But back to the Florida, which has quite a story of its own. Jake Godbold, the mayor of Jacksonville from 1979 to 1987, is on record as being proud of two things he managed to accomplish in a little less than a decade of mayorality: he saved Jacksonville’s train terminal and he saved the exquisite 1978-seat Florida Theatre, a “Mediterranean” confection that features terracotta tiles, and multiple back-lit balconies in its warmly-sconced lobby.
How exactly did Jack Godbold manage to save the Florida, and what made him want to do it? Like Rosemary Cappozola of Staten Island, who loved the St. George Theatre, her own hometown movie palace, enough to mortgage her house, buy the imperiled theater and save it, Jake Goldbold loved the Florida as only a home-grown Jacksonvillian could. It was the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956 — whose controversial hip gyrations had already scandalized a local Baptist congregation and caused a Juvenile Court Judge to threaten Presley with arrest warrants — that sealed Godbold’s love for the place. He and his future wife were teenagers then, and in the audience when Elvis gave a slightly-restrained performance, at the urging of the judge and the Baptist preacher, whose congregation actually had prayed for Elvis.
Elvis had appeared in Jacksonville the year before. His “suggestive” movements had, apparently, driven the audience wild, causing some overwrought teen girls to try to rip his clothes off. This time, the presence of Judge Marion Gooding in the audience — the judge who had issued the famous warnings against lewd body movements — kept a rein on things. In a meeting with the judge prior to performance, Elvis was told he could move his hips side-to-side but not back and forth. On-stage, Elvis apparently restrained himself in this way, teasing the audience by wiggling only a raised finger when he wanted to move his hips front to back, and advising the audience to “drive carefully on your way home and don’t let anybody pass you.” Gooding was satisfied that nobody had tried to rip Elvis‘ clothes off, and the Florida only smoldered with teen passions, rather than burning to the ground.
It was this moment in time, which actually got a write-up in Life (“A Town All Worked Up,” August 27, 1956) that set Godbold’s feet in the direction of saving the Florida, which, like so many movie palaces in the seventies and eighties, was threatened with demolition.
I’m thinking now what single event would make me want to save my beloved hometown theater, the Albee in Cincinnati? Elvis, to my knowledge, never appeared there. But what I feed off fifty years later is a long series of childhood Saturdays, a sweet growing-up time, underneath a regal dome with popcorn and Switzer’s Licorice. The unfortunate Albee was not saved. In 1977, despite the tireless efforts of Save-the-Albee Cincinnatians, the theater that had opened fifty years earlier with Clara Bow in “Get Your Man!” closed with a wrecking crew. Eight hundred miles away, I cried for two theaters: the Albee — a pile of rubble and dreams — and the St. George — which only a year before I’d gone broke trying to save.
Two years after that, in 1979, Jake Godbold took his seat as Mayor of Jacksonville, and the Florida, only half of its 1900 seats still functional, closed a year later. Sometimes only one determined person is all it takes to save a theater — Rosemary Cappozola of local St. George Theatre fame is one example. Another is one Helen Casey, who saw Casablanca first run at The Victory in Holyoke, MA, and spent several decades seeing that rubble-strewn theater safely into the hands of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts. Often, when theaters are saved, whole communities are turned around, because theaters are anchors of fiscal wellness and much-needed community centers, in troubled neighborhoods. Think The Florida, all those dancers sitting on the marble steps next to the theater’s concession stand, eating pizza, waiting to perform. Without that lobby and stage where would they have been on that particular Saturday afternoon?