It’s hard to imagine Gainesville’s music scene without staples such as the Heartwood Soundstage and the High Dive. In the early ‘70’s, Jim Forsman and Jeffrey Meldon came together to create the Great Southern Music Hall, a first-of-its-kind performance space in Gainesville that paved the way for future venues.
Now living on through its exhibit, “Return to Forever: Gainesville’s Great Southern Music Hall,” focuses on the first four years of the music hall, 1974 to 1978, when founders Meldon and Forsman were directly involved, and features photographs from the 1974-1976 house photographer, John Moran.
The community gathered Feb. 24 alongside the two founders, the photographer, Albert Teebagy, who served as a performance promoter, and Bill DeYoung, who wrote for the exhibit.
In early 1973, Meldon, an up-and-coming lawyer, noticed something lacking in Gainesville’s music scene: a music hall. He began looking around and expressing interest in opening one, but felt it wasn’t a project he could take on his own.
The property, put up for sale by its Jacksonville-based owners, is located at 233 W University Ave. It once sat across the street from Forsman’s Young American Shop. Having heard of Meldon’s shared interest in starting a music hall in Gainesville, Forsman reached out.
“Like any kind of a deal, it’s important that the timing is right, the people are right, and everything was just right,” Forsman said. “The city was all right, and it just started coming together.”
They struck a deal to go 50/50 on the project in December 1973 and began renovations and booking acts in early 1974. Meldon invited his friend Albert Teebagy onto the project that same year to help with booking and promotion.
The music hall’s growth was organic, Meldon and Forsman said. They didn’t sit down and draw out their plans — they just saw a stage, dressing rooms and a movie screen and the idea came to life before their eyes.
Moderator Bill DeYoung, who previously worked as arts and entertainment editor for The Gainesville Sun for 22 years during the 80’s, said that the venue offered more to the community than just another performance space.
“There were a lot of live music venues on [UF] campus and you couldn't drink [alcohol] on campus, they didn’t serve it,” DeYoung said.
As the music hall doubled as a movie theater, Meldon and Forsman saw it as a unique opportunity for the local business and also for the Gainesville music scene to sell and serve alcohol.
John Moran, the music hall’s photographer from 1974 to 1976, was only 19 years old when he approached Forsman about being the house photographer, telling him, “you need me.”
Moran, a UF alum, described himself as a civics nerd with the heart of an artist.
When he arrived in Gainesville, he was a rock n’ roll photographer without a camera, ready to take on the community. After purchasing a cheap camera, he was hired on the spot, and two days later shot photos of Bo Diddley at the music hall.
The museum now prominently displays the photo.
“As a child of the ‘70s, I was obsessed with the music of our generation, and I just showed up and it just seems so natural and organic,” Moran said.”Were it not for the medium of photography, we wouldn't be here tonight.”
In 1978, Forsman and Meldon were looking to move out of the music hall business. The venue was in its prime, booking fighting acts like Muhammad Ali, hosting movie screenings, and more big name acts, and the pair were ready to move on to something slower and more stable. They sold the Music Hall to Richmond Smith, the owner of a local club at the time.
Since then, the venue, now called the Florida Theatre, has been used for a number of purposes, including a nightclub.
Currently, the venue sits vacant. The windows are blacked out and broken; the surrounding area is often left unkempt. But, regardless of its current state, there is hope for what was the Great Southern.
William Bryson currently owns the venue and is undertaking a refurbishment project for the theater. The project remains on hold, but Bryson sees it as a vital component to the revitalization of downtown Gainesvillle’s cultural scene.
The idea for the exhibit came around in early 2022 when John Moran started going through his archives of photographs from his time as house photographer. Collaborating with DeYoung’s writing and award-winning graphic designer Rick Kilby’s designing, they created the exhibit that will be on display at least through the end of the year.
As the talk began to wrap up, Jeffrey Meldon ended his talk with a call to action for the Gainesville community, saying the music scene now is the same as the music scene then.
“I just want to encourage everybody to help grow the music scene in Gainesville because the water is the same here, the same water that grew the music hall in the ‘70s in Gainesville,” Meldon said. “It’s still here, and Heartwood is doing an amazing job of bringing great acts.”
Contact Gracey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @graceydavis_.
Gracey Davis is a third-year journalism major and a writer for The Avenue. She is also minoring in theatre. When she's not writing, she loves reading, spending time with her friends, and listening to way too much One Direction.