Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)
Sunday February 21, 2010
CELEBRATING A LONG RUN; Theatre Jacksonville turns 90, with eye on century of entertainment
By MATT SOERGEL
Theatre Jacksonville turns 90 this year, having survived a depression, some recessions, a World War and much more competition for the entertainment dollar.
Along the way it’s exposed many thousands of people to hundreds of shows – musicals, comedies and dramas – and given local actors and behind-the-scenes workers an outlet for their creative urges.
Many of them would probably like to know: Can the cozy San Marco institution make it to 100?
“Oh yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind,” says Robert Arleigh White, executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, who led the theater for 16 years, from 1984 to 2000.
It’s one of the oldest community theaters in the country – and certainly the oldest in Florida, he said – and there’s a reason for that longevity.
“The very shallow response to that is, ‘Oh you’re just old,’ but for a theater company to reach the age of 90 it needs to remain relevant and vital in the community, or else it will die,” White said.
“That’s been the strength of Theatre Jacksonville – retaining that relevance.”
Current executive director Sarah Boone, who first acted at the theater when she was just 16 (she played an evil witch), said it’s not easy staying alive, though she thinks there is a future for the non-profit organization.
“This next year will tell the tale,” she said.
Boone said ticket sales haven’t been a problem, and the number of subscribers – about 1,000 – has remained steady. The theater has an endowment that covers upkeep on the old building, and support has come from corporate leaders such as Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver.
But contributions are down, as they are at many cultural institutions. Small theaters around the country have gone under in recent years, and Boone readily acknowledges that keeping Theatre Jacksonville going is a constant challenge.
“It’s kind of hard to talk about tomorrow when we’re working so hard to keep the doors open today,” she said.
Theatre Jacksonville has four full-time paid positions. Some key behind-the-scenes people, including the director of each play, are paid on a contract basis.
What keeps it alive are the thousands and thousands of people who have volunteered to act and build sets and be ushers there.
Gayle Featheringill is one of them. A court reporter by profession, she’s a frequent actor at Theatre Jacksonville, as well as at Players-By-the-Sea.
It’s a real commitment: For a good-size role, she figures, you could have three hours of rehearsal, four nights a week, for six weeks. Plus four hours each night for 11 shows. Plus time spent practicing lines on your own.
“But you build a new community, you see each other’s foibles, find a working camaraderie,” Featheringill said. “And the production – that’s the fun part.”
Where else, after all, will a court reporter – or a construction worker, secretary, mid-level exec or student – get 311 people (on a sold-out night) clapping for them?
“You get the applause,” said Michael Lipp, a math teacher at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts who’s directed and acted at the theater. “You get 300 people watching you night after night. That’s the payoff at the end.”
The majority of those on stage during Theatre Jacksonville’s 90 years have started as amateurs and remained that. But some have gone on to more glory.
Michael Emerson, the malevolent Benjamin Linus on the ABC series “Lost,” revived his acting career and was a star at the theater during the 1980s.
Jacksonville University students Joe Piscopo (“Saturday Night Live”) and Jay Thomas (“Cheers” and “Murphy Brown”) appeared on stage in the 1970s.
And local girl Wanda Hendrix was discovered there in 1943 by an agent. Still a teenager, she signed a contract with Warner Bros., then moved to California to make movies, most during the late 1940s and early 1950s. She was also briefly married to war-hero movie-star Audie Murphy.
What would become Theatre Jacksonville began in 1919, as earnest amateurs formed the Community Players of Jacksonville, which put on their first performance the next year.
Long after a name change in 1925 to The Little Theatre of Jacksonville, the group’s present home was built in San Marco, opening in 1938.
The name was again changed, to the current one, for the 1972 season.
“I think it’s really fair to say that in its real heyday, especially after the building in San Marco was dedicated, it really was the cultural hot spot in Jacksonville, a very, very exciting place to be,” said White. “Everybody had a ticket to Theatre Jacksonville.”
As the city got bigger, entertainment tastes changed and competition grew, the theater’s prominence has waned. Yet it’s remained a local institution all those years.
Boone, who took over in 2000, said the 72-year-old building is one of the theater’s strengths, being centrally located in San Marco Square. But it too has its challenges.
“I know more about roofs and electricity then I ever thought,” she said with a smile.
Theatre Jacksonville puts on six shows a season, a mix of musicals and old favorites, as well as some newer plays and serious dramas. This season, though, has been deliberately more lighthearted, Boone said, with the idea that people want escapism during tough times.
“We keep in mind who our audience is – the people who pay money to come. We’re not the edgiest theater around, but that’s not what we’re about,” she said. “We try really hard to keep Jacksonville in mind when we do stuff.”
firstname.lastname@example.org, (904) 359-4082
IF YOU GO
90TH BIRTHDAY PARTY
Where: The Aetna Building, 841 Prudential Drive, on the Southbank.
Tickets: $40, or $70 for a couple, which includes food and beverages.
Info: www.theatrejax.com or (904) 396-4425.
NOTABLE DATES, FOR COMMUNITY THEATER GROUP
1919: The Community Players of Jacksonville forms for the purpose of reading plays.
1920: A reading of “A Marriage Has Been Arranged” at the Mason Hotel is the first public performance by the Community Players.
1925: The Community Players changes its name to The Little Theatre of Jacksonville.
1938: Playhouse at 2032 San Marco Blvd. opens with a production of “Boy Meets Girl.”
1940: Actor Richard Hollahan dies onstage during a performance of the comedy “Fashion.”
1947: The Little Theatre mounts its first musical, “The Little Revue.”
1956: Harold K. Smith establishes an annual playwright award of $150. One winning play, Richard Stockton’s “The Litter of Flowers,” is later produced for television as “The Secret of Paula Marston.”
1957: Theater enlarged and air-conditioned.
1972: The Little Theatre is renamed Theatre Jacksonville.
1994: Theatre Jacksonville takes over responsibility for the annual Shakespeare at the Met; produces “As You Like It.”
1997: Harold K. Smith establishes a permanent endowment of $500,000.
2000: The facility is formally dedicated as the Harold K. Smith Playhouse.
2002: Shakespeare productions move to San Marco with “Twelfth Night.”
2007: Downstairs lobby renovated in the original Art Deco style; upstairs is redone the next year.
2007-2008: The Weaver Family Foundation offers a $50,000 matching challenge to attract new donors. Individual contributors meet that match; that’s credited with helping the theater weather the recession.