For nearly a century, the Florida Theatre has been a staple of downtown Jacksonville – a reminder of a foregone era when grand theaters lined Forsyth Street.
The Florida Theatre opened its doors to the public in April 1927. Its building, designed by R.E. Hall of New York and Roy A. Benjamin of Jacksonville, was built on the site of a former city jail and police building. The seven-story, Mediterranean Revival-style structure featured a rooftop garden with a dance floor, a marquee, and ground-floor retail units in addition to the theater and its lobby. Its interior was designed by Michael Angello of Chicago.
The 1,900-seat theater was operated by Publix Theatres, which would later become Plitt Theatres, as a motion picture house and performing arts theater. It thrived amidst a then-bustling downtown district lined with department stores, shops, and other theaters.
Demand for office space within the theater’s building was stronger than expected, leading to the rooftop garden being enclosed in 1938 to create a true seventh floor that would accommodate offices.
The building would undergo another round of renovations in the early ‘50s, adding a concession stand, a new marquee, and orchestra space. It was also during this decade that Elvis Presley chose the venue for one of his first indoor performances.
The theater, like most of downtown Jax, entered a decline in the 1970s. Its owner, Plitt Theatres, decided to close it down permanently in 1980.
Luckily, the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville – now known as the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville – stepped in and purchased the building from Plitt a year later. The organization was able to get the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and, through private and public funding, it began a $4 million renovation project that included the restoration of the theater’s original balcony seating as well as its marquee. The project was handled by KBJ Architects which, interestingly enough, evolved from Roy Benjamin’s firm.
The Florida Theatre reopened in the summer of 1983. Four years later, the nonprofit group Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center, Inc. was formed to oversee the theater.
Today, the Florida Theatre continues to operate as the only remaining historic theater within the core of downtown Jax. It recently launched a five-year, $10 million renovation project to upgrade its lighting, sound, and projection systems as well as seating and the lobby area.
The renovation efforts should be finished in time for the theater’s 100th anniversary in 2027 – and will hopefully allow the theater to remain open and successful for decades to come.