Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Curtain Falls on Alhambra, at Least for This Act, Owner Says; the Final Play Was Sunday but an Investor Says He Wants to Keep the Theater Going

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Curtain Falls on Alhambra, at Least for This Act, Owner Says; the Final Play Was Sunday but an Investor Says He Wants to Keep the Theater Going

Article excerpt

Byline: ROGER BULL

The Alhambra Dinner Theatre has closed its doors, but it may not be the end. The theater, a Jacksonville institution for more than 40 years, closed with Sunday night's final performance of "Forever Plaid."

Jacksonville businessman Craig Smith said he's trying to buy the Alhambra and reopen it with improved facilities and dining. He said he's recruiting Matthew Medure, one of Jacksonville's leading restaurateurs, to take over food service.

Smith said he'd then hire Tod Booth, the theater's current owner and director of most of its shows, to continue running the theater.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Booth said. "But I cannot afford to continue; it's cost me everything."

The Alhambra opened in 1967 and has been bucking a national trend for decades, one that has seen the number of dinner theaters decline across the country since their heyday in the 1970s. No national count exists of all dinner theaters, but Booth said that the number that use members of the Actor's Equity union, as the Alhambra did, has dropped from 146 in 1974 to four today.

Last year's downturn in the economy was fatal. Booth said he started feeling it in March 2008 and it just got worse.

His highest annual attendance was 155,000 in 2001. Last year's was about 85,000.

The biggest drop, he said, was in bus tours. At one point, 200 to 300 buses stopped each year as they passed through Jacksonville for an evening at the theater. Lately, it's been down to 25 a year.

It was those bus tours of senior citizens that made up the bulk of the theater's Tuesday-Thursday crowds. Last week, he said, "Forever Plaid" drew 60 to 70 people on those nights. Capacity is around 400.

"Do I think dinner theater is dead in this town?" Booth said. "No; I just can't provide it. The bottom line is that I can't do it on my nickel anymore."

That's where Smith comes in. He sold his Beaches Limousine and Transportation in 2006 and said he's been looking for another project. Then he heard about Alhambra's impending demise.

"I've been going there my whole life," Smith said. "The first time I saw a performance, I was 12. My first thought was, 'Can my 10-year-old not enjoy it the way I have in my life?' We've been there four times in the last year. It developed into a little crusade."

Smith said he's attempting to buy the business this week. And he said he knows that the theater needs changes.

"I've probably talked to 200 people over the past nine days, and so many of them said they used to go, but they stopped because of the food and the decor."

Smith said if the sale goes through, he'd like to reopen the theater within a month, but start giving it a major facelift immediately by redoing the lobby, buffet and restrooms.

"Maybe a new paint job," he said, "to get rid of the Pepto-Bismol pink. …

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