Alhambra Theatre & Dining’s 50th Birthday Bash

by Dual Critics Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

We went to a fabulous birthday party on Monday, December 11, 2017, a celebration of fifty years (1967-2017) of memories of the Alhambra Theatre & Dining. The venue is the oldest still-active dinner theatre in the USA.

The evening began promptly at 5:30 pm, with a reception in the garden. Patrons received their tickets at outdoor tables. The fountain of lions, the garden’s centerpiece, was highlighted with flames, while a large sculpture created with golden balloons was an eye-catching addition. Portable seating was available beneath the canopy covering the driveway, and tables were scattered throughout the garden for guests who wanted to circulate. Members of the wait staff brought plates of delicious hors d’oeuvre and glasses of bubbly champagne throughout the evening.

An hour later, we took our seats in the theatre and enjoyed the performance of Rick Marino, a renowned Elvis Presley impersonator. He was backed by the big band sounds of The Chris Thomas Band. His voice brought back many nostalgic memories which included “Hound Dog,” a crowd favorite.

At 7:00 pm, it was time for dinner and a full course meal fit for a king. Entrée choices included Chef DeJuan’s World-Famous Prime Rib and  Chef Dale’s Cream Shrimp & Leek Casserole. The Dual Critics sampled both and they were delicious.

After dinner Craig Smith, the Alhambra’s Managing Partner, became Master of Ceremonies; he introduced special guests brought to the stage and made many commemorative presentations. Craig is well known to Alhambra patrons, as he frequently makes curtain speeches before performances, and his Southern style and humor are greatly appreciated.

Initially, Anna Lopez Brosche, President of Jacksonville’s City Council, presented Craig with a Proclamation from Mayor Lenny Curry, recognizing the Alhambra’s many valuable contributions to our cultural landscape.

Emcee Smith first introduced Harry Frisch, who is honored in the program as the Unsung Hero of the Alhambra’s Revival in 2009. His guidance and financial assistance were major contributions to the rebirth of this remarkable enterprise. At ninety-three years of age, Mr. Frisch is still working and plans to continue for several years; when he reaches his hundredth year, he plans to hold his retirement party at the Alhambra.

We were introduced to three men who were notably important in the history of the theatre. Ted Johnson, who was the original owner, built the structure. George Ballis was the first artistic director, and is well known for his directing abilities, having headed up Theatre Jacksonville and theatre studies at Jacksonville University. Tod Booth, who bought the theatre in 1985 and sold it in 2009, has been the artistic director since 1985 and continues in that capacity. He is also a talented performer with many past stage appearances; he is currently appearing as Scrooge in the Alhambra’s “Christmas Carole” and is receiving rave reviews.

Special awards were presented to three other individuals who supported the theatre over a period of time. Jack Giddens has been a Season Partner for forty years. We sat at the same table as Mr. Giddens and his wife, and learned that while he lives near Savannah, Georgia and has never lived in Jacksonville, he is appreciative of the quality productions staged at the Alhambra.

Esta Waddell accepted an award on behalf of Ham Waddell, her late husband, who was the theatre’s production manager and set designer for thirty-five years.

Alhambra old timers will remember “Cadillac Bob” White, who was head chef for ten years and always came out on stage at the opening of the buffet, where he did most of the carving. His daughter accepted his award.

The final presentations of the evening went to Legacy Staff – ten employees who have worked at the Alhambra in various capacities for periods of time ranging from twenty-three to thirty-eight years. Craig emphasized that without their dedication, the theatre could not have survived and prospered. These honorees were Becky Uibel, Bobby Newberry, Brenda Surber, David Dionne, Eric Maida, Joey Nicholas, Jim Martin, Lois Adkins, Pam Carmichael, and Paul Nickas.

The evening continued with Andy DeMino bringing the humor and song styling of Dean Martin to the stage. He previously appeared in one of the Alhambra After Dark shows as a Rat Pack Member. The dance floor was full the remainder of the evening with dancing couples and the great sounds of The Chris Thomas Band.

During the Alhambra’s early years, the theatre was noted for the appearances of stars on stage; stars who included Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney, and Imogene Coca. Stars have returned under the new ownership; they have included Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, Michael Learned, Sally Struthers, Mike Farrell and Barbara Eden.

So here’s to the next fifty years, which Craig Smith and Theatre Partners, LLC, along with Artistic Director/Producer Tod Booth, have launched with nine outstanding shows for the 2018 season.

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.