Florida Theatre, Downtown

by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012

It was the way movie theatres were built. They would come to be called “movie palaces,” and the architecture loosely described as “high style.”

He likes to believe that every cultural act ever performed in a building like this leaves some kind of residue. The building is thick with it. Like layers and layers of the thickened syrup plasters of history. Including tonight.

Built in 1926, on the former location of a police station and jail, the Florida Theatre’s interior golden-brown stucco itself feels thick. The motif that architect Roy Benjamin incorporated into the depths of the theatre was a “Moorish courtyard at night.” You stand by the telephone alcove off from the lobby and feel the interior of the building receding into itself. The building is a womb nesting inner recesses inside inner recesses. On certain nights, the telephone alcove becomes the building’s sanctum sanctorum.

The building was designed to be ancient when it was new, and now it’s grown much older than its accumulation of years.

Elvis Presley was arrested for shaking his hips here. Before him, vaudeville troupes legally and without offense to their audiences, wore blackface here. Within a week of each other in 2012, Jane’s Addiction sang “Been Caught Stealing” and a 13 year-old dancer from a local studio danced part of the Cyclone from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“But,” he said, “I remember it was almost Christmas, 1953, and I was standing by that alcove for the telephones, and this woman came out from those brown folding doors, and I had never seen her before. She looked me deep in the eyes, and I watched her eyes move from one of my own eyes to the other. She told me I had a phone call.

“I stepped down into the little room with the telephones. I picked up the phone. I said hello. I heard a woman’s voice I did not seem to know, and she said, ‘I can’t hold it up much longer. It’s getting heavy.’ Her voice was breathy.

“I said, ‘Who is this?’

“She called herself Mrs. Blackburn. She told me she was going to be my mother’s English teacher and that in five years, my mother would graduate high school, that my mother would give birth to me late in her own life, but that I was to remember I was already here, that the year was 1953, that the Florida Theatre was not even 30 years old, but that when it was 85 years old, 26 years after my mother was dead, I would watch my daughter dance on the stage beneath the proscenium arch and its 65-ton girders.

“Mrs. Blackburn told me I would buy the house she lived in just off Pinegrove Avenue, but that she could never know it. Nor, of course, could my mother.

“‘And if you can never know it, whoever you are, how is it you’re telling me this?’ I asked her, but she only told me that time was stranger than I knew. ‘And for all you know,’ she said, ‘I might be calling you from sometime before either of us was born, or from sometime after both of us are dead.’

“And then two things occurred to me simultaneously. I both remembered one distinct night in the past and remembered, as it were, a night that had not yet happened.

“In the process, I wondered if Mrs. Blackburn knew I was talking to her. Perhaps she was decades dead before I ever learned of her.

“In the process, I wondered if I were talking to a ghost, I wondered if I myself were years or decades or longer dead, and I wondered if my great-great-grandchildren could once feel me in the room with them, even now, even as I say these words, even as I watch their reactions and long to touch them.

“And I remembered when Mitchell played the Mighty Wurlitzer and we danced on the roof of the Florida Theatre, seven stories above the streets, looking down on the brick and limestone and terra-cotta-faced structures all around us, looking down on the river, and the lambent lights reflected thereon, and watched how the river itself mocked our ideas of time and memory, first metaphorically and then literally, until we saw that in the present moment we were ghosts, and that there is no present moment, and that there is no present moment.

“And I waited there in the telephone alcove, when the night happened that had not happened.

“At the dress rehearsal, my daughter, you stood there in green tulle and chignon, stood en pointe, Emerald City around you, the focus blurs, the focus blurs, the angles of your face both strong and soft, and upon the way you move, and upon the way the others move about you, I said to myself, ‘I have nothing but my own ignorance and my own smallness.’”

But seeing toward the past to pivot toward the time to come, he thinks to be thankful for such smallness, for the state of wonder in which it places him.

He does not have the vocabulary to describe even the movements of her arms. The way her arms move out from her body and from her face mimics something in the garden and something in time. History might move this way, but it is bigger than him. He does not know if he is even as large as the arc of her wrist somewhere in one second on stage beneath the proscenium arch and between staircases to back spaces behind and above the audiences.

“Who are you?” he says into the phone, and Mrs. Blackburn says she has taught his mother to write and his mother will sometime think to write and will, but she will not call herself a writer, but he will, and that he will name his daughter after the oldest sacred texts on the planet Earth, and that she is a writer too (even then she was already writing).

He will never figure out his own role. He stands between a trillion telephone exchanges in the alcove. In 1961, Jacksonville had five exchange names. Exchange names were based in streets or neighborhoods. You dialed the first two letters of the name, followed by the phone number:

Elgin

Evergreen

Exbrook

Flanders

Poplar.

Call me. Evergreen 65-123.

Such small differences. It’s such small distances that seem irreconcilable. It’s the closeness of ghosts that haunts us so. If we were much further apart, we might not recognize ourselves to haunt ourselves, but we are just close enough to miss one another. Do you see me? Just reach forward. Kiss me. Or cut me. Just reach forward (or backward). I will kiss you. Or cut you. Just reach.

I can feel your warmth in Evergreen and Poplar. You are so close to me I can smell you.