When I packed up and moved to the Pensacola area from the Houston, Texas-metropolis years ago, I didn’t look back.
I came here for the amazing coastal outdoor lifestyle and small-town coziness with the understanding I’d be giving up some of the big-city benefits, including attending musicals, theater and ballets.
How naïve I was.
I soon discovered the Pensacola area may be small compared to Houston, but it has a generous slice of the big-city arts and culture. So generous, that it is one of the only southeast cities to boost the big five - that would be a professional theatre, symphony, ballet and opera company, and an accredited art museum - all of which can be found within a few shorts blocks of each other.
On top of that, it had jazz, free outdoor concerts, art galleries and festivals, gallery night and a working art center. It’s all here, and more.
Many visitors are pleasantly surprised to discover this too. We even bear the distinction of having the oldest Symphony in Florida, founded in 1926, and a seasoned Opera. These have helped fuel a growing creative class that continues to feed and expand our cultural offerings.
In a town where the dress code is coastal casual, an added perk to attending the Symphony, Ballet or theatre is the opportunity to dress up. Sequins and black ties, however, are optional. No big town stuffiness here. You’ll fit right in with business casual but leave your flip-flops at home unless they’re sparkling with rhinestones.
If you’re ready to feed your cultural muse, here are some tantalizing offerings.
Pensacola Symphony Orchestra
Founded circa 1926, Pensacola Symphony Orchestra has come a long way from its humble beginnings as the Pensacola Philharmonic Orchestra and Military Band, performing free concerts in a high school auditorium. Today the Symphony performs in the beautiful, historic Saenger Theatre in the heart of downtown Pensacola. Symphony-goers can always count the Symphony Orchestra delivering a fresh menu of diverse programs that evoke emotion and inspire. You will surely want to reserve your tickets early for these performances.
Touting itself as the Big-City Opera with small-town charm, Pensacola Opera delivers on that moniker with beautifully staged and perfectly performed productions.
Testing the waters in 1983, a small group of people interested in opera, including singers, parents of singers, singing teachers, professionals and business people, decided that Pensacola could mine our rich local talent to produce quality opera. They created a grassroots opera company called “Pensacola Chamber Opera.” The fledgling Chamber Opera successfully produced Mozart’s Così fan tutte, in English. The rest is history. For a complete list of performances, click here.
Ballet Pensacola truly showcases the talent pool in Pensacola. Founded in 1978 as the Kaleidoscope Dance Theatre, today it has established itself as a professional performing company with 40 dancers. It serves as a training school for more than 300 students of all ages. With a mission to enhance the cultural experience and develop an appreciation for dance, Ballet Pensacola presents several major productions each season.
The Saenger Theatre, also known as the Grand Dame of Palafox, first opened its doors in 1925. At the time, this Spanish Baroque style theatre played host to various vaudevillian acts, Broadway-style shows and silent films.
Like many grand movie houses of the time, the Saenger was even equipped with its own beautiful organ. However, the Saenger owes much of its grandeur to the Pensacola Opera House, a venue that predated the Saenger and, at one time, was known throughout the South for its grand elegance. During the Pensacola timber boom in the 1880s, local businessmen capitalized on the economic prosperity of the region by creating the opera house. Eventually, the economic downturn and damage from a hurricane and another fierce storm caused the opera house doors to close in 1917.
It didn't take long before Pensacola was ready for a grand theatre once again, thus giving the Saenger the opportunity to pick up where they had left off only a few years earlier. In 1976, it even had the distinct honor of being added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Presently, the Saenger plays host to world-renowned events year-round. For a complete list of events, click here.
Pensacola Little Theatre
As if the Saenger weren't enough of a gem, we happen to be home to the longest continuous-running community theatre in the Southeast, the Pensacola Little Theatre.
Stemming from nomadic beginnings which can be traced all the way back to 1926, a group of enthusiastic thespians put on shows at the historic San Carlos Hotel. The group was quite popular around town, until 1929, when the Great Depression rocked the country and entertainment was no longer in the budget for most Americans.
Recognizing the therapeutic value of the performing arts, the Works Progress Administration enacted the Federal Theatre Project in 1936, which established community theatres across the country, including the Pensacola Little Theatre. For decades the company held out hope that they would eventually acquire a permanent home to call their own. In the late 1980s, the county deeded the vacant building to the theater group and by the mid-90s, the Pensacola Cultural Center was established. Now you can experience living history (and maybe a ghost or two.) Click here for a full schedule of events.
When it comes to Arts & Culture, Pensacola sure knows how to make a scene! Be sure to check out our calendar of events page to help you incorporate some of these events into your next visit.
If you have a favorite Pensacola cultural event, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!