closure. He was one of the thousands who built lifelong memories at the Alhambra, frequenting the theater for daddy-daughter dates beginning when his daughter was three years old, dates that shaped her passion for theater that continues even now that she’s an adult. Knowing nothing about theater, driven by sheer emotion, memories, and nostalgia, Smith purchased the Alhambra less than 48 hours after his initial conversation with Booth about keeping the theater alive and making the theater a big deal again.

A number of friends pitched in to help Smith with the Herculean undertaking of bringing dinner theater back. Karl Frisch, Bill Barnett, and Fraser Burns became minority partners. Harry Frisch, who had given Booth resources to keep the theater alive, also injected capital as Smith and partners took the reins, freeing Booth to focus on his passion: directing.

“When people heard the Alhambra was closing, there was a huge outcry,” said Smith, manager partner of the Alhambra. “It was on TV, in the paper, and people were upset. Everybody said, ‘Oh my God, how can it go away? It was the last place I went with my grandparents, it was the last place we had our family picture taken.’

“It has such connection to people. We’ll have four generations of family at a show. The other day, a woman was in here, she pointed to a specific table and told me this was the table her husband proposed to her—they’ve been married 44 years. I hear that a lot, and my mission was to continue that. We’re in the business of making memories.”

Since taking the reins, Smith’s team has instituted major and minor changes, bringing attendance back to 140,000 people a year. The theater is up to 4,000 season partners (yearly members of the theater). More than 5,000 people come from more than three hours away. Smith knows of families who schedule vacations to coincide with performances and understands that he’s doing so much more than just producing high-quality entertainment; he’s creating an experience that can’t be replicated.

“I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated to what the customers want and making a personal connection with someone,” said Becky Uibel, box office manager. “He remembers everyone. He remembers people’s names, patrons and employees. Always warm, always friendly, we can always pull him aside and talk to him. He listens to us—it’s not usual for the owner to be so accessible and open.”

Uibel, the unofficial historian of the Alhambra, has been with the theater for 23 years. In that time she’s seen a lot of changes take place, but one thing has remained the same: the atmosphere.

“This is the most family oriented place I’ve ever been and that’s why I have stayed for so long. I met my husband working here. We have a daughter who also works here now,” she said. “I work in the office, my husband is an actor, and our daughter is a server. It’s two generations in my family alone.

“And some of the staff have been here over 30 years, so we’ve seen their kids grow up. And guests have watched our families grow up. Guests will come in and ask how family members of our staff are doing because they’ve been a part of their childhood.”

One of the more talked-about and popular changes Smith made was replacing the buffet and hiring Executive Chef DeJuan Roy to create a new menu every show that somehow reflects the tone or theme of the current production. Originally from Chicago, where he attended culinary school, Roy also studied throughout Europe and competed in the Culinary Olympics. In 2016, as a contestant on Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games, Roy made his team proud by bringing home the win. Having trained in a number of different settings, Roy and his team regularly do what some restaurants would deem impossible: feed 380+ people in an hour.

“The quality of shows are just as good as any off-Broadway theater. You get an opportunity to come in and have an upscale dining experience, the serving experience is spot on, and I’m told the food is pretty good,” Roy said with a broad grin. “My spiel is that it’s the best secret in town. Some people know about it, some people don’t.

“If you are anything like me, you’re always looking for some place new to go with your family. Look at this place. It’s whimsical. I think most people will be pleasantly surprised at the quality of acting, the quality of food, and the entire experience.”

In addition to the unique menu created by Roy and his staff, each show is an independent production. The Alhambra doesn’t bring in touring shows–they build each show from scratch. From the menu, to hiring new actors from all over the country, the sets, lighting, costumes, and everything that goes along with production. Nine times a year, they reinvent the wheel, getting from initial rehearsal to opening night in only 10 days. The crew are constantly working towards the next show while maintaining the current one.

Sets are constructed in a warehouse on Baymeadows Road, lovingly referred to as “the other half of the Alhambra that people don’t know exists” by Set Designer and Scenic Artist Dave Dionne. He and Ian Black are responsible for designing and building each set, which is often the first thing people see when they enter the theater. The layout keeps the audience and performers within close proximity.

“You sit down and you’re not nine miles away from the stage—you’re right there,” said Uibel. “It’s warm and the theater reaches out to you no matter where you sit. You’re going to get a connection with the actors, you’re going to see that show and it’s going to be live and you’re going to get why live theater is awesome.

“And people should come for that connection. It’s a good way to introduce people to theater, reintroduce people to theater, and remind them why theater is so great.”

Alhambra’s legacy status in Jacksonville’s arts and culture scene is firmly cemented, but, like many landmarks and places of note, it’s been there for so many years that the community sometimes fails to see it when they drive down the road. It’s almost part of the background landscape of Jacksonville.

Though it doesn’t have the socialite buzz of the 1970s, 50 years after its founding, Alhambra offers something far more lasting than seeing and being seen: an opportunity for people to connect with one another, over a live performances and a meal, for children to be introduced to theater, and for strangers to break bread—a practice that had gone out of vogue, but, with a bit of luck and a lot of elbow grease, has made a dramatic comeback, in no small part thanks to the work of people like Smith and his dedicated staff. They’re resurrecting the glory days of dinner theater one production at a time.

“I’d like the community to know that we’ve built something new, something fresh to experience,” Smith reflected. “We’ve renovated, have sit-down table service with an incredible rotating menu, and the productions have gotten better and better with Tod being able to focus solely on directing. It’s been here for 50 years, and we plan to keep it here another 50. There’s something about breaking bread with family or even strangers. It creates bonds that sitting in a traditional theater can’t do. Alhambra is a place to come and have a great night–dinner, a show, and a memory.”