Post WWII Dinner Club Closes After 66 Years
By Linda Irene
The nation faced economic hardship during The Great Depression and World War II. Over 10,000 Victory Gardens had been planted in Tampa alone, to conserve food. Due to wartime shortages, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and cottage cheese became popular meat substitutes. Kraft sold 80 million boxes of mac n’ cheese by accepting rationing coupons; the cottage cheese industry boasted a distribution of 500 pounds of cottage cheese in one year. It was the era when a gallon of gas cost 15 cents, a loaf of bread 13 cents, and a postage stamp three cents. A new house could be purchased for $6,600, while $1,300 would buy a new car. Despite the effects of the war, Jacksonville leaders and visionaries saw the need to organize a formal, members-only, dinner club, to boost morale. Who could know that the newly formed dinner club would not only thrive, but have a membership wait-list?
The year was 1947—the same year United States Congress proceedings were televised for the first time; Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional baseball player signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African-American to play major league baseball; the World Series was telecast for the first time, and the Ribault Dinner Club, was born with 98 charter members. The inaugural meeting was held May 28, 1947. The club ultimately incorporated as St. Johns Dinner Club in April 1962.
There are no early records indicating membership or dinners costs, but by 1955 annual dues were $15 and elegant dinners including entertainment were $3.00 per plate. The club hosted many famous celebrities, such as: The Amazing Kreskin, who wowed club members October 1975 at the Thunderbird Motel, with his knowledge of extra sensory perception (ESP). Kreskin appeared on The Tonight Show 61 times between 1970 and1980.
Miss Olivia de Havilland, best known for her performance in Gone with the Wind (1939), and co-starring
roles opposite Errol Flynn, entertained the club in March 1976 at the Hilton Hotel. De Havilland won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949). President George W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Arts in 2008.
Edgar Bergen was 11 years old when he taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet. He later commissioned a Chicago woodcarver to sculpt a likeness of a rascally Irish newspaper boy he had known to be the head of his ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Bergen and McCarthy dazzled the club February 1965 at the George Washington Hotel.
Dr. Joyce Brothers spoke at the October 1970 dinner club event held at the Hotel Robert Meyer. Brothers, an American psychologist, television personality and columnist wrote a daily newspaper advice column from 1960 until her death in May 2013.
David Niven appeared at the April 1973 dinner at Hotel Robert Meyer. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Separate Tables (1958). Niven appeared in nearly 100 films and many television shows, but is most known for his role as Sir Charles Lytton in the “Pink Panther” films. Niven died in 1983 after a brief illness.
From its inception club venues varied before finding a permanent home at the San Jose Country Club in the late 90s. Whether held at the famed Hotel Roosevelt, affluent Jacksonville University, elegant Hilton Hotel or the grandeur of Hotel George Washington, all delivered splendor and magnificence.
St. Johns Dinner Club (SJDC) had its heyday in the late 50s, 60s and 70s boasting upwards of 550 members. Some of its most noted members included I.M. Sulzbacher, club president for the 1965- 66 season. Sulzbacher was a civic leader, World War II veteran, political icon and member of JTA. The Sulzbacher Center, which bears his name, is home to more than 340 homeless members of our community providing them with emergency shelter and daily meals, as well as needed medical, dental and mental health care. Another famed member included philanthropist H. Terry Parker, who in 1955 deeded 30 acres of property to erect a public school in Arlington, now named Terry Parker High School in his honor. Parker also served on the Board of Trustees for Baptist Memorial Hospital. Hans Tanzler, American politician and judge, served as Mayor of Jacksonville from 1967 to 1979 was also a member of SJDC, along with Dr. Frances B. Kinne, who served as club president 1979-1980 and became the fifth Chancellor of Jacksonville University.
But as times changed and formal black tie dinners were no longer in vogue membership dwindled. By the 1998-99 season, numbers had dropped significantly to a mere 191 members. The downward spiral continued despite each Board and President’s devotion, hard work and attempt to build membership by bringing in renowned local First Coast artists and distinguished guests, such as Comedian-Magician Mark Alan, Ted Knight and his Littlest Big Band, Phillip Pan, first violinist of the Jacksonville Symphony, Daniel A. Nigro, New York City Fire Chief, on duty September 11, 2001 during the attacks on the city, vocalist Lorna Greenwood and a legendary performance by Randy “Elvis” Walker.
When membership dipped below charter numbers, the Board sadly realized that the club could no longer meet contractual obligations and in spite of every effort made to revitalize and rebuild, it was time to end the 66-year run at the end of the 2012 – 2013 season. The last board meeting heard the recommendation. The motion was made and passed. Once all financial and legal obligations have been met, the Board unanimously voted to donate money left in the treasury equally among its favorite charities which includes: Wounded Warrior Project, Jacksonville Humane Society, Tim Tebow Foundation for children and Community Hospice.
Of interest: Hotel George Washington, situated on the corner of Adams and Julia Streets, was a 15-story luxury hotel in operation from 1926 until it closed in 1971. It was the site of numerous dinner club events. The building was torn down in 1973. Currently, the site is occupied by the new federal court building in downtown Jacksonville. The neon sign atop their building was the first neon sign erected in Jacksonville. By the 60s, it was the only five-star hotel in the area after the demise of the Hotel Roosevelt, which was destroyed by fire Dec. 29, 1963.