Hillsboro III Theatres
3306 West Hillsborough Avenue,
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Beginning in 1969 and continuing to 1987, this theatre complex and the adjacent drive-in was not only the most unique theatre arrangement in the country, but the most popular theatre destination in Tampa.
These were large and beautiful deluxe theatres in their heyday but by the mid-1980’s they were considered dinosaurs. As you probably are aware it was the same story for most all single screeners nationwide. Large single screen theatres had become cost prohibitive to maintain and were considered no longer profitable. Those that did manage to survive only did so either by being twinned or sliced into several additional auditoriums.
But something unique happened with this complex. The original theatre building was not only linked to a drive-in but was also linked to a second indoor theatre within a separate building, and the original building later twinned.
As the complex evolved and morphed over the years it went through several phases, and several name variations of Hillsboro. In addition it has operated under three chains, has been added to, restructed, sliced in half, and also included a drive-in. Each theatre is identified by the official name it was advertised under in the theatre ads and in the order each one came into existence. The drive-in had been in operation since 1941 and was part of this complex but is considered a separate theatre. So I’ll be posting a story on the drive-in soon.
Hillsboro I Rocking Chair Theatre
This was the first indoor theatre built on the site adjacent to The Hillsboro Drive-In Theatre. Construction began on this new 1,000 seat theatre in 1969. The building was constructed on the former children’s playground just below the front of the drive-in screen. The drive-in remained open while the building was under construction. I remember going several times during this period, and each time I could see the building taking more and more shape as the foundation was layed, the steel beams erected, the walls and roof went up, and finishing touches were completed on the exterior. As the building was nearing completion the drive-in closed for a few days while a new 100' wide steel screen was erected, and a new projection booth was constructed behind and above the roof of the concessions building. The drive-in was then renamed The Hillsboro II Drive-In. It reopened a few days before the indoor theatre’s grand opening.
Searchlights probed the skies as the Grand Opening of The Hillsboro I Rocking Chair Theatre took place on Thursday evening, November 20, 1969 at 7:30 PM. I still have the Tampa Tribune’s opening day ad which reads: ‘tonight Hillsboro I joins Hillsboro II bringing to Tampa the most unique theatre arrangement in the country…two complete ultra-new theatres in one entertainment complex…an indoor theatre and an outdoor-in-a-car theatre.’
The inaugural feature for the grand opening was the western "The Undefeated" with John Wayne and Rock Hudson. Several Florida State Theatre dignitaries were on hand for the grand opening including president Harvey Garland who cut the ribbon to open the complex. Mike McKinney, manager of the drive-in also assumed management of the new theatre. Hosting the evening’s event was the local Florida State District Manager, Bob Harris. Back in those days the grand opening of a new movie theatre was a big publicity filled event. ABC Florida State Theatres built and owned the complex for a few years. It would later be sold to Plitt Theatres, then Cineplex Odeon, and finally Carmike.
The Hillsboro I was a large and beautiful deluxe theatre with 1,000 comfortable rocking chair seats. Yes, they actually rocked! If the movie was boring you could rock yourself to sleep. The seats were wide Massey loungers made of red leather with sections of beige fabric intertwined and wide leather padded armrests. Without a doubt the most comfortable seats of any theatre in town. The walls of the auditorium were constructed of light gray and dark blue fabric paneling as I recall. The screen was probably about 35 to 40' wide with dark blue curtains that opened and closed. The booth contained the latest equipment in projection and ‘hi-fi’ sound. The Hillsboro I did not have stereo as a single screener. The spacious lobby featured an indoor box-office, a large concessions stand, and a special lounge area filled with large mirrors for the ladies.
An interesting feature of the auditorium was the location of the air conditioning ducts and vents. They were housed in wide enclosures just above the aisles on each side of the auditorium, and ran along the side walls from the rear to the front ending near the sides of the screen. Above this enclosure were the auditorium lights which were directed at the white acoustical tile ceiling. The white surface dispersed the light evenly providing a well-lighted auditorium with no glare.
For the next four years Hillsboro I featured some of the finest first-run films. One of the biggest attractions to play was “M.A.S.H.” which ran for months. During the first few weeks following the film’s opening, the parking lot was jam-full during the evening shows especially on Fridays and Saturdays, with cars having to park in the grassy area outside the lot and alongside Hillsborough Avenue.
One of my most embarrassing moments occurred here when “Let It Be” was playing. As the film ended and the credits rolled, I arose from my seat and proceeded to walk up the aisle following the crowd to the exit. As there was no one behind me I turned around briefly to look at the credits but continued my forward momentum. As I turned back around I hadn’t realized the line of people had stopped moving. At that very moment the girl ahead of me turned towards me suddenly. I was unable to stop my forward momentum quick enough and so my forehead and her jaw met with a bang! I sent her stumbling in one direction and myself in the other. Had it not been for her boyfriend who grabbed my arm to stabilize me I would have performed a nose dive in the aisle. I thanked him and apologized profusely to her. She was laughing and she seemed pretty much undamaged. Her boyfriend was somewhat amused but would not have been so amused had she fallen!
Here are some attractions that played at the Hillsboro I:
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, “Diamonds Are Forever”, “Carrie”, “American Graffiti”,
“Die Monster Die”, “Let It Be”, “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is”, “The Magic Christian”, “Phantom Of The Paradise”, “Jeremiah Johnson”, “The Trial Of Billy Jack”, “Night Of The Living Dead” (was so popular at the drive-in they ran it at Hillsboro I twice), “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Towering Inferno”, “The Sound Of Music”, “The Graduate”, “M.A.S.H.”, “Dr. Zhivago”, “Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls”, “Gone With The Wind” (the print received from the distributor was a junk print…the worst I’ve ever seen…should’ve been removed from circulation long before), “Woodstock”, “Brewster McCloud”,
Hillsboro II Ultravision Theatre
Both the Hillsboro I and the Hillsboro II Drive-In proved so popular that a new 500-seat theatre was built in 1973 on the property to the right side of the Hillsboro I building. This new indoor theatre became Hillsboro II. The entrance was connected to the lobby of Hillsboro I with both theatres sharing the box office which had now been moved from the lobby interior to the front entrance. The concession stand was reconfigured slightly to accommodate both theatres. The drive-in received its own new and separate marquee and reverted back to its original name, The Hillsboro Drive-In.
The grand opening was held August 3, 1973 with a special preview of the new theatre taking place the evening before on August 2nd especially for those who would like to be first and see an advance studio screening of the new Burt Reynold’s film, “White Lightning”. I attended the special preview and was much impressed with this new addition. My first look at the auditorium brought to mind a Cinerama theatre! The auditorium was draped in wall-to-wall gold drapery. The screen was about 50' wide and slightly curved with contour ceiling-to-floor gold curtains. The seats were Massey loungers; the same style and size as those in Hillsboro I although they were not rocking chairs.
This new addition was called the ‘Ultravision’ theatre. Here’s an official explanation of Ultravision: ‘the projectors do not project the film directly at the screen. They sit at a slight angle from the screen and project the film’s image inside a transmitter box. The transmitter box then reflects the image by means of a mirror in a direct line head-on to the screen’. The screen in Hillsboro II stretched from the ceiling to just below eye level and was slightly curved so every seat in the house was a good seat. This process appeared to enhance the picture which looked stunning at times. While watching the film you almost felt as though being ‘immersed’ in the picture. Ultravision was probably a couple steps up from standard projection. I frequented this theatre regularly, and each time the picture was bright with a sharp focus over the entire screen which was W-I-D-E!
Following the special advance screening of “White Lightning” the theater officially opened on Friday, August 2nd, 1973 with the reissue of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”. The film starred Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting.
Among the many blockbusters that played at Hillsboro II Ultravision: “The Exorcist” packed them in for months.
“Jaws” sold out many showings and ran all summer long. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” the roadshow engagement opened here exclusively and ran for weeks before opening at other area theatres.
“E.T.2 was moved to this theatre from Hillsboro I where it had been playing in Dolby Stereo. "Last Tango In Paris”, “Barry Lyndon”, “Mommie Dearest”, “Flashdance”, “Raise The Titanic”, “Scarface”.
In 1978 the Hillsboro I was twinned. The theatre’s last day of operation as a single screen was on Sunday, November 26, 1978, and the last film to play on the big screen was “Message From Space” with Vic Morrow. The Hillsboro I closed for twinning and reopened in the short span of 19 days! Oddly enough the twins were inexplicably named Hillsboro I & III rather than I & II. They were also listed for a time in the theatre ads as Hillsboro Twin. The Ultravision theatre retained its name as Hillsboro II.
The new twins opened on Friday, December 15, 1978, with “Superman” in Hillsboro I and “Pinocchio” in Hillsboro III. The twin job was indeed a travesty. The wall constructed lengthwise down the center of the auditorium effectively destroyed a beautiful theatre. The once spacious auditorium was now reduced to two long and narrow screening rooms with small screens. The dividing wall was draped with dark blue ceiling-to-floor curtains and the outside wall in each theatre remained as it was.
However, they did re-seat the center section rows in each theatre, angling the seats towards the new screens. Many theatres that were twinned retained seating in the original position, making it awkward for those patrons seated in the first few rows near the dividing wall to view the screen properly. The review of 2Superman" by the local film critic also made a reference to the twins: ‘the film is playing at the Hillsboro Theatre which has been sadly and ineffectively sliced in half in order to accommodate a third theatre.’
The one big plus was the installation of Dolby Stereo in Hillsboro I. Two large speakers were mounted on the side walls plus two on the rear wall. I do not recall any other theatre in Tampa during this time that had a Dolby installation. The stereo was astounding! I had never seen a movie with stereo sound before. The sound was powerful with crisp sharp highs, extreme low bass, and very noticeable depth and separation even in this narrow theatre. Considering this was 1978 I believe this installation at the Hillsboro (which I’m certain was nowhere near as hi-tech as today’s systems) comes close to either matching or outperforming several current systems. The sound was that good! To my knowledge the Hillsboro I was the only house in town with Dolby in 1978. “Superman” blew me away! I enjoyed the film just as much as the Dolby Stereo. I later saw several films I really wasn’t interested in seeing as long as they were advertised as ‘presented in Dolby Stereo’.
The Hillsboro Theatres as well as the drive-in continued to thrive into the mid-1980’s but it soon became apparent they were surviving on borrowed time. Plitt’s Main Street Six and UA’s Mission Bell Eight had opened not very far from the area. Still the three cinemas managed to survive together for some time despite being in close proximity to each other.
In 1987 Cineplex Odeon assumed ownership of the Hillsboro from Plitt Theatres. It was decided that the two theatre buildings were far too large for a mere three screens. I recall reading an article about possible renovations and the addition of more screens. But in the final analysis the odd logistics of the two buildings would have presented a problem for renovation or remodeling and so this was not considered feasible. The decision was made to demolish the buildings and construct a brand new eight-plex theatre.
The last operating day for the Hillsboro 3 was on Sunday, August 2, 1987. The last films to play were, “Spaceballs”, “Barbarians” and “Beverly Hills Cop II”. The entire complex was demolished shortly afterwards.
Thus, the most unique theatre complex in the nation came to its final end. I don’t believe we’ll see the likes of a complex like this ever again.
Please see Hillsboro Eight Cinemas for my continuation of the story. Although it was built on the same land as its predecessor, this was a new theatre with a new name so I thought it best to list separately along with its own opening and closing dates.
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