Words and images by Erin Reedy
The Alhambra Dinner Theatre has been a Jacksonville fixture since 1967.
On most evenings and some afternoons, well dressed theater-goers pack the parking lot for a chance to dine out while enjoying some top-quality plays and events.
The theater, just east of I-295, has been packing them in since it opened in an era when dinner theaters thrived across the nation. It continued to thrive as entertainment venues beckoned to patrons from all directions, when the crowds that once attended dinner theaters dwindled.
But in Jacksonville, the marquis of the Alhambra Dinner Theatre has never dimmed. Audiences of today continue to arrive to see the curtain rise for new scenes, new roles, new memories.
Becky Uibel, the theater’s box office manager, has been with the Alhambra for 22 years. She, like the theater’s patrons themselves, was attracted by the Alhambra’s big-name celebrities and events.
“I am a huge fan of old movies and movie stars,” Uibel said. “There is an old actress from the ‘40s named Betty Grable … and I’m a huge fan of hers. When I was 18, I read an article that said [the Alhambra] was the last place that she had performed before she passed away and I went ‘Well, she was there then I want to be there. So at 18 years old, I started here as a hostess.”
The rich history of the theater goes far beyond the celebrities that have passed through the doors. The theater itself pays homage to a similar location in Granada.
“The whole building is based on the Alhambra in Spain, and even the fountain out front, with the exception of the lions, is an exact replica of the one in Spain,” Uibel said.
This one-of-a-kind building comes with more than just a mirror image in a different country. It comes with an experience that is uniquely Jacksonville’s.
“This is the only resident theater between Atlanta and Miami,” said Mark Berman, the marketing director for the Alhambra.
Although the theater has never closed its doors, except for brief renovations, it has seen changes.
After changing ownership in 2009, the Alhambra Dinner Theatre underwent substantial renovations. The traditional buffet was updated to a table service meal that features an appetizer, entrée and dessert. The stage and sound was updated as well and brought into the digital age.
“[The Alhambra] has changed quite a bit,” said Berman. “There’s been a huge cultural change. I think it comes from all the physical changes and product changes, but we are 100 percent a service-oriented business that runs a great theater and great restaurant, and our guests will find that their comfort and their experience is our first priority.”
The quaint venue has gained recognition throughout the community and beyond.
“USA Today wrote us up as one of the top 10 most romantic places in Jacksonville,” said Berman.
That kind of publicity has brought theater patrons from outside the local area.
“There is a large out-of-town audience — quite a few bus tours come through here and international, too,” Uibel said. “The bus tours come from all over the country.”
With a different show and menu every couple of weeks, each visit is new. Even the stage is uniquely designed for every show, which creates an extraordinary experience with every visit.
“We are a destination,” Uibel said. “Once you get out of your car here, you are fed and you have a show in one spot. You don’t have to go anywhere else, and nobody else does that.”