|Photo courtesy of Jay Ashworth
The Beach Theatre on Corey closed Friday. No, the bank didn’t take it and no, it ain’t for sale, thanks for asking. Progress Energy turned off the power and that was the final straw for an historic theatre caught in the middle of an ugly divorce where neither side would spend money to keep the theatre alive until the lawyers and the judges decided who owned it.
Once that happens, the owner (Mr. Michael France or his former beloved) will decide whether or not to continue as the owner. I believe that if Michael France retains ownership, he’ll reopen. If not? Well, I, along with plenty of others, would be interested in purchasing the crumbling grand dame of Corey.
Click here to read last year’s Hard Candy. I wrote it when Michael France announced the Beach had to make some changes.
Before that, I interviewed Michael France about the theatre. That article, though, ran November 24, 2009 in the Gabber, and we weren’t online in any real way just yet, so you can read it below:
********As printed in the November 24, 2009 Gabber Newspaper*******
The true mark of a great movie house is the buttery stuff in the middle of the popcorn. Most modern movie theatres allow customers to butter their own popcorn, but this robs the true movie theatre popcorn aficionado of the complete popcorn experience.
People seeking the complete popcorn experience—as well as a traditional moviegoing experience—know about The Beach Theatre, the last movie house of its kind in Pinellas County. Built 70 years ago—the same year that introduced the world to classics like Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, and The Wizard of Oz—the Beach Theatre serves a small but dedicated group of moviegoers. This diverse group ranges from the die-hard Rocky Horror fan to the soccer mom bringing her kids to see Flash Gordon to a free Saturday morning show.
To say that the Beach Theatre has survived because they put butter in the middle of the popcorn bags is somewhat simplistic, however true. The Beach Theatre remains not only as a tribute to history but a testament that more isn’t always better. Sometimes better isn’t even better.
“Back in 1968, there were more movie theatres like this,” owner and screenwriter Michael France says of the theatres of his youth. France used to come to the Beach Theatre as a teenager. “I liked the fact that it was a single screen. That mattered to me, even when I was 15.”
Go into the theatre and you’ll find that it’s not exactly perfect. Things have aged since the theatre opened with Dust Be My Destiny 70 years ago. Seats break. The popcorn machine occasionally goes on the fritz, and the new projector was a long time coming to those who sat through focus problems show after show.
But that’s just the thing: people don’t seem to care about the seats or the projector or the times when they can’t get popcorn. No one complains that they only have one screen and no children’s playroom or a bevy of video games in the tiny lobby.
What does seem to matter, though, is that the theatre is dedicated to movies rather than the frills commonly associated with modern movieplexes. The Beach Theatre isn’t a movieplex; it’s a movie house.
France, who bought the Beach Theatre in spring of 2007, understands the importance of a movie house. As a screenwriter (he’s written The Punisher and Hulk as well as many other screenplays) he understands the movie business. Although he must, as a working screenwriter, want his films shown on as many screens as possible, he doesn’t want as many screens as possible at the movie house on Corey. Instead, he wants to keep the theatre as it stands: a standalone single screen.
“I was really worried that nobody would buy it and it would get torn down and turned into a restaurant or bikini shop or something,” France said. Shortly after he purchased the theatre he started offering free kid’s shows on Saturday mornings.
“That was something I remember as a kid that seems to have gone away,” he says. Free kid shows mean that the theatre takes in little money, so France looks for sponsors so he can run movies. His requirements for movie to run as the free Saturday morning show are simple: they must appeal to kids and the film must be at least 10 years old.
Although the Beach Theatre bills these shows as “kid” shows, the crowds are often anything but. When the theatre shows a Ray Harryhausen or Sinbad, it’s not uncommon to see grown-ups of all ages in the movie house.
France said owning the Beach Theatre was the realization of a dream.
Once he bought the theatre he realized there was more to his dream than he thought.
“I figured it would be fun to own a movie theatre. It was more work than I thought. I thought I’d be walking around and saying ‘Whee! This is the movie we’ll be running this week’,” he says, grinning. “Everything had to be fixed the year I bought it, from the plumbing to the sound system.”
Even so, France said he’s glad he owns the theatre. He’s got a small but passionate staff and a loyal following of patrons. Every show brings in different crowds. Just before Halloween, the theatre showed the original Night of the Living Dead. Among the theatergoers was Stacey Whitworth, a horror film junkie. To Whitworth, though, this movie was special.
When her father first asked her mother out on a date, he took her to see Night of the Living Dead. Her mother, though, lacked her father’s enthusiasm for zombies and poor writing and got up and walked out of the theatre. Her father was forced to choose between watching the rest of this future classic and going after the love of his life. Whitworth remembers hearing this story over and over while she and her sister were growing up.
Every time she can catch a showing, she goes to see the film. Even though her father died several years ago, she can always remember him when she sits down in a less-than-perfect chair at the Beach Theatre and watches the zombies attack Barbra and Johnny.
It may not be the Norman Rockwell memory some families have, but it’s the kind of memory that makes the Beach Theatre special to so many people. It’s one of the many reasons France keeps the theatre open, despite the problems. It’s why he spends money on a new projector and tears up the lobby floor to fix the plumbing and lets kids watch movies for free on Saturday morning.
It’s a type of history not found in textbooks or taught in the schools, but to many it’s more important. It’s their history, and every day when France opens the doors and turns on the projector, he’s keeping it alive.
It’s odd to see the theatre close not as a result of the economy but for more personal, horrible reasons. I wish the France family the best of luck and remind everyone out there are worse things in life than your favorite theatre closing, and if that’s as close as any of you get to a divorce this ugly, count your blessings.
As for the theatre itself? I choose to believe this isn’t the end for the Beach Theatre. It’s just a temporary stumble.