In late July of 1967, a single table set for two was situated on an empty lot on Beach Boulevard. The table was covered by an elegant lace cloth and adorned with matching napkins, silverware, stylish china plates and coffee cups, and tall crystal glasses. An elegant candelabra holding five candles stood in the center of the table.
It was an unlikely way for Ted Johnson and George Ballis to present their concept for a combination of fine dining and live theatre. Dinner theaters were once a popular attraction for families to experience dinner and a show. At one point in history, more than 100 dinner theaters operated in the United States. A half century later, there are fewer than 10 and the Alhambra is the oldest, professional dinner theatre still operating.
For 50 years, the Alhambra Dinner Theatre has offered a unique live theatre experience with volumes of history tucked within its dimly lit walls and stories of ghosts haunting the halls. Still standing on its original site along Beach Boulevard, the Alhambra remains an icon in the city’s cultural landscape.
“To me, when I walk through this theater, I can almost hear the voices of the memories. Some say The Alhambra is haunted and those are the voices of the ghosts, but I say she just shares a lot of stories–and a lot of joy.”
The Alhambra Dinner Theatre is celebrating its golden anniversary with a year-long celebration and a commemorative coffee table book available this month which chronicles its storied history and contributions to the theatre community.
“To me, when I walk through this theater, I can almost hear the voices of the memories. Some say The Alhambra is haunted and those are the voices of the ghosts, but I say she just shares a lot of stories–and a lot of joy,” says managing partner Craig Smith. “So, as a thank you to the Alhambra for all she’s given us over the last 50 years, we wanted to celebrate by breaking out all the stops with our schedule, events and talent. It is going to be a joyful year.”
The special season lineup begins where it started with Come Blow Your Horn, the first show ever performed at The Alhambra. The shows will present a limited three-week run opening January 4 that will be offered at a 50th anniversary price of two seats for $50.
Sticking to the theme of “looking back and looking forward,” Smith says the Alhambra’s 50thAnniversary line up features a mix of classic shows, “popular demand” shows and some new shows. The season is as follows: A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, starring Gail Bliss January 27-February 19; Showboat February 22-April 2; Dreamgirls April 12-May 21; Steel Magnolias May 24-June 25; Annie June 28-August 13; Dixie Swim Club August 16-September 24; The Addams Family October 4-November 12 and Christmas Carole starring Tony Triano November 22-December 24.
“For 50 years, the Alhambra has been a place of Broadway quality shows and fine meals, but the Alhambra really is more of a place where people make memories.”
The season will also feature three Alhambra actors from by-gone eras and not-so-by-gone eras. Dawn Wells, who starred in Barefoot in the Park in 1969, returns to star in Steel Magnolias. In 1973, Morgan Fairchild starred in The Paisley Convertible. Fairchild returns to the Alhambra stage with a ring role in Dixie Swim Club.
Perennial favorite Tony Triano will return to the Alhambra, reprising his role as Scrooge in the Alhambra holiday classic, Bruce Allen Scudder’s Christmas Carole. Triano last performed at the Alhambra in 2013. Recently, Triano has been performing on and off Broadway.
“For 50 years, the Alhambra has been a place of Broadway quality shows and fine meals, but the Alhambra really is more of a place where people make memories,” says Smith. “This theater is where we go to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries; it is where people came for the prom; it is the place of first dates and marriage proposals. Recently, the Alhambra has even been a place where people get married.”
Looking back, the Alhambra Dinner Theatre stage helped launch the career of former Miss America Leanza Cornett and was the site of the final stage appearance by the legendary Betty Grable in 1973’s Born Yesterday.
The Alhambra has hosted legends such as Tony Curtis, Claude Aiken, Ann B. Davis, Sid Cesar and Cesar Romero, and, recently the likes of Loretta Swit, Barry Williams, Jamie Farr, Sally Struthers, Joyce DeWitt, Michael Learned, Barbara Eden, Lisa Whelchel, and Mike Farrell.
The season will also be punctuated by special events, including a signing party for the Alhambra’s commemorative coffee table book in December of 2016 and a 50th Anniversary Birthday Bash in December of 2017 with plenty of surprises in between. The Alhambra is putting together its Alhambra After Dark Music Series lineup. It is also hosting a special New Year’s Eve Gala featuring Las Vegas’ The Piano Men Tribute, starring Lee Alverson in a montage tribute to Elton John, Billy Joel, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Our job isn’t just to sell seats to a great show. It’s to be part of this community and supportive of things that are meaningful to our guests.”
In November 2009, the Alhambra was purchased by Theatre Partners, LLC, and headed by Craig Smith. They changed the name to Alhambra Theatre & Dining to reflect “not just a new identity, but a cultural change as well,” says Smith.
The traditional buffet which featured the same menu each night was replaced with table-side service and a menu tailored to each show’s themes. “We wanted to change every aspect of this experience, to make the Alhambra not just relevant again, but to make it a leader in Jacksonville’s cultural renaissance. We broke the model and started over, but still managed to keep the charm, passion, and joy,” says Smith.
“Our job isn’t just to sell seats to a great show. It’s to be part of this community and supportive of things that are meaningful to our guests. We can only take credit for putting a good product together. I give all the credit to the Jacksonville community for rallying around this old girl and putting her back on the map. It’s a journey that isn’t finished, but we’re off to a good start that’s more than 50 years in the making.”