by RACHEL HAHN
video by MIKA ALTSKAN AND MATVEY FIKS
A dreamy beach town and a world-class arts
scene unite in Pensacola
Come for the Coast,
Stay for a Show
When people think of Pensacola, they might picture sugar-white beaches and soaring Blue Angels, but the historic Florida Panhandle city is also home to a thriving art scene. Its forty-two square miles are packed with theater outfits, dance companies, and other arts establishments, presenting a difficult choice for visitors: Will it be the opera? The ballet? Dinner and a gallery show?
That’s not a bad problem to have, and it’s the reason Corey McKern, an award-winning baritone and the Pensacola Opera’s artistic director, left New York City for the relaxed beach town. “The first time I came here in 2007, I was driving my rental car by the bay, and it was a sunny day and I was rolling past these old charming houses, and I was like, ‘I could live in this place,’” he says. When McKern and his wife, Chandra, Pensacola Opera’s general director, were offered jobs with the company, it was a done deal. The chance to live in such a scenic location among other close-knit, full-time arts organizations was too good to pass up.
Pensacola Opera operates at the same level of excellence as many of the opera companies McKern worked with in New York. “We bring in really high-level artists from all over the world, singers that sing at the Metropolitan Opera, singers who perform in Europe,” McKern says. And they host the performers in a theater equal to their talents. Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola, Pensacola Children’s Chorus, Broadway in Pensacola, and Pensacola Symphony Orchestra all share the stage at the historic Saenger Theatre, a stunning Spanish Baroque building constructed in 1925.
Nicknamed the Grand Dame of Palafox Street, the Saenger is a true marquee venue and a testament to an era when “going to the theater” meant something special.
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Pecan shelling and playing sold-out venues across the country are great ways to make a living, but for Jeff Worn and Thomas Rhett, the real payoff comes after hours, when the cousins get to catch up by a campfire over glasses of Dos Primos Tequila.
The president and CEO of South Georgia Pecan Company and the country-music chart-topper, respectively, discovered their shared love of tequila three years ago at a tasting in Telluride, Colorado. Inspired by the complexity of the blue agave spirit they were sampling, the duo decided to dive head first into the distillation process and launched Dos Primos—Spanish for “two cousins”—with outdoor lifestyles in mind.
“We believe there’s no spirit more closely tied to the land than tequila,” says Thomas Rhett, an avid hunter and fisherman. “The outdoors have always been a huge part of our lives, and we carried that into the Dos Primos brand.”
They started by tapping master distiller Rodolfo González, a third-generation tequila producer in Jalisco, Mexico, to develop their bold, earthy premium blanco. As the owner of a family-run tequila company, González was an ideal fit for the cousins’ family operation. But the brand’s connection to Mexico wouldn’t end there.
Since launching last year, first with a blanco and more recently with a reposado, Dos Primos has extended its mission to giving back by partnering with the Nature Conservancy. “A lot of our favorite memories were made outdoors,” Jeff says. “Once we started talking to the Nature Conservancy, it was clear that we had an opportunity to do some real good.” Dos Primos pledged $50,000 to support the organization’s land restoration and water conservation work in Mexico’s Tehuacán Valley.
Keeping Dos Primos’ philanthropic efforts in mind makes the brand’s latest offering taste all the smoother with subtle notes of oak and baking spice. “I love the Dos and Soda, and honestly it works just as well with the reposado,” Thomas Rhett says. “A little soda water and lime juice go a long way in bringing out that agave flavor, but you still get that great barrel character.” Jeff prefers to enjoy Dos Primos Reposado on the rocks with an orange slice “as I would a bourbon or scotch,” he says.
The cousins hope tequila fans—and those on the fence about this particular liquor—will give their spirits a try. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I don’t normally like tequila, but I really love Dos Primos.’ That’s really awesome, because we put so much time and effort into building our flavor profile,” Jeff says.
Even better: When Dos Primos fans share that they’ve enjoyed the brand while gathered outside with friends. “I love hearing stories of people bringing it to their bonfires, tailgates, or wherever. I’m just glad it’s bringing people together,” Thomas Rhett says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
“The Saenger Theatre was part of the Saenger Amusement Company, and they had theaters all across the Southeast,” says Kathy Summerlin, the theater’s director of booking and marketing. “All of these stages were virtually the same size so that the vaudevillians could go from one city to the other and easily set up their acts.” But if that sounds like a cookie-cutter design, think again. Nicknamed the Grand Dame of Palafox Street, the Saenger is a true marquee venue and a testament to an era when “going to the theater” meant something special. The opulent space seats 995 on the floor alone (with an additional 695 in the balcony and velvet box seats) in a proscenium adorned with Rococo details and iron railings. And unlike so many modern, large performance venues built near freeways outside of city limits, the Saenger is right in the heart of Pensacola.
“You can walk out of a show and go right to dinner,” McKern says. He tells all visitors, performers and audiences alike, to head to the Old Hickory Whiskey Bar nearby for after-dinner drinks. But the Saenger is not the only show in town.
“We’ve been deemed the festival city of the South because we truly have something going on every weekend, if not every day of the year,” says Nicole Stacey, Vice President, Destination Development at Visit Pensacola. Whether it’s three Mardi Gras parades in February, JazzFest in April, or Foo Foo Fest—twelve remarkable days of arts and culture events—in November, Pensacolians know how to throw a party. Here you get the sun, sand, past, and performance-filled present all in one place.
And when you need a quiet moment to reflect, there’s always the Pensacola Museum of Art. For a decade Maria Goldberg, the director of marketing, public relations, and events for Great Southern Restaurants, ran the museum, and she continues to curate exhibits there; most recently she helped produce Vandals to Vanguards in her role as chairperson for the Foo Foo Fest. The exhibition, a Foo Foo Fest grant-recipient event, featured contemporary masters like Banksy, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Shepard Fairey. “You just won’t see those kind of artists anywhere else nearby,” Goldberg says.
What you will see is a community continually pushing the boundaries of creativity, at its box offices, ballets, bistros,
Explore more of Pensacola’s colorful cultural scene by visiting VacationArtfully.com
Photographer: Michael Duncan
Photographer: Maria Goldberg
Photographer: Maria Goldberg