Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, a new restaurant and entertainment trend emerged in the U.S. Dinner theaters, as they were called, allowed visitors to enjoy a piece of performance art as they dined. Casts for the featured plays were often made up of movie and television actors whose on-screen careers had stalled, offering everyday Americans the chance to, in a sense, dine with the stars.
Well over one hundred of these theaters sprung up across the country during their heyday. And by the mid-‘60s, the trend was set to arrive in Jacksonville.
The Alhambra Dinner Theatre was built in 1967 along Beach Boulevard. The project was led by Bolles graduate Ted Johnson, who recruited businessman Leon Simon as a primary investor. George Ballis was named the theater’s artistic director.
The theater opened in late ’67, debuting with a performance of the Neil Simon play Come Blow Your Horn.
It quickly became a hot-spot for affluent locals – and out-of-towners. Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger was even spotted catching a show at the theater while in town.
And on stage, stars of the day like Dawn Wells, Bob Denver, Betty Grable, Ann B. Davis, and more performed at the Alhambra as part of their theater-circuit rotations.
In 1984, Chicago-based dinner theater director Ted Booth moved to Jacksonville and bought the venue, also taking over as its creative director.
By the ‘90s, the dinner theater trend had all but died off, meaning the remaining theaters had to adapt to survive. Alhambra’s survival plan involved a major expansion that would have added a new building and banquet hall, as well as more seating and a larger stage in the original building.
That plan went through multiple iterations before being rejected by the city in 2000 over traffic concerns.
The mid-2000s recession almost proved to be too much for the theater. In fact, Booth did shut down the Alhambra in 2009.
But just months later, a local investment group led by Jax native Craig Smith swooped in to save the theater, purchasing it and making several renovations.
The new team retained Booth as creative director and added DeJuan Roy as the venue’s executive chef. The theater, renamed Alhambra Theatre & Dining, re-opened at the end of 2009.
Today, Alhambra Theatre & Dining continues to operate as the country’s second-oldest dining theater still in operation – and the only one of its kind in North Florida.
Story originally published on thecoastal.com.