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Silent classic ‘Steamboat Bill Jr.’ gets a live Tony Steve soundtrack as Florida Theatre celebrates 90 years

They’re celebrating the Florida Theatre’s 90th anniversary with a throwback film screening that harks back to the venue’s grand movie palace days, and Jacksonville University assistant music professor Tony Steve is setting it all to music.

Assistant Professor of Music Tony Steve

The theater will have a free showing of the 1928 Buster Keaton silent classic “Steamboat Bill Jr.” for the Saturday, April 8, event. It will feature a hybrid score of adapted and original music composed and conducted by Steve, professor of Percussion and Contemporary Music in the College of Fine Arts’ Division of Music. Cake and Champagne will be served afterward.

“This is a great opportunity to see a classic silent film in an iconic Jacksonville setting with live music, the way these films should always be presented,” said Steve, who is one of only a few composers keeping alive the art of scoring silent films.

Variety described “Steamboat Bill Jr.” as “a pip of a comedy” and “one of Keaton’s best.” Over the years, it has become regarded as a masterpiece of its era. A sequence in the film furnished one of the most memorable images of Keaton’s career: he runs into the shot and stands still on a particular spot. Then, the facade of a two-story building topples forward on top of him. Keaton’s character emerges unscathed, thanks to a single open window.

The Florida Theatre

The day after the theater opened on April, 8, 1927, the Jacksonville Journal reported: “On the spot where once stood an unkempt police station that had housed in its sordid career many of the riff-raff of the world, there has come into being a thing of beauty, a palace of dreams. This masterpiece of art is the Florida Theatre…” In a Florida Times-Union article, the facility was dubbed one of the South’s finest playhouses.

Today, it is the last remaining historic theater on the Northbank of downtown Jacksonville, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the city’s last remaining example of 1920s fantasy architecture.

Steve, a JU alumnus, led a College of Fine Arts Division of Music project last year that earned a $10,000 grant from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville funded by Florida Blue. “Hearing What Wasn’t Said” involved three free public screenings of silent films reflecting seasonal themes and accompanied live by scores composed by Steve. It was JU’s first award from the Cultural Council’s highly competitive grant program.

The 8 p.m. April 8 event is presented by Haskell. To obtain free tickets, click here on the Florida Theatre’s site.