In downtown Gainesville, a pale, columned building looks almost out of place among the brick facade of surrounding streets. Though it visually stands out, the Hippodrome Theatre has been the heart of downtown.
For nearly 50 years, it has welcomed new and familiar faces to its seats and its stage and played an important role in Gainesville culture, bringing new businesses and expanding nightlife as swarms of people discovered the city’s downtown area.
Author Richard Gartee talked to about 100 people about the Hippodrome Theatre’s impact on the community during a July 8 Matheson History Museum event. In his talk, he presented his latest book, “The Hippodrome Theatre First 50 Years.”
“If we don't record this now, we will not know,” Gartee said. “This information will be lost forever.”
Gartee’s book tells the long story of the theater, starting at its original Hawthorne Road location and following the move to its current location at the old Post Office building in downtown Gainesville. The book contains information from every show the Hippodrome has ever put on and analyzes how the theater brought more businesses downtown to accommodate for the developing nightlife.
Gartee had two clear main reasons for writing this book, he said.
“One was to preserve this information for the future,” Gartee said. “The second was to help reinvigorate the interest in the Hippodrome, which COVID kind of knocked out.”
When the author walked into the museum with his book, Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney, the 30-year-old executive director of the Matheson Museum, knew it would be a popular event.
“The Hippodrome is a very popular subject here,” Hof-Mahoney said. “People really love the Hippodrome in Gainesville.”
The Hippodrome has been a valuable partner for the Matheson Museum for years. Whenever it hosts shows, visitors sometimes will come to Gainesville earlier in the day to explore the city. Sometimes they will go to downtown restaurants or bars, but other times they will visit the museum located less than half a mile away.
“They are such a wonderful anchor for downtown and bring all sorts of people in to visit the area,” Hof-Mahoney said. “That is something that we can benefit from as well.”
The Hippodrome has attracted millions of visitors, bringing business to other downtown spaces. In Gartee’s book, he writes this is what helped revive downtown and spark the historic preservation effort of the area.
One attendee, Nell Rainsberger, a 68-year-old Gainesville actor, has been involved with the Hippodrome from the very beginning. She has been in several shows and also works as a developing consultant for the theater. She just finished a show called “Native Gardens” where she played the role of Virginia Butley, the wife of character Frank Butley, played by her husband, Kevin Rainsberger.
She believes Gartee’s talk and book will bring awareness to the Hippodrome’s importance.
“The Hippodrome is such an integral part of Gainesville, certainly in the downtown and the arts,” Rainsberger said. “Having that documented certainly makes a big difference.”
It was nice celebrating the impact of the Hippodrome with so many friends and people, she said. Many other actors, patrons and Hippodrome subscribers attended the event and reminisced on stories from the past. One attendee shared a story of how they worked at a hotel where actors would stay. Another still has posters from decade-old shows.
The loyalty of these Hippodrome followers is what keeps it alive.
Jessica Hurov, former managing director of the Hippodrome, said there is still a lot of work to be done to keep it that way.
“The billing of today's talk is how it saved the downtown. I don't know if it's fully saved,” Hurov said. “The Hippodrome to me is a real living breathing entity. What it needs to survive is people, and it needs revenue.”
She knows it’s been hard to return to these spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic, but she encourages people to go back to the theater, she said.
Besides the economic and cultural value it brings, the Hippodrome and local theater in general also has spiritual importance that needs to be preserved for future generations, she said.
“When the people can come together into one sacred space, which is the main stage at the Hippodrome and all participate in hearing a story and experiencing joy, pain, tragedy, laughter, together, that's what makes us human and elevates us out of the daily grocery run,” Hurov said.
Contact Aubrey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @aubreyyrosee.
Aubrey Bocalan is a third-year journalism major. She is also pursuing a double major in Art. When she isn't writing, she's probably watching TV with her dog, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore Bocalan.