Set for two, it was covered by an elegant lace cloth, and adorned with matching napkins, silverware, stylish china plates and coffee cups and tall crystal glasses. In the middle of the small table stood an equally elegant candelabra holding five candles. What better way for the young gentlemen sitting there, Ted Johnson and George Ballis, to demonstrate their vision of the future, and the confidence they had in the new theater that was to arise and open its doors in 152 days?
Johnson and Ballis had something to celebrate had they chosen to. Earlier that July, Duval County commissioners had given final approval to legislation that would permit the still-to-be-constructed theater to serve beer, wine and cocktails with the buffet dinners being planned. A celebration of some kind would have been appropriate: Both a special liquor license – considered essential to the Alhambra’s success – and a rezoning request had received the blessings of county and state officials only after prolonged campaigns that had overcome fierce resistance from some local church leaders and city politicians. Indeed, a few opponents had proclaimed the new theater to be work of the devil himself; such declarations were to be assailed as “underhanded” and tactics that the good Lord himself might have frowned upon, but they had been hurled anyway.
There was no need for frowns now. Johnson, the Alhambra’s managing partner, and Ballis, his artistic director, and their colleagues had put the political skirmishes behind them by late July, and could focus on turning their ambitious vision into reality. A lengthy Florida Times-Union story surrounding the photo chronicled their plans with precision: The new dinner theater located “on the far reaches of Beach Boulevard” was scheduled to open in October and present Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. Such productions as The Fantasticks, Charley’s Aunt, Come Blow Your Horn and The Odd Couple would follow. Before each show, patrons would enjoy an elegant buffet – served on the same stage with appropriate theatrical flourishes.
Their timetable would prove to be too ambitious. The Alhambra’s doors were not ready to open until mid-December, and by then Ballis had reasoned that Come Blow Your Horn would be the better choice for a very first show. In retrospect, that inaugural production now seems like an ideal choice: Having debuted on Broadway in 1961, Come Blow Your Horn had been the legendary Neil Simon’s very first play. The script centers around a young man who leaves his parents’ home to strike out on his own, move into the Manhattan bachelor pad of his older brother and enjoy the
swinging lifestyle of the early ’60s; “… smoothly plotted and deftly written,” a New York Times review had praised.
So is the 50-year saga of the Alhambra itself.
Initially, the dinner theater, too, seemed like an ideal choice, and perfect for the prosperous 1960s. Moreover, the concept was flourishing elsewhere around the country, and would continue to do so. At one point as many as 175 dinner theaters were operating. Their collective success was even inspiring productions created expressly for dinner theaters, along with shows designed for some of the individual stars who headlined them.
But as the 20th century waned, so did the lights and the music. At all but a handful of professional dinner theaters, the curtains came down for good. In the summer of 2009 the Alhambra, too, came perilously close to being another of the casualties. That Jacksonville’s venerable dinner theater still opens its doors to tens of thousands each year testifies to the confidence Johnson, Ballis, financial partner Leon Simon and their colleagues first had in the people of Jacksonville. In the years ahead, succeeding owners Tod Booth and later Craig Smith and his partners would demonstrate that same kind of confidence – if not more so.
Beginning in 1985, Booth built upon what the founders had begun. The parade of movie and television stars gave way to a steady progression of up and coming stage actors, and the performances themselves were as entertaining as ever. Booth’s expertise and passion assembled a corps of actors as capable as any in the country. Some were en route to Broadway. Others were coming from Broadway, and found the Alhambra the ideal stage to extend their craft. Still other performers simply found Jacksonville a fine locale in which to entertain and reside. It was a great run.
By late August of 2009 a perfect storm of business and economic factors had the Alhambra on the brink, until Smith, a Jacksonville native with too many memories of enjoying shows as a young teen, concluded that somebody ought to save the old place. Its demise, he felt strongly, would be like losing a civic treasure. That somebody turned out to be Smith himself, of course. To many, it seemed like an impulsive – and insane – decision. Yes, it was, Smith cheerfully acknowledges. That he has proven the naysayers wrong goes without saying – with legions of helping hands, he will
Today the Alhambra stands proudly as the nation’s oldest continuously-operating dinner theater. More important, after a half century the Alhambra is as vibrant as ever. Maybe more so, given the improvements Smith has directed, coupled with the quality performances and occasional stars that Booth still directs with the same passion he has had since he began in the mid ’80s.
It’s a wonderful story that you’re about to enjoy. Like the very shows that have paraded across the Alhambra stage throughout its five decades, there are headliners, great plots, ironic twists, plenty of surprises, plenty uncertainties… and, to be sure, a happy, heart-warming ending.
But we dare not tell you any more now. If you need to, partake of one last refill of coffee or tea, or whatever your beverage happens to be. It’s time to turn down the house lights and raise the curtain.”
To read more, purchase our 50th anniversary coffee table book in the Box Office!