Not many of Jacksonville’s single-screen, neighborhood theaters have stood the test of time. The small-but-mighty San Marco Theatre, however, has survived over eighty years within historic San Marco.
The theater was built in the late 1930s, opening its doors in 1938. At the time, San Marco Square was about a decade old and the neighborhood – and its surrounding areas – had just been annexed by the city of Jacksonville after years of operating as the independent town of South Jacksonville.
The theater’s design featured strong elements of Art Deco influence. It was helmed by Roy Benjamin, who designed several theaters throughout Jax including the Florida Theatre and Sun-Ray Cinema’s building. Its interior featured a state-of-the-art projection room and could seat 500 moviegoers.
The theater thrived for decades, avoiding the downturn that plagued many other smaller movie houses. Two factors allowed for its success: the lack of newer, multi-screen theaters in the neighborhood, and the theater’s decision to shift toward arthouse films in the ‘60s. As one of the few theaters to show such films in Jax, it was able to carve out a niche and survive even as similar venues died off left and right – and as the San Marco neighborhood faced a brief downturn in the ‘70s.
In recent years, the theater has undergone renovations to add new leather seating as well as an expanded kitchen. The changes reduced its capacity significantly but allowed for a revamped menu including alcohol and sit-down meals. It even added a second screen in 2016, expanding into part of an adjacent retail unit.
The theater has undergone surprisingly few changes in ownership over the years, though it recently changed hands in 2019 and is now owned by a group of San Marco residents.
Today, the theater is back to playing big-budget Hollywood films. Having survived 83 years – and, now, a pandemic – it’s safe to say San Marco Theatre isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
I worked at the Theatre in 1956 and 57 as an usher and general flunkie. Actually they began to do art films mid week in about 1958. It was part of Florida State Theatre Chain. The Projectionist was also a florist and made a good deal for Landon kids on coursages for Proms.