JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Downtown Jacksonville’s only remaining downtown movie palace could get millions in city funding, to be matched by its nonprofit operators, for a needed restoration and equipment upgrade. 

The Florida Theatre first opened on a spring day in 1927, a seven-story wonder with a rooftop garden joining other movie palaces lining Forsyth Street with elegant names like the Savoy, Empress, Imperial, Palace and St. Johns.

The historic 1,900-seat Jacksonville theater, home to everything from summer movie festivals to holiday Nutcracker ballets and major musical acts, is the only one left. It could see its first major renovation since the 1980s.

The city budget proposed by Mayor Lenny Curry this summer has $1 million for the Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center at 128 E. Forsyth St., if it passes this fall. The bill also allocates $1 million more each year for the next four, if passed by the City Council each time. The nonprofit theater must match the $1 million each year, meaning a potential total $10 million to make some much-needed updates, theater president Numa Saisselin said.

Theater officials lobbied for the funding on renovations they say are needed at the city-owned facility, then their nonprofit group will have to “lay the money out” first and get reimbursed by the city, he added.

“We will deploy the latest technology so things will be made modern, but it will more or less look the same. We care about that. It is one of the things that makes the Florida Theatre special, the building that’s been here for 90-plus years,” Saisselin said.

“It’s the one building of the 13 that were once on the Northbank, and the six that were once here on Forsyth Street,” he added. “We are something special and we want to preserve that.”

The Florida Theatre was built on the site of the former city police department and jail at Forsyth and Newnan streets. Opened as a movie house, it would host concerts, pageants and stage shows in its decades, as well as see some changes. But with the decades came aging, with only 803 of its 1,900 seats still functional when it was closed in 1980, according to the theater history at floridatheatre.com/about-ft/history.

On Oct. 31, 1981, the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville purchased it from Plitt Southern Theatres for $1 million. The funds came from city and state coffers and fundraising. In 1982 $4 million was raised and borrowed for restoration of the entire theater. The original balcony seats were restored, with new seats on the floor and their original cast iron aisle sections repaired and retained. The lobby concession stand and marquee were also restored. The theater was officially accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places before its reopening Sept. 7, 1983, in its current configuration.

Since then, the theater has had more work, including painting, lighting and sound system updates in 1994, Saisselin said. The facility remains in good shape, he said, but a quick look inside shows some age, with peeling paint in the intricately detailed proscenium arch over the stage. More is needed to improve the theater’s ability to provide better customer service, earn money to be self-sufficient and compete with venues like Daily’s Place at TIAA Bank Field and proposed new facilities in the stadium’s Lot J, Saisselin said.

“There’s a lot of stuff that needs upkeep,” he said. “Lighting, sound projection systems are all over 25 years old. That’s ancient by today’s technology standards. ... Our bathrooms are charitably better suited to a suburban tract house than a beautiful old theater. They can look nicer and we can make more efficient use of the space.”

The classic wooden theater seats date from the 1980s renovation, so they will be replaced, maintaining the historically appropriate look with new backs and cushions, he said. No elevator can be added, since there is no place to build it, he said. But Saisselin said they are discussing connecting the second-floor theater lobby to their office building next door to create an added 3,000-square-foot lobby and reception space.

Saisselin said they are grateful the mayor has included the funding in the budget and “highly confident” they can raise their $5 million part of the renovation funds to match the city funding. He said the nonprofit group raises $1.5 million each year to balance its operating budget anyway. Its nonprofit corporation earns 85 percent of its annual budget from its concert sales for about 250,000 people a year, plus concessions, fundraisers like the “Blues, Brew & BBQ” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, plus corporate sponsorship.

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