The Florida Theater
Jacksonville, FL

Marquee and front entrance to the Florida Theater
Photo © Florida Theater

On the spot where once stood an unkempt police station that had housed in its sordid career many of the riff-raff of the world, there has come into being a thing of beauty, a palace of dreams.

Thus reported the Jacksonville Journal following the opening night of the Florida Theatre, the fifteenth movie house in Jacksonville and undoubtedly the most lavish. The Florida Theatre was part of the short-lived American phenomenon of fantasy-inspired movie palaces that began with New York's opulent Regent Theatre in 1913 and was spread by theatre promoter S. L. "Roxy" Rothafel. Every major city in the U.S. (and many small towns as well) built grandiose downtown movie theatres, whose ornate auditoriums were designed to heighten the escape from reality that was projected on the silver screen. In the 1930's the Great Depression brought an end to the construction of these glittering show places, and the flight to suburbia and decline of downtown areas throughout the U.S. in the 1950's and 1960's doomed many of them to extinction.1

The Florida Theater on East Forsyth St. Jacksonville, FL
Photo © Florida Theater

But the capacity crowd at the Florida Theatre opening on April 8, 1927, had no reason to foresee any gloom. Theatre-goers were dazzled by the lavish interior, the theme of which was a Moorish courtyard at night. Fountains, dramatic balconies, coffered ceilings and a grand proscenium arch were embellished with polychromatic sculpted ornamentation. The program began with a fanfare from the American Legion Bugle Corps, followed by a live stage show "Pageant of Florida." An eighteen-piece orchestra, which slowly rose into view on its movable orchestra pit, added to the spectacle. This was followed by the movie feature, a silent two-reel comedy titled "Let It Rain," accompanied by Robert E. Mitchell on the "Mighty Wurlitzer" pipe organ. After the program, patrons danced to orchestra music on the open-air rooftop garden, overlooking the city lights and riverfront from the seventh-story level.1

The stage at the Florida Theater

Photo © Florida Theater

The building itself was nearly as much of a marvel as the surreal movie auditorium inside. Over one-million bricks were used in its construction, and they were laid in a record twenty-one days using ready-mixed mortar for the first time in the South. The exterior walls were given an unusual texture by laying the bricks "with headers advancing." Colorful ornamental terra-cotta was used to frame some of the windows at the second, third, and seventh-story levels. The Mediterranean Revival style facade was designed with a central Baroque parapet framed by twin towers, and it was originally topped by a mission-tile roof. The ground floor was faced with polished limestone and featured several retail storefronts, as well as the entrance to nearly 20,000 feet of upstairs office space, denoting the true mixed-use function of the building. (The roof garden was enclosed in 1938 to provide additional office footage.)1

View from the stage
Photo © Florida Theater

The structural framing of the theatre is unique, with two-thirds of the massive balcony supported by only two steel trusses, each of which spans ninety feet and is approximately 8 1/2 feet deep. During construction it was reported that one of these girders alone weighed sixty-five tons. Another interesting technical aspect of the theatre is that it was fully air-conditioned at the time of its opening, a rarity in 1927. The basic components of this air system are still operational today. The theatre also had central heating and a central vacuuming system.1

The staff of the Florida Theater - 1933
Photo © Florida Memory Project

The Florida Theatre survived the Depression by using innovative features such as "Screeno," a bingo game projected on the great screen, and "Bank Night." Perhaps the most widely noted event in the theatre's history occurred in 1956, when Elvis Presley made his appearance there. Life Magazine did a feature article on the performance due to the watchful presence of Judge Marion Gooding, who threatened to throw Presley in jail if his pelvic gyrations were too suggestive.1

Hatch Show print
courtesy Florida Times-Union

Baptist preacher Robert Gray denounces Elvis in Jacksonville, FL
Photo by Robert W. Kelley © Life Magazine

The controversy over Elvis' sex appeal reached its Zenith during the summer of '56, when Elvis arrived in Jacksonville for a series of performances.  When he had appeared there in 1955, the Jacksonville girls had been so impressed they'd risen as one to strip him of his clothes.  Now, in an effort to protect these females from further enjoyment, the Reverend Robert Gray held a prayer meeting at Trinity Baptist Church.  There he informed his teenage flock that Elvis Presley had "achieved a new low in spiritual degeneracy.  If he were offered his salvation tonight, he would probably say 'No Thanks.'"  The teens were then instructed to bow their heads and pray for Elvis' redemption.  When Elvis learned of this, he was deeply insulted.  "I feel the preacher was just looking for publicity," he said.  "I have gone to church since I could walk."2

A crowd of Elvis fans, anxious to make their ticket purchases,
waits for the box office at the Florida Theater to open
Photo by Robert W. Kelley © Life Magazine

In Jacksonville they were scheduled to play six shows over a two day period at the Florida Theater.  When they arrived  they were greeted with unsigned warrants prepared by Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding charging Elvis with impairing the morals of minors.  The judge told them he was upset over what had happened during their last visit (hysterical fans nearly ripped Elvis' clothes off) and he wanted to prevent a recurrence.  If Elvis did those hip-gyrating movements for which he was famous, Gooding warned, he would sign the warrants and Elvis would be taken straight to jail.3

Business as usual during the first performance
Photo by Robert W. Kelley © Life Magazine

According to the Jacksonville newspaper, prior to the start of the show, a representative of the American Guild of Variety Artists told them that Elvis would have to join the AVGA and that the Colonel would have to post bond and insurance for other acts in the show otherwise they would prevent the acts from appearing.  This was no doubt because of Elvis' movements onstage and in spite of the fact that they were already members of the Musician's union.  He accepted membership and the Colonel accepted bond and insurance obligations to the AVGA.

Teenage fans scream during Elvis' appearance at the Florida Theatre
Photo by Robert W. Kelley © Life Magazine

Judge Gooding and committee members watch Elvis' show(s)
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

With threats of criminal prosecution, Elvis and his management arranged for legal representation when he performed at the theatre. A young attorney by the name of Clarence Wood was hired to represent him.  Clarence sat just off stage and was there just in case Judge Gooding decided to issue an arrest warrant at the concert and took the assignment in stride noting that Elvis was just a young man trying to entertain his fans.4

Photo © Jay B. Leviton

Prior to the show, Judge Gooding invited Elvis to his chambers to set Elvis straight as to recommended restrictions on Elvis’ performance. Elvis declined this meeting but did meet with Judge Gooding at some point during this visit to Jacksonville.  Fortunately there were no arrests or riots during the concert and Clarence enjoyed the concert and honor of representing Elvis so much that he forgot to bill Elvis.4 

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy FECC

Judge David Gooding, who holds the same seat his father did 50 years ago: Juvenile Court Judge, said "my father had gotten calls from various cities that he had visited -- by law enforcement and judges from the area -- saying that riots had been caused as a result of his performance.  My understanding is that a civic group filed a petition to censor the performance. "  So the elder Judge Marion Gooding called the "sinful" young singer into his chambers. The two talked over how much -- was too much.5

The judge meets with Elvis after a performance
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

Elvis arrives through the alley at rear of theater - Aug 1956
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

Elvis enters through stage door in rear alley - Aug 1956
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

When they did the concerts, the police were out in force, armed with movie cameras.  Elvis did what he was told, but all that nervous energy had to come out in some way.  "That's where the curled lip and the little finger thing really got started", said Scotty.  "He stood there flat footed and did the whole show."  The judge was delighted with the performance.  Later, Elvis told reporters he was unhappy about the controversy.  "I don't do no dirty body movements," he told a reporter.3

Scotty and Elvis onstage
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

Teenage fans during Elvis' appearance at the Florida Theatre
Photo by Robert W. Kelley © Time Inc.

"My father's response, after meeting with Elvis and his lawyers, and hearing from the petitioners, was to instruct him that he would accept wiggling from side-to-side, but no back-and-forth motions," Gooding said.  "What I've been told is that Elvis behaved himself like a gentleman. He was represented by an attorney, and the petitioners got along, and everyone got along well. And I think Elvis understood the concerns that my father had at the time. My father was very pleased with the way Elvis behaved himself during the performances in Jacksonville, all three of my sisters had dates and tickets to come to the concerts... Dad let them come. He saw the performances and thought they were appropriate for them to see," the younger judge said.  "I can remember back during the '70s and '60s that my father would always watch Elvis with great fondness when he would appear on television. He was a big fan."5

Elvis and Bill
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff's Elvis Close Up

"Drive careful on your way home", Elvis teased the crowd.  "and don't let anybody pass you."2  

For some reason many are under the assumption that these performances at the Florida Theater were Elvis' first on an indoor stage in that State.  That is not correct.  The first was at the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona on May 7, 1955.  At best, they were his first indoor performances in that city and were the last appearances that the band made in Jacksonville.  Their next stop, New Orleans.  Ten days later they were in Hollywood and Elvis began work on his first motion picture, "Love Me Tender." 

Scotty and the Jordanaires load up the car for the trip to the next gig
Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff';s "Elvis Close Up"

Throughout the early 1960s, locally produced opera, dance and dramatic presentations in the theatre increased popularity, and civic use—trade shows, fashion shows, benefits and meetings—contributed to making the Florida Theatre a hub of constant activity in Jacksonville.

In the late 1960s, during a period of local and national inner-city decline, the theatre’s management attempted to draw the public back into the theatre by installing the then popular rocking-chair seats and upgrading the quality of films being shown. First-run films such as "Hello, Dolly" and "Paint Your Wagon" were shown, but ultimately failed to bring in large enough crowds. From the early 1970s, until the Theatre was closed on May 8, 1980, B-grade and action movies were shown and the theatre remained only marginally profitable even with concession sales.6

From the balcony
Photo courtesy web

However, the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville purchased the building in the fall of 1981 and, after two years of painstaking restoration efforts, reopened the theatre as a performing arts center in 1983. The Florida Theatre thus joins over fifty other grand movie palaces nationwide that have been restored, including the Tampa Theatre and the Orpheum in Miami. The preservation of the Florida Theatre assures that future generations will be able to experience the grandeur of a bygone spirit of entertainment, as well as to enjoy one of Jacksonville's great interior spaces.1

Main Entrance - Sept. 2008

A new chapter in the theatre's history began on October 1, 1987, when the theatre officially separated from the Arts Assembly of Jacksonville and became an independent entity, legally and financially, governed by its own board of directors. Today, the Florida Theatre is home to about 200 different events annually, with more than 100 days each year used by local not-for-profit organizations. It serves not only as a permanent home for many Jacksonville arts institutions such as Theatreworks, the Florida Ballet, Jacksonville Ballet Theater and the annual Community Nutcracker, but also functions as a true community center, hosting special events, fund raisers, lectures, private receptions, conferences, school programs and corporate meetings. Scores of churches, hospitals, public and private schools, social service agencies, charitable organizations and civic organizations regularly use the theatre. While preserving both its original Mediterranean design and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the theatre provides modern stage equipment to meet the complex technical requirements of today’s artists and performing attractions.6

Aerial Photos courtesy Microsoft Corporation © EathData

Alley in rear of theater - Sept. 2008

stage door in rear of theater - Sept. 2008

DATE: 1926-1927
ARCHITECTS: R. E. Hall & Co. - New York; Roy A. Benjamin
BUILDER: George A. Fuller & Co. - New York
1,930 seats

page added January 12, 2008

1 excerpt from Jacksonville's Architectural Heritage by Wayne E. Wood and Judy Davis courtesy Cinema Treasures
2 excerpt from "Life: Remembering Elvis: 30 years later"
3 except from "That's Alright Elvis" by Scotty Moore and James Dickinson
4 excerpt August 2006 newsletter by David Wood courtesy Wood, Atter and Accociates, P.A.
5 excerpt from "Memories of Elvis' Scandalous First Coast Show" by Grayson Kamm
6 courtesy Florida Theater website

Additional Jay B. Leviton Photos at Jacksonville's Florida Theater from contact sheets courtesy Ger Rijff

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff'

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff'

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff'

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff'

Photo © Jay B. Leviton courtesy Ger Rijff'

photos added March 26, 2009

Jacksonville Revisited

Elvis remembered: Clay woman kissed at 15 by the king of rock 'n' roll

by Lamar Thames 
For the Times-Union  April 28, 2011

Dalton Bray duplicates the kiss wife, Kathy Bray, then 15-year-old Kathy Campbell, received from Elvis Presley in 1956 in Jacksonville
Photos courtesy Lamar Thames and Kathy Bray

Thousands, maybe even millions of teenage girls in the 1950s and '60s dreamed of getting a kiss from Elvis Presley.
Clay County resident Kathy Bray is one of the lucky ones who did get a kiss from the king of rock 'n' roll, who was known for his swiveling hips and sexy sneers.
And she has photographic proof.
She was Kathy Campbell, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Lakeshore Junior High School in August 1956 when she and three of her girlfriends heard Elvis would be performing at the Florida Theatre in Jacksonville.
"We were the first in line and we got a front-row seat for the concert," Bray said in a recent interview at her Fleming Island home. "We were so excited."
After the concert, Kathy said a photographer asked her and one of her friends if they wanted to go backstage and meet Elvis.
They said yes, of course.
"We went back there and met him," she said. "He just said hello and we posed for the picture. You can tell from the picture that he was more concerned about being photographed than kissing me. But I didn't wash my cheek for over a week."
As far as any hubbub surrounding the photograph, which she still has, Kathy said she doesn't remember much.
"I wish I had written it all down, but I didn't," she said, wistfully and apologized for not knowing more of the details. "I just know that we were thrilled to see him perform and to get to meet him. He was just so good looking, and I loved his music."
Unlike many of today's concerts, cameras were allowed into the Presley concert, which is how Kathy came to have the photograph.
"The photographer who took us backstage saw my camera and took the picture of Elvis kissing me," she said. "It is hard to remember all the details."
What Kathy does remember is that she and her friends got to see an uncensored version of a Presley performance.
"Yes, we got to see him move those hips," Kathy said.
Presley had come under attack from religious and civic leaders for "impairing the morals of minors" with his hip-swiveling antics, newspapers reported at the time. Jacksonville was no different. Elvis was denounced in a sermon titled, "Hot Rods, Reefers and Rock and Roll," given at Murray Hill Methodist Church and Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding threatened to arrest the singer. Gooding did order Elvis to tone down his act, one night after Kathy and her friends saw him.
"My parents didn't have any problems with me going to see him," Kathy said. "In fact, I think my mother actually liked Elvis, too. I remember some of my friends coming to our house and watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show; we would scream and cry over him."
After her moment with Elvis and a brief bit of notoriety, Kathy put the picture away and didn't share it with many people for a long time. Finally, she made copies of the original photo and gave them to her children.
"It just brought back so many memories for me," said one of two daughters, Carol Blalock, a teacher at Middleburg Elementary School. She and her sister Susan Rooney, also an elementary school teacher at Middleburg, said they remember their father singing Elvis songs to them when they were children.
"It is just so cool to have that photo as a reminder," Carol said.
Kathy's husband, former Clay County Sheriff Dalton Bray, said she doesn't like to bring attention to herself. "She's very shy," he said.
All that ended a couple of weeks ago when Kathy showed the photo to her preacher, Mike Hailey, at High Point Community Church, who had his own Elvis encounter in 1977 when he was the front-desk clerk at the Jacksonville Hilton. The hotel manager asked for a volunteer to pick up Elvis at the airport about 2 a.m. Hailey said he drove right onto the tarmac to get Elvis, his manager, Col. Tom Parker, and Elvis' entourage.
"Three floors were reserved for Elvis' group," Hailey said. "Even at that late hour, there was a group of fans waiting for him at the hotel as we attempted to sneak him in."
Hailey did not get an Elvis photo of his own, but displayed to his congregation the one of Elvis kissing Bray. Now, more than just a few people are aware that Elvis kissed Kathy Bray, nee Campbell.
While Elvis may have kissed her first, husband Dalton has something greater than that. The two of them will celebrate 50 years of marriage in August - 55 years after that memorable night at the Florida Theatre. ©2011. All Rights Reserved

These following photos are courtesy of the Times-Union Archives during Elvis' appearance in Jacksonville on August 10 and 11, 1956.  Though many are credited by them as taken by Gary Mills, most appear to have been taken by J. B. Leviton and several were published years ago by Ger Rijff in his book Florida Close-Up.

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jackie Rowland and Elvis in Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

Jacksonville - Aug. 1956
Photo courtesy Florida Times-Union

section added May 6, 2011

Special thanks to Sheila Roth for the lead to the photos and to Cristi Dragomir for the link to the story.


All photos on this site (that we didn't borrow) unless otherwise indicated are the property of either Scotty Moore or James V. Roy and unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.

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