The Alhambra's Opening Night

Johnson.Drury.Ballis-ClosingNight-CatchMe

// book excerpt by Charles Day

There were glamorous and dazzling gowns, well-tailored tuxedos, and distinguished military dress uniforms, all worn by the invitation-only crowd carefully compiled from Jacksonville’s “Who’s Who” of movers and shakers—including, to be sure, the Duval County Commissioners whose approval that July had helped make the Alhambra Dinner Theatre a reality. There were exclamations of delight and congratulatory declarations. There was, as Florida Times-Union writer Shirrel Rhoades described it, the “lavish and delicious buffet dinner.” And, certainly, there were magnums of champagne flowing throughout the memorable Wednesday evening… and they kept on flowing well past the scheduled 8:30 PM curtain for Come Blow Your Horn.

But the champagne did not flow for reasons you might surmise. The delay in serving dinner, Rhoades’ account duly reported, was that the flaming prime rib was still in the oven at 8:30 PM, hours after the elegant repast was to have been served. What her account did not report was the prime reason for the flaming prime rib still being in the oven.

Head chef Carl Victor Helm was, as courteous southerners might say, three sheets to the wind; drunk as a skunk.

Ted Johnson, by now accustomed to being resourceful, almost seemed to take impending disaster in stride. Fortunately, the buffet line, while already positioned on stage, was still hidden behind the closed curtain.

“Just get him off the stage,” said Johnson to assorted colleagues when alerted, adding “And keep everybody entertained,” as he handed bottles of champagne to nearby associates.

One of them was attorney Barry Zisser, who had charted the Alhambra’s path to securing its liquor license. He now had a bottle of bubbly in each hand, and immediately began pouring the sparkling spirits into the empty or half-empty glasses within reach. As soon as he emptied the bottles, Zisser was handed two more. An ironic epilogue to Zisser’s legal journeys within state and county officials? There wasn’t time to ponder.

Meanwhile, on stage, backstage and in the kitchen, Alhambra staffers scrambled to put the finishing touches on the buffet, nurse the prime rib to perfection, and keep the inebriated head chef out of sight. The guests never caught a glimpse. Herr Helm was gently whisked from the stage and kept safely hidden.

What could not be kept out of sight, however, were other remnants of unfinished business: a hammer or two still pounding as the guests arrived; the cement floor still awaiting carpeting; the not-quite-dry painted railings that left their marks on some of the gowns and trousers; and the brand new movable stage that refused to move.

“By the time everybody had all the champagne, nobody cared,” Zisser later recalled with a smile.

Before long, Johnson’s colleagues had figured out how to get the stage rolling and “purring like a gigantic Murphy bed.” Wherever it finally wound up—all the way into position, or just part way—didn’t seems to matter, either. Dinner was served at last, and the show did go on, to the unanimous acclaim of the attendees and the local critics.That very first opening night merits one last historical note: It was an encore celebration for director George Ballis and his wife Marcy. They had been married three days earlier, on December 10, 1967.

The gala evening Johnson and his colleagues had arranged immediately set a trend: The Alhambra was the place to attend, and the venue where politicians, military brass, and civic and business leaders of every stripe went to be seen. They dressed accordingly. Going to the Alhambra? Wear your finest.

Critics reviews of early productions were almost always glowing. By mid 1968, sellouts were common, especially on weekends. And, whatever the production, its opening night “Gala” became a must-attend event.

• • •

Arguably, no one better personified the Alhambra’s formula for early success than Betty Grable: a still glamorous and gorgeous movie star who had rocketed to fame as the No. 1 World War II pin-up queen sold out the house night after night.

Grable’s appearance as Billie Dawn in the Garson Kanin comedy Born Yesterday in January 1973 was so popular it was held over for another two weeks. And, from all indications, she was delighted to stick around. “She was wonderful!” praises George Ballis, who directed her. “And very modest.”

So modest that when Ballis asked Grable during rehearsal to be sure to pause for a long time while making her first entrance in Scene One, she asked why. “Because you’re going to get applauded, and no one will hear your line,” Ballis explained. Grable agreed, but was dubious—until the opening crowd gave her a thunderous ovation. More ovations followed.

Grable didn’t mind hiding her legs, of course but she was concealing a secret: Throughout her Alhambra run, she also was being treated for cancer at a Downtown Jacksonville hospital. For anonymity’s sake, she registered as “Betty James,” as she was officially known from 1943 to 1965 when she was married to bandleader Harry James.

It may have been one of their last meetings. Betty Grable died of cancer on July 2, 1973 in California. After her death, Grable’s Alhambra performance was cited in a biography about the actress.

It had been her last professional appearance. Despite her illness she never missed a performance. “She was a real trooper,” remembers Ted Johnson. “And after the shows, she’d play cards and have drinks with the cast and crew.”

• • •

Reprinted with permission from Alhambra Theatre & Dining: 50 Years of Memories by Charles Day (Alhambra Theatre & Dining, $39.99). Available from the publisher online at alhambrajax.com.