April 8, 1927, opening night at the Florida Theatre. The program that evening boasted fanfare from the American Legion Bugle Corps, a live beauty pageant, and a live performance by Frank Morris and the Brilliant Florida Orchestra. The feature attraction that evening was a two-real silent film titled "Let it Rain" (1927). Organist Robert E. Mitchell accompanied the film on the theatre's new $100,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ.
The Florida Theatre has a rich history, including a notorious 1956 performance by rock n' roll icon Elvis Presely on August 10 and 11. At the time of his performance Presley was riding a wave of success that came as a result of his hit singles "Heartbreak Hotel," Hound Dog," and "Don't Be Cruel." Presley played a total of six shows over the course of two days. Elvis had played Jacksonville a year before and city officials were deeply disturbed by how teenagers responded to the performer's on-stage gyrations. In advance of his return, a committee was formed, and Juvenile Court Judge Marion Gooding prepared arrest warrants, with charges of “impairing the morals of minors.” Presley himself was invited to Judge Marion's office, where the Judge threatened to execute the warrants if Elvis’ on-stage antics were too suggestive. "Life Magazine" chronicled the episode and Jacksonville, Elvis, and the Florida Theatre received extensive national coverage. The judge and police were present during Elvis' performance. It was unclear whether they were there to keep the audience from rushing the stage or as a visible reminder to the performer to behave.
The Florida Theatre hosts 200 cultural and entertainment events annually. More than just an entertainment center, the Florida Theatre is also home to graduations, awards ceremonies, lectures, business meetings, and charity events that support Jacksonville's schools, churches, hospitals, and civic groups. Each year the theatre draws 250,000 people to Jacksonville's city center. The Florida Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We had an opportunity to interview Numa Saisselin, President of the Florida Theatre. Numa has been with the Florida Theatre since 2012. He brings with him over 25 years of experience. From 2002 until 2012 Numa was the CEO of the Count Basie Theatre, a historic 1,500 seat theatre located in Red Bank, New Jersey. The theatre grew from $1.5 million a year to $8.5 million a year during Numa's tenure at the theatre. Numa's experience also includes Managing and Artistic Director of the City University of New York's College of Staten Island Performing Arts Center (1998-2002), Executive Director of the Paramount Center for the Arts (1992-1997), a Bechelor's Degree in Music Education from Fredonia School of Music, where he worked his way through college as a stagehand, and an MBA from Adelphi University. Numa is also a musician, playing the French horn.
10 Questions with Numa Saisselin
What is the mission of your organization?
If this were a radio interview, this is the point at which I’d say it’s really great to be here, so before answering your question, let me just say that it’s really great to be here. The official mission statement of the Florida Theatre is, and I quote, “to enhance the North Florida community’s quality of life by providing diverse and memorable arts and entertainment experiences, and by preserving a unique historic Jacksonville landmark.” Unofficially, I like to say that 175-nights a year we turn out the lights and show people a good time.
When was your organization formed and how has it grown?
The Florida Theatre Performing Arts Center, Inc. is the nonprofit corporation that manages and programs the historic Florida Theatre in a public/private partnership with the City of Jacksonville, which owns the building. We were founded in 1987, which is when the City purchased the building from the Arts Assembly, who had bought the building in 1980 and renovated it. We have a 100 year lease on the building. It’s a great relationship because as an independent nonprofit corporation, we can do things that the City can’t. We can negotiate for artists, and we can raise money. For instance, any day now we are starting a restoration project on the façade. We were able to secure over 40% of the funding for the project from a State grant. The Mayor’s office, City Council, and DIA all worked together to come up with the rest, but we were able to secure the biggest chunk of the funding for work that needed to be done anyway.
What strategies are in place within your organization for you to engage your audiences?
Our whole purpose for being is to bring artists and audiences together, so everything we do is about engaging audiences.
Why is art and culture important
Well, imagine if there was no art nor culture. Imagine waking up tomorrow and the Florida Theatre is gone, and so is the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, the Cummer, MOCA, MOSH, Theatre Jax, WJCT, Players by the Sea, all the arts organizations, and all the individual artists and performers and groups too, from Al Letson to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Imagine a world entirely without that which makes our lives special and bearable, and that’s why arts and culture are important.
What’s your organization’s next major milestone and is this milestone part of a long-term plan?
Next year the theatre celebrates its 90th anniversary. When it originally opened in 1927, there were already five other theatres on Forsyth Street between Newnan and Hogan. The Florida Theatre is the last one standing. Last year we had an 18-year high attendance, and that was enough to make us the 50th most attended theatre venue in the country according to attendance reported to the trade magazine “Pollstar.” Our long term plan is to make it to our 100th anniversary and beyond, and to keep having record years like that in which hundreds of thousands of individuals a year benefit from our activity.
What would you like to see in the arts and cultural community in Jacksonville?
There are a lot of glib and mostly inappropriate responses to this question, but I think what I’d really like to see is more citizens taking more chances. There are nights at the Florida Theatre where I know a lot of the people in attendance, but the nights I really love are when I know almost nobody. That means we’re reaching a new audience. I’d like to see more people taking a chance on something new, even if they’re not sure about it, just for the sake of trying something new. It’s a great metaphor for life and civic engagement.
Does your organization partner with other organization(s)?
Yes. Most recently we co-promoted Jacksonville Dance Theatre’s annual concert. Speaking of trying something new, they are a very high quality, national-class dance company right here in Jacksonville. People should know that and try them out.
What is a program offered by your organization that you’d like to highlight? Additionally, what is an organization that you think more people need to know about?
I inadvertently answered this question already when I mentioned Jacksonville Dance Theatre. More people should know about the Ritz Theatre. Another part of downtown’s cultural heritage. We’re doing several of our own shows there this year, because we needed a smaller venue for some shows, and I am hoping we can introduce some people to the Ritz, and vice versa.
How do you stay up to date with the art and cultural happenings both nationally and in Jacksonville?
Frankly, I am not as up to date as I would like to be. There’s always more to know about. That’s one reason why I try to cultivate relationships with a wide range of people who can tell me about things, especially younger people. I’m bullish on this new group called The Beatles. I think they might go places.
How can others get involved with your organization?
Florida Theatre dot com, or call us at 904-355-ARTS, which is 904-355-2787. In addition to selling you a ticket, we have over 175 active volunteers and we’re always looking for new ones.
The Florida Theatre is located at 128 E Forsyth St, Jacksonville, FL 32202.