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Jax Daily Record Friday, Feb. 19, 202111:50 AM EST

Florida Theatre: Learning about the venue's past, present and future

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JAX Chamber’s Downtown Council hosted the historic venue’s president at its virtual breakfast meeting.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

More than 80 members of JAX Chamber’s Downtown Council and guests met virtually Feb. 19 to learn about the past, present and future of Jacksonville’s most historic entertainment venue.

The Zoom presentation was provided by Numa Saisselin, president of the Florida Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, Inc. The nonprofit has managed and programmed the theater since 1987, when the city bought the building, 60 years after it opened at Forsyth and Newnan streets.

Saisselin and his staff manage the six floors of office space in the building and book the performers.

“We put up the money. We pay the artists, the stagehands, security, bartenders and the box office staff and we pay for the advertising,” he said.

The theater’s economic impact is about $13 million a year, representing more than 400 full-time equivalent jobs, Saisselin said.

More than 80 members of JAX Chamber’s Downtown Council and guests met via Zoom.

Like other businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a negative effect on the theater. Before March 2020, about 175 shows opened at the theater each year. Despite the pandemic shutdown, the Florida Theatre remains a top-five venue in the U.S. under 2,000 seats in terms of ticket sales.

“Before COVID, we were on an 18-month roll. The economy was strong. People were spending money and performers were touring. On March 12, 2020, that all came to a screeching halt,” Saisselin said.

With no choice but to close the venue, the $10 million renovation plan in preparation for the theater’s 100th anniversary in 2027 was accelerated.

Wider seats with more legroom and cupholders were installed, along with a new sound system. The rest of the plan will expand the lobby and bar area, improve the restrooms and replace the HVAC system, he said.

Saisselin said he hopes that a positive outcome of the pandemic will be a greater appreciation of the value of people congregating for entertainment.

“TV and Zoom are not the same as something that’s happening only here and only now.”

The venue has reopened at 50% capacity for social distancing, with temperature checks at the door and face masks required in the building.

Free concerts planned

Saisselin also is chair of Downtown Vision Inc., the nonprofit funded by an additional property tax paid by Downtown owners that promote the neighborhood as a place to live, work and play.

He said the Florida Theatre is booking the entertainers for DVI’s free outdoor concert series each Thursday evening in April at Riverfront Plaza, former site of The Jacksonville Landing.

The lineup, yet to be announced, will include classic and alternative rock, country and hip-hop.

“We’re keeping in mind young audiences,” Saisselin said.

Downtown Council grant

The Downtown Council announced Feb. 15 a $5,000 donation to the Jacksonville Historical Society for the society’s planned museum of Jacksonville music history.

The contribution was the net sponsorship proceeds from the group’s annual “Painting of the Paw Prints,” conducted each year the Saturday before the Jacksonville Jaguars’ first home game, said Gracie Simendinger, Downtown Council president.

Downtown Council also submitted an entry to the historical society’s annual gingerbread house contest at Historic St. Andrews in the Sports Complex.

Simendinger said the entry was a miniature representation of the bright yellow paw prints painted on Bay Street in front of the Bostwick Building, now Cowford Chophouse.

Baked and decorated by Downtown Council board member Laura Phillips Edgecombe, it won the People’s Choice award and raised about $1,000 for the society, based on votes from the public at $1 each, Simendinger said.

The Downtown Council’s entry in the Jacksonville Historical Society’s 2020 Gingerbread House Contest won the People’s Choice Award.

 

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