Four from San Marco purchase historic movie theatre

Jonathan Davis, Frank Sanchez, Andrew Oetjen and Ryan Davis are the new owners of the San Marco Theatre.
Jonathan Davis, Frank Sanchez, Andrew Oetjen and Ryan Davis are the new owners of the San Marco Theatre.

The historic San Marco Theatre, which is commonly considered to be among of the 10 best classic theaters in America, has been sold.

In what was described by the new owners as a case of “the seller handpicking the buyers,” the torch of ownership of the iconic 81-year-old San Marco landmark passed on Jan. 4 from long-time proprietor David Blue to four long-time San Marco residents and local businessmen – Frank Sanchez, San Marco Theatre Manager Andrew Oetjen, and brothers Ryan and Jonathan Davis.

“It is a bittersweet decision because I have very much enjoyed my time at the San Marco (Theatre), interacting with you wonderful folks and my forever young staff,” wrote Blue in an email to Joel Embry and Ginny Myrick, who passed it along to The Resident

“The decision is made easier in that the new owners are all San Marco residents and understand what this theater means to the community,” Blue continued, noting that he owned the theater for 23 years. “They already have substantial investments in existing businesses in San Marco Square and have a real understanding of what a driver the theater is to other San Marco Square restaurants, bars, and shops. They are filled with new energy, which I am sure will translate into great stewardship. They are getting their feet wet understanding the day-to-day operations. I am sure they will make wonderful improvements over time. It is time for fresh eyes to continue on and keep the San Marco Theatre going for another generation.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president when renowned local architect Roy Benjamin designed the art deco theater in 1938. Built by the E.J. Sparks group, which owned 100 movie theaters in Florida, the San Marco Theatre accommodated 500 patrons, and had operating equipment in its projection booth considered to be among the most modern and finest in the country, according to a June 4, 1938 article in the Florida Times-Union.

Described as the “finest picture house in the South,” on the theater’s opening night, then Jacksonville Mayor George Blume purchased the first ticket and former Jacksonville Mayor John T. Alsop assisted in operating the modern picture equipment during its first showing, which was a double feature – “A Slight Case of Murder” with Edward G. Robinson and Jane Bryan, followed by “Hopalong Rides Again,” starring William Boyd, according to the article.

Since then, the theater has thrived under the tutelage of at least three owners, carving out a special place in the hearts of many San Marco residents. Ryan Davis recalled his wife, Leighton, viewed her very first movie within the theater’s hallowed walls. “She grew up in San Jose and came here when she was growing up. I think she saw her first movie here. It was ‘E.T.’ and she cried hysterically,” he laughed, noting he also took his wife to the San Marco Theatre many times when they were dating.

All four of the new owners said they are avid movie buffs, frequenting the theater before they owned it, sometimes as often as once a week. Because they appreciate what a “gem” the theater is, is the big reason Blue sought them out as potential buyers, said Ryan Davis.

“David approached Keith Kimball, our landlord, and let him know he was interested in selling the business and that he wanted it to go to someone who was going to preserve it and keep it as it is, the way people love it and they way it’s been going for a long time,” Davis said. “Keith put us in contact with David, and we met with him in our office. He told us he had an interest in selling and what his wishes would be post ownership. He wanted it to stay as the San Marco Theatre. He didn’t want it to become part of a big-box theater chain. He wanted to see that it went to somebody who will care about it and cares about San Marco and loves the history behind it.”

For all intents and purposes, Blue got his wish. Jonathan Davis owns Stowmarket Holdings, dabbles in real estate and is currently rehabbing two San Marco apartment buildings with his partner, Sanchez, who owns limited partnerships in both Town Hall, and Grape and Grain, and is CEO of a new Southbank banking software firm, Finxact, Inc. 

Ryan Davis owns Piper Homes, a residential construction company that often works in Jacksonville’s historic communities. He occasionally works on projects with his brother and is a member of the city’s Historic Planning Commission. 

Oetjen, who grew up in San Jose, attended San Jose Catholic and Bishop Kenny High School, and brings continuity to the ownership group by having served as the theater’s manager for the past 10 years. “I worked for David Blue when I was in high school. I knew his son. I grew up with him,” he said, noting Blue hired him as manager in 2008 when the recession caused him to lose his job as an agent for the Port of Jacksonville. “David got me the management job and said, ‘If you are ever interested in taking this over, we can talk about it.’ He really helped me out.”

So far, the new owners plan to keep their staff and do not plan to make any changes apart from possibly brightening the theater’s exterior with a new paint job, extending the menu at the concession stand, and perhaps experimenting by showing some foreign films. “We’re going to restore the exterior a little bit,” said Sanchez. “We want to clean it up and bring it back to its original shape over time.”

Because Blue spent $250,000 on a major renovation to the playhouse in 2016, reducing the seating to 177 leatherette rocker chairs in the large theater, doubling the size of the kitchen, revitalizing two new restrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and adding a second 43-seat theater so he could double his business by showing two movies simultaneously, the business is healthy and the theater is a good financial investment, said Sanchez. “The addition of the second theater changed the economics significantly,” he said. “A lot of the business is driven by concessions. Most of the ticket sales go to the studios.”

Sanchez also added that Amaretti’s Bakery will continue to sublease a portion of the building in front of the theater’s second screen, giving movie-goers another option when it comes to selecting sweet treats to munch on in the theater.   

“We have the best customers in the world. The only suggestions we’ve heard so far are what kind of movies people want to see,” he said.

“David’s advice to us was, ‘I know you are going to come in and try things out and make small changes. Some of them will work and some of them won’t,’ but he encouraged us to have fun with it,” said Ryan Davis. 

Jonathan Davis agreed. “I think the most exciting part of this for me – honestly, my hair stands up on end just talking about it – is that I can’t believe we as an eclectic group own the San Marco Theatre. My office has been in San Marco Square for seven years, and I would walk by it every day, look at it and say, if there’s one business I would want to own in San Marco Square it would be the theater. But it felt far-fetched, like something that could never be reality. It was a dream. Now I know we are going to have a lot of fun because we get to own a movie theater,” he said.

“Last weekend, on Saturday, I asked Ryan if he wanted to go watch a movie. We got some Maple Street food to go and got our kids and wives together and came down here to the small theater and put Aladdin on at 9 a.m.,” he continued. “That’s two families and all our kids – talk about creating memories. By owning this place, our kids will have the same story as Leighton and so many people have had as children, and that is that they saw their first movie at the San Marco Theatre.” 

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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