The footlights are glowing again, and the tapestries — including one briefly lost by FedEx some months ago — hang restored on the balcony walls.
As the Florida Theatre reopens after four months of restoration, the house will be rocking again with the likes of Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre on Thursday, the Jacksonville Dance Theatre on Friday and Steep Canyon Rangers on Saturday.
Attorney Eric Smith was on the City Council in 1981 when it approved funding for the first renovation of the theater during Mayor Jake Godbold’s administration, converting it from an old movie theater into a cultural and civic facility. Smith gazed at the latest restoration at Friday’s public unveiling and called it “absolutely gorgeous.”
“Everything is painted to look as beautiful and sparkling as it must have looked when Elvis was here (in 1956), and Jake was here. Both have left the building,” Smith said. “A lot of private citizens came forward to make this happen, and it is really one of Jacksonville’s treasures and I am proud to be a small part of it. It is one of the things that Jake and our City Council got to do.”
Theater President Numa Saisselin oversaw Friday’s grand reopening with about 300 members and contributors. He said the $8 million restoration was absolutely worth the money.
The work, part of $15 million in improvements over the last four years, includes new paint matching the 1927 original, redone bathrooms, restored architecture and an upgraded air conditioning system to preserve all those changes for long-term preservation.
“We are really pleased about how things turned out; worth every penny,” Saisselin said. “This theater is an asset for Downtown and the city at large. We have great shows, but the building was looking a little sad. Now it looks like a first-class performance palace that has energy in it, that people care about, and that’s because they do.”
The Florida Theatre opened in April 1927, erected on the site of Jacksonville’s police station, one of six theaters on Forsyth Street at the time. By the 1980s, it had become chiefly a movie house when the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville bought it for $1 million from Plitt Southern Theatres using a mix of state and city funding.
The theater was officially accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places at that time.
In recent years, age took its toll on the theater, with peeling paint inside that was actually falling on patrons, plus seat issues and other age-related problems. New theater seating, plus upgraded new lighting and sound systems, were added, plus the opening of the Remedy Lounge and VIP room on the second floor lobby. Then came the very intensive restoration begun July 1.
Scaffolding erected in the theater allowed workers to repaint the proscenium arch’s intricate artwork to match the 1927 original, while the stucco walls were restored to as-new, Saisselin said.
“This building has never had a thermostat — crazy — so the air conditioning was either on or off and that’s how we regulated it,” Saisselin said. “Now we have modern humidity and temperature control and zones that we can regulate on our smartphones, and it’s going to be a much better experience for the audience and performers as well.”
The theater lobby and second-floor bathrooms’ cramped facilities dating back decades were gutted and updated. And EverGreen Architectural Arts in Brooklyn, N.Y., restored the four tapestries that have flanked the balcony since the theater’s opening. That includes one that was apparently mistakenly shipped by FedEx to a distribution center in Charlotte, North Carolina, then found.
The theater’s reopening Friday came close to the 40th anniversary of the last major renovation, which took place in 1983. This time Mayor Donna Deegan joined in the ribbon-cutting.
“I walked in here, and I could just feel a little catch in my throat. This is stunning,” Deegan said. “It is just so beautiful, and the sense of history here is absolutely unmistakable.”
This $8 million restoration is part of a larger, multiyear project that will probably total $25 million by the time it’s all done, including renovating the dressing rooms, building backstage waiting areas for acts, and expanding the main lobby after the removal of the main electrical system upstairs, Saisselin said.
“We do not have a first class hospitality space for the artists and road crews to hang in while they are here,” he said. “Our administrative offices are not Class A, shall we say, and the marquee needs to be restored. The next project will most likely be a renovation of the first floor lobby.”
The theater’s first show after the reopening ceremony was “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Saturday. It has multiple shows booked almost every night through the end of the year, including Frankie Valli’s concert Nov. 16, a Taylor Swift laser party Nov. 26, and The 32nd Annual Community Nutcracker on Dec. 8 and 9.
Go to floridatheatre.com for more information.