Jacksonville, Florida. By-product of the World War.
During the World War, an organization to provide entertainment for soldiers, called the "War Camp Community Service," was created in Jacksonville. It existed for some time after the war as "Community Service." Then, in the autumn of 1920, at the suggestion of its president, Leed Guest, a branch was formed called "The Community Players." Captain Basil Stephenson was its first president and Miss Maude Francis was brought to Jacksonville to direct its presentations.
The first presentation of the Community Players was "A Marriage Has Been Arranged," by Alfred Sutro, given at the Mason Hotel in December, 1920. During their first season of productions, and in the years following, a score or more people gave much of their time and energy in creating a theatre for Jacksonville.
From 1920 to 1926, The Community Players went through the ordinary good times and bad that Community Theatres experienced during this post- war period. In 1926, however, the name of the group was changed to The Little Theatre of Jacksonville, and a state charter as a non-profit organization was secured. In the years to follow, the Little Theatre was so fortunate as to have a number of highly skilled professional directors.
For several years after the Little Theatre's inception, productions were given in the Women's Club Building on Duval Street. Then came a period in which the Little Theatre found itself bouncing from the Metropolitan Club to the Playhouse, to the auditorium of the Chamber of Commerce, the Morocco Temple, the Arcade Theatre, and then back to the Women's Club.
In 1927-28, when the membership had reached a high mark of six hundred subscriptions, hopes of building the theatre ran high. A lot was purchased and plans were drawn. But the succeeding years proved so progressively disappointing that the idea was abandoned and the lot was sold. Recession in membership kept pace with the general depression (there had also been a Florida depression before 1930) and had reached a point in the fall of 1936 when two attempts to bring together the necessary quorum for an election of officers failed. It became apparent that the organization would collapse unless some new stimulus could be found. A few of the die-hards made a personal canvass of those most interested, and assembled a small but determined group which elected officers, revamped policies, and sent the organization hopefully forward under the capable leadership of its president, Martin Sack. At the suggestion of the new Chairman of the Membership Committee, Carl S. Swisher, the inauguration of a limited seasonal membership of three hundred and fifty was adopted.
This plan proved so successful that for the 1937-38 season the membership limitation was raised to seven hundred, which was fully subscribed long before the first production.
Under the leadership of Sack and Swisher, thoughts of a new home revived. With membership of seven hundred and possibilities of more, it did not seem impossible that the Little Theatre might acquire a permanent home.
At that time Carl Swisher, Chairman of the Membership Committee, advanced a proposal to finance personally a new Community Theatre building, providing the Little Theatre could increase its membership by a respectable number. The ticket selling committee plunged enthusiastically into the work and secured a total of nine hundred and sixteen 1937-38 subscriptions. This surge of energy so impressed Mr. Swisher that he gave the word to go, and estimates for a new theatre building were considered. The original estimate was only $15,000, but development of a complete building plan satisfactory to the organization revealed need for an investment of more than $40,000. Then Mr. Swisher made another notable civic gesture: first a gift of $20,000 outright, and further a loan of $20,000 secured by mortgage without interest.
This theatre is of modern design and built in a new and attractive suburb. The main entrance, on the most prominent boulevard of the community, leads into a large semi-cirailar foyer with an arc-shaped dome. The auditorium seats three hundred and thirty-two people and the sight lines are perfect.
The acoustics, scientifically worked out, and the intimacy of the entire house incite the actors to their best work. The stage is fifty-one feet across, with a proscenium opening of forty feet The front of the stage consists of three different floats permitting rapid scene changes; all that is necessary is to move each set secured on one of the floats into the desired position. Moving time is less than twenty seconds. On the second floor, readied by a graceful winding staircase, is a large lounge, beautifully decorated, where all assemblies of the organization are held.
The theatre was opened January 18, 1938, with the dedication of a plaque in honor of Mr. Swisher, and nine plays were produced in the space of less than nine months, an extraordinary record for any community theatre in theatrical activity and interest.
Mr. Swisher, elected president at the end of the season, soon afterward held his first board meeting to plan for 1938-39. A strenuous campaign for membership was undertaken and set a new record of fourteen hundred and fifty paid memberships.
A summer school sponsored by the Little Theatre was opened in 1938.
One hundred and forty students enrolled, and classes running three nights a week for four weeks were held in diction, fencing, stage craft, acting and make-up. Short plays, including "Back From Reno," written by the director, Huron L. Blyden, were given as a final presentation of the season.
The Jacksonville Little Theatre has contributed its bit toward American literature by sponsoring playwriting contests from time to time. Among some of the entries that have received production as rewards for excellence in these contests are
"Garden Varieties" and "Ten Years Old," by Elaine Ingersoll Minick;
"The Green Eyes of Eros" and "Slender Strings," by Miss Isabelle Williams;
"The Conqueror/' by Mrs. Willis M. Ball;
"Raw Meat," by Miss Birsa Shepard;
"The Shenstone Emeralds," by Mrs. Irene C. Tippett;
"The Woman of Magdala," by Phillip Devlin (adapted from the story by George Creel) .
Jacksonville is extremely fortunate that Carl Swisher happened to be just a little stagestruck, for without his love of the theatre it would have missed the opportunity it has now of developing one of the finest and most important Community Theatres in America.
During an interview with Mr. Swisher in the oflice of the large corporation of which he is president, we had a shining example of the essential democracy of the American Community Theatre. During the questioning, Mr. Swisher suddenly reached for the telephone and said: "Get me Jack."
A few minutes later a young man in short sleeves, obviously from the stock room, walked into the office and took his place in a heated discussion of the policies and future ambitions of the Jacksonville Little Theatre. Here was the president of a large business corporation and his stock room clerk spiritedly seeking a solution to the artistic problems that faced their mutual avocation The Jacksonville Little Theatre.