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Jefferson Theatre Building in Florida

CHAPTER VIII Fun in the Old Days

The Theatre in the Oldest City

The performing arts have had a place in the life of St. Augustine almost from the days of the city's founding.

Knowing that it was important to impress the Indian population, Menendez brought musicians and entertainers with him to divert and instruct the aborigines. In a pamphlet, "Catholic Church in St. Augustine," there is data concerning the Cofradias, organizations in charge of open-air performances for religious education, an early form of the theatre in Western Europe. As early as 1604 references can be found to the Cofradia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, so it is reasonable to assume that theatrical performances, at least in rudimentary form, were a part of the local scene in the earliest days of the town's establishment.

When the English, under Governor Moore, laid siege to St. Augustine in 1702, a member of the expedition was Tony Aston, who later returned to England to become one of the most famous actors of his day. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that he organized a performing troupe and staged a play or two to while away the tedium of the siege, so St. Augustine cannot claim the honor of being the place where the first real play was performed on North American soil.

The first record of a drama being performed here appears to be in 1783, near the end of the English occupation when the city was jammed with Tory refugees, some of them in rather reduced circumstances. An advertisement in the East Florida Gazette proclaimed: "Monday evening, March 31, 1783. Two plays at the theatre in the State House - a benefit - "Beaux Stratagem" and "A Miss in Her Teens" - characters to be taken by gentlemen. Tickets 5 shillings-nine pence for seats in the pit and 1 shilling for seats in the gallery." The proceeds went to a relief fund for the refugees.

Later on, in 1820, shortly before the Americans took over, there was a Thespian Society in town which rented a hall for their performances from Mrs. Medecis. In 1840, during the Seminole War, the troupe that was ambushed by Indians on their way to town via the Picolata stage, bravely put on a performance of Othello, even though their costumes had been stolen by the savages and some of the members of the company slain.

In that same year, the W. C. Forbes troupe, which was well-known throughout South Carolina and Georgia came to town and performed "The Honeymoon" at the Long Building on Bridge Street, between Marine and Charlotte streets. This edifice had a combined grocery store and bar on the first floor. Outside a stairway gave access to the upper floor where there was a large hall which was used for various entertainments and known as the "opera house. " In the late 1860's and early 1870's an auditorium in the Post Office was the setting for various types of theatricals, one of which was given to raise funds for a Confederate monument.

B. Genovar built and operated an "opera house" on the southwest comer of Cuna and Charlotte streets, and when it was destroyed by fire, he replaced it with what might be called the town's first real theatre on north St. George Street. The famous Joseph Jefferson appeared there in "Rip van Winkle" and a perennial favorite was the Al Fields Minstrel Show, which everybody loved. This theatre burned down in the big fire of 1914.

Many people remember the Jefferson Theatre, built on the site now occupied by the Bank of America. Among its various managers were A. M. Taylor and Emmons R. Groff, who offered many fine plays and musical comedies. Perhaps the most distinguished actress to appear there was the "Divine Sarah" Bernhardt, who did scenes from "La Dame aux Camelias" and "La Mort de Cleopatre." The graduating class of St. Augustine High School in 1923 put on the class play at the Jefferson and in the cast were Hope Foster, Davies Meitin, Harry House, Mabel Poe, Helen Hindry, Elizabeth Jackson and Harry Eff, among others. At the other end of Cathedral Street was a little motion picture theatre, the Orpheum. Oldsters still remember the Saturday serials, such as "The Perils of Pauline" with Pearl White.

St. Augustine's newest setting for the drama was the beautiful amphitheater on Anastasia Island, where the fine historical play, "Cross and Sword" was a summer attraction until 1996. Now under discussion is a plan to make the amphitheater an all-weather arena for other plays and musicals during the winter season as well.

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