Many American towns & cities constructed grandiose movie theaters during the flush times of the Twenties. Like the films, the theaters themselves were designed to heighten a magical escape from reality. No doubt the Florida Theater bedazzled early filmgoers. Its interior resembled a Moorish courtyard at night, with ornate fountains, balconies, and ceilings. A large, fancy arch highlighted the big screen in front, and a deep, sloping balcony loomed in back.
The exterior of the building boasted a Mediterranean style facade, while a splendid rooftop garden topped the structure. (The garden has been converted into offices for the City of Jacksonville, with a slight incline into the work area as a reminder that a garden once existed there.) The theater’s roof once boasted a nightclub atmosphere under the stars. Members of the River City’s high society danced the night away, while downstairs, their children played in a nursery provided by the theatre. (Learn more about the Florida Theater’s history on its website.)
Even the movies themselves could provide an entire evening’s entertainment. In these pre-TV days, a number of extras could be seen before the one or two features that night. An audience often watched the news, a comedy short, a cartoon or travelogue, and a live stage presentation.
In spite of all of this, however, the Florida Theater had to hustle during the dark days of the Great Depression (1929-1941). It used such gimmicks as “Screeno,” a bingo game projected on screen, and “Bank Night,” an opportunity for ticket buyers to win cash prizes. And as the photo shows, the theater’s head supervisor worked to keep the interest of patrons. Guy Kenimer’s creative tactics helped his business get by.
CHRISTMAS AT THE THEATER — During the Great Depression of the 1930s, business at the Florida Theater sagged. One way to whip up interest, though, was to generate community involvement. The theater’s managers tried hard with this approach. An example comes from 1930, when many Jax residents went jobless & hungry due to the deepening economic crisis. On Christmas Day at the Florida Theater, the Happy Hearts Club offered toys and food to underprivileged children. Parents brought 4,200 youngsters to the picture palace, where Santa Claus waited. The hungry children grabbed at candy, cakes, fruits, nuts, and other treats. They rushed to the curb outside, sat down, and devoured their provisions. Momentarily forgotten were the dolls, wagons, toy guns, and other playthings inside.
According to the Jacksonville Journal, mothers wept, and tears trickled down the cheeks of fathers. The youngsters, though, seemed quite happy and sang Christmas carols. The Journal reported that local residents had sponsored the event by making pledges over their radio. Many failed to pay, however, and the newspaper indicated that an additional appeal might need to be conducted. As it turned out, fortunately, the Happy Hearts Christmas tradition did last almost twenty years.
Overcoming bankruptcies & closings, the Florida Theater flourishes today as a venue for concerts, shows, and movies. It is one of about fifty American picture palaces that have been restored. The old theater shines as an architectural gem for future generations.