Often overshadowed by cultural hubs like Atlanta and Orlando, Jacksonville has not been synonymous with an exciting night on the town. Actor, director and Jacksonville native Lee Hamby is on a crusade to change that.
“I don’t want to hear anyone complain there’s nothing to do in Jacksonville, because there’s too much to do,” says Hamby. “Jacksonville’s cultural scene is thriving at this point. It’s so much different than it used to be. We have so much going on. Now we’re getting some good shows. The talent we have is quite amazing here. We’re finally wrangling people to stay and see what’s happening at home.”
The Douglas Anderson School of the Arts graduate is best known for directing smart productions at The 5 & Dime, A Theater Company. His larger-than-life personality permeates every facet of his work. He’s quirky and exuberant, yet down-to-earth. As a director, he demands quality work. He’s dedicated to bringing world-class theater to Jacksonville.
Hamby was born and raised on Jacksonville’s rural Northside. His father was a television cameraman, and his mother worked in retail. The youngest of three children, Hamby recalls entertaining himself a lot as a young child. To this day, he believes that experience sparked his spirit of curiosity.
“I think that’s what spawned the creative craziness that is now unleashed and won’t go back in,” he chuckles.
While Hamby has always enjoyed theater and fondly remembers acting at church as a young boy, it wasn’t until a powerful mentor—Douglas Anderson musical theater teacher Shirley Sacks Kirby—entered his life that he began to see theater as a viable career path.
“I call her my Drama Mama,” Hamby laughs. “She’s the one who’s responsible for really making me understand I could do this for a living.”
Kirby’s confidence inspired Hamby to tackle the world of professional musical theater with head-on determination. After graduating from Douglas Anderson, Hamby studied musical theater with the Broadway Theater Project in Tampa. He later took voice lessons in Los Angeles under vocal coach Seth Riggs, who famously instructed Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand and Stevie Wonder. Finally, Hamby moved to New York and honed his craft at New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, while also working in professional musical theater productions. Before long, he was traveling the world as a performer.
Hamby came back to Jacksonville for good in 2006. The actor performed at The Alhambra and later worked as a production manager with Players by the Sea.
Hamby’s theatrical adventures instilled in him the desire to bring big-name shows to Jacksonville. He made a policy of surrounding himself with like-minded dreamers.
“We were lacking another professional theater than The Alhambra,” Hamby explains. “I wanted to make another reason why people would want to come here and work. We were also lacking a local theater in the Downtown/Riverside area, and I wanted to fill an area that was underserved. That’s how it all began.”
The 5 & Dime was born in 2011. Lee Hamby the actor became Lee Hamby the managing director.
The journey ahead proved to be a true test of tenacity. Nailing down a permanent location was challenging, so for its first five years, The 5 & Dime, A Theater Company was nomadic. Each show required a new location.
“Everything else was pretty easy because we knew what to do,” recalls Hamby. “We knew how to produce a show. The talent was there. It was just having to schlep everything around everywhere we went. I think that was our biggest success as well. It was the hardest part, but it was what people enjoyed about us most. That’s how we ended up with a following. Those people have stuck with us in our new home.”
The 5 & Dime found a permanent home in Jacksonville’s Urban Core in January 2017. Hamby still serves as the managing director, and his determination burns as strong as ever to make Jacksonville an exciting and eventful hometown. The 5 & Dime provides top-notch shows and a safe, productive working atmosphere for creatives.
“I love giving people opportunity and seeing them grow,” Hamby says. “Starting from the first day of rehearsal to when the show opens, the growth is so huge. It’s amazing to watch. Seeing the whole thing come to life amazes me.”
“We really focus on telling stories that make the audience think and create conversation,” he continues. “Our audiences have grown to appreciate seeing new productions they’ve never seen before about subjects they may never have thought about previously.”
The 2018 season offered audiences six full productions, three staged readings and three cabaret events. Lee directed a hilarious comedy called Buyer & Cellar in October and looks forward to directing Silence! The Musical, (a Silence of the Lambs parody), in the autumn of 2019.
This autumn, however, Hamby is excited to step back into acting for the first time in six years. He is set to reprise the role of Maryland delegate Samuel Chase in The Alhambra Theatre’s production of 1776: A Musical Revolution. Hamby first played the part in 1999.
“So many people who are doing theater today in our area do not know me at all as a performer, so I’m excited for people to see me perform even though it’s not a giant role,”
The Alhambra feels like home to Hamby, who first started working there at the age of 17. This will be his 37th show at the long-running dinner theater.
“I always call The Alhambra the place I grew up,” Hamby says.
1776 is a powerful production—and one that’s near and dear to Hamby’s heart.
“There is very seldom a show like this,” he explains, “where there are 24 men on stage at one time. All men. The sound the music produces is amazing. It’s also historical. It’s moving and touching to see how hard these people worked, how passionate they were to get the Declaration of Independence put together. I think people need to see it for the historical value of it. People need to see what these guys did to create our country. It’s very cool to see and to be a part of it is amazing.”
Hamby is stoked for what 2019 has in store for Jacksonville, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
“I want people to fall in love with theater,” he says. “Go and see and do and audition. Get involved. As a community, we always need people. We need people as volunteers. We need people as performers. We need people as band members. We need patrons. We need people to donate. We need box office people. There’s a million jobs out there and a million things to do with the theater, not just onstage but backstage too. Just get involved.”
Theater powerhouse Lee Hamby has the talent and ferocity to take on the world, yet his passion is to elevate theater in his hometown. For too long, Jacksonville has been overlooked culturally. Quality entertainment used to require a daytrip or weekend getaway. Now Jacksonville’s cultural scene is on the rise. With savvy navigators like Hamby at the helm, the city is well on its way to becoming a nationally recognized cultural destination.