710 Franklin Street,
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The Florida Theatre was a small non-descript theatre sandwiched between the Citizens Bank Building on the left and O'Falks Department Store on the right. Although an old photo of the building is dated 1924, I hesitate to give an exact year of opening without doing some additional research.
Here’s an interesting anecdote: when the theatre first opened it was called the Florida Theatre. Years later the name was changed to the Franklin Theatre, and by the early-1940’s, the name was changed back to the Florida Theatre. Hence the saying I heard someone say years ago: remember when the Florida Theatre was called the Florida Theatre?! The 1941 and 1943 editions of Film Daily Yearbook lists the Florida Theatre with 853 seats and operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary E.J. Sparks. The 1950 edition of F.D.Y. lists 900 seats. By the 1950’s it came under the ownership of ABC Florida State Theatres. The Florida Theatre was remodeled in 1947, to the plans of Jacksonville bassed architectural firm Kemp, Bunch & Jackson.
A friend tells me he spent many Saturday afternoons seated in the last row of the balcony up against the projection booth watching B-westerns. Many Saturday matinees featured 3 extra cartoons in addition to the daily features. In the early 1960’s admission was 20 cents for kids, and 60 cents for adults (same as the Ritz Theatre in Ybor City).
I vividly recall my first visit to the Florida Theatre in 1960. The double feature that day was "The Mummy" (the 1959 color version with Christopher Lee) and a western called "Money, Women, and Guns". But it was "The Mummy" that I was really anxious to see. My father drove a friend and I down to the Florida Theatre and we stood in front of the theatre looking at the poster for "The Mummy" while I begged my father to let me go in. He was concerned it might be too scary for two 10-year-old kids, and that I’d surely have trouble sleeping at night. After what seemed like ages I finally managed to convince him, and my friend & I bought our tickets and headed for the balcony. When the lights went down and the film began our hands went up over our eyes – it was scary as heck! And of course I couldn’t sleep that night.
Although it was fairly neat and clean the lobby was rather drab looking. As best as I can recall the walls were plain, sans any fancy decoration or artwork. I do remember the red carpet was showing some signs of wear. There were no doors at the auditorium entrances, only a curtain on a swinging rod that was swung open during intermission and closed while the show was in progress. Of course this did very little in preventing outside noise from the lobby or Franklin Street from entering the auditorium.
The side walls in the auditorium were painted light brown from bottom to midway up, and light beige from midpoint upwards. In the early "silent film" days the Florida Theatre had a proscenium and a small stage. The stage was hidden from view with the arrival of sound when a larger screen and speakers were installed within the proscenium.
Towards the later-1950’s a new wider screen replaced the older one. This new screen stretched from the edge of the left exit doorway, and across the front of the proscenium to the edge of the right exit doorway giving the Florida Theatre a CinemaScope capability. This screen was totally bare – no main curtain nor side curtains. And of course the proscenium was forever hidden from view.
In February of 1962, Florida State Theatres announced that the Florida Theatre had been selected as the theatre that will feature the exclusive west coast engagement of "West Side Story" which had just won 10 Academy Awards. The film had been booked for an April opening at the Florida Theatre. It was also announced that the Florida Theatre will close for remodeling soon, and will convert to a new policy of playing first run features along with the Tampa Theatre and Palace Theatre.
So in preparation for the big event the Florida Theatre closed for renovations. The drab lobby was completely redone giving it a bright, modern retro-1960’s look. Gone was the worn red carpet now replaced by a newly-tiled floor. Silver and blue wallpaper covered the lobby walls, and shiny new doors with circular viewports were installed at both auditorium entrances which effectively blocked out lobby and street noise.
The theater entrance was restructured with a new box office built inside the newly designed foyer against the right side wall. A large mirror covered the wall opposite the box office along with four new poster display cases that now featured "West Side Story" posters and color photos from the film. Bright lights hidden underneath glass panels below the marquee illuminated the foyer and entrance area tremendously.
There were only a few improvements made in the auditorium. Aside from new carpeting and a brand new screen, all seats on the main level had been re-upholstered with new red fabric. A dark blue waterfall curtain was installed in front of the screen (the waterfall design is a curtain that forms loops at the bottom and rises/decends) giving the Florida a small touch of elegance. The side walls of the auditorium remained exactly as they were. There were no changes made to the balcony or balcony seats.
A few weeks before "West Side Story" opened, ads began appearing in the local newspapers announcing that reservations to see the film at the New Florida Theater were now being accepted. Tickets could be purchased either by mail or at the box office in advance. This was all new for local filmgoers who had never heard of having to make reservations or purchasing tickets in advance just to see a movie. Admission increased drastically as well. The 20-cent and 60-cent admission was history.
Tickets for "West Side Story" were $1.50 to $2.25 for all ages. There was no reduced admission for students and children. The difference in price was based on seat location (main level, lodge, or balcony) and day and time of showing. The film was shown twice daily (matinees 2:00 evenings 8:30). When the special roadshow engagement ended admission reverted back to popular prices. I do recall children’s admission was 50-cents for just about all attractions thereafter. Not certain about students and adults but more than likely it was 75-cents for students and $1.00 to $1.25 for adults.
"West Side Story" ran for nearly three months and was followed by several big attractions over the next few years. Among the many notable films opening first-run at the Florida were:
“State Fair”, “The Pink Panther”, “Irma La Douce”, “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “Blood Feast”, “Tom Jones”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, “Fun In Acapulco”, “Viva Las Vegas”, “The Longest Day”, “Torn Curtain”, “Hawaii”, “Romeo & Juliet”, “Wait Until Dark”, “Funny Girl”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Planet of the Apes”, “Woodstock”, “Five Easy Pieces”, “A Clockwork Orange”.
Around or about 1974 the Florida Theatre began featuring black exploitation films and second-run double features, and not long afterwards the theatre closed its doors. The building remained locked until one day in the late-1970’s when a small crew of men arrived in two tractor trailer trucks and began stripping the theater. I stood across the street and watched as they hauled out all projection equipment, speakers, curtain, refreshment center appliances and counters, etc. and loaded all equipment unto both tractor trailers. A friend who was a former union operator told me the equipment was probably being driven to Florida State Theatres warehouse in Jacksonville and placed in storage until needed at another theatre.
The building sat vacant for a time and was finally demolished around 1978. Today the TECO building sits on the site. The front brick plaza directly outside the TECO lobby entrance is the exact spot where the Florida stood.
Here’s a practically unknown secret: before the Florida Theatre had an air conditioning unit of its own, it received cool air from the Tampa Theatre via pipes that ran underneath Franklin Street. As the Florida Theatre stood directly across Franklin Street from the Tampa Theatre, the pipes were connected to the Tampa’s unit and ran into the side wall of the Florida Theatre building. Thus, the Tampa Theatre supplied air conditioning to two theaters.
I do miss the Florida Theatre. The picture was always bright and well focused on the screen and the sound was consistantly sharp and clear and remained at a good level. And since the theatre was small the screen always appeared to be much larger than it actually was no matter where you were seated.
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