The Beach Theatre — the last movie house of its kind in Pinellas County — will celebrate its 70th anniversary Sunday by rolling back the films and the prices. For just 25 cents admission each, the St. Pete Beach theater will screen The Wizard of Oz (1939) at 1 and 4 p.m. and His Girl Friday (1940) at 7 p.m. A small bag of popcorn and a small soda will sell for 10 cents each, though other concession items will be current prices. Before you go, here's a look at the art deco theater's past and present.
Fred W. Wright Jr., Times correspondent
IN THE BEGINNING
The first building on Corey Avenue, the theater was built in 1939 for about $50,000, and it opened on Jan. 15, 1940. (The anniversary celebration was delayed until there was a break in the movie schedule.) The opening film was Dust Be My Destiny, a 1939 drama starring John Garfield and Priscilla Lane. Owner Michael France says he wanted to screen that film again, but no print exists, as far as he can find. The theater has been open continuously since 1940, except for about 18 months during World War II. German U-boats were thought to be prowling the Gulf of Mexico and many coastal businesses went dark at night.
A PERSONAL CONNECTION
France, 47, bought the theater in 2007. He was born in St. Petersburg and often saw films at the Beach Theatre as a youth. When he saw the movie house was on the market, "I didn't want it to become a chain restaurant or T-shirt shop," he says. France brings a touch of Hollywood to the place himself. He writes screenplays, including Fantastic Four, The Punisher, Hulk, GoldenEye and Cliffhanger.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
The Beach Theatre has a varied demographic. It mainly has been known as an art movie house, showing independent and foreign films, but France has changed that a bit. "We try to be a lot of things to a lot of people," France says. For example, the Beach Theatre is the only regular venue for the traditional Saturday night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a 1975 cult classic that draws live performers in costume. It's "probably the longest-running Rocky Horror in Florida," France says. The theory is to use the big screen and the big room for events that will draw crowds. The movie house has staged video game competitions (using the movie screen) and occasional themed events. For example, there will be a special screening at 8 p.m. Friday of a Grateful Dead concert from 1989 as a fundraiser for WMNF-FM radio.
IT'S A DEAL
Generally tickets are $5 to $7. And on some Saturday mornings, there are free family films, like Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Flash Gordon, at 10 a.m. The only requirements are that they appeal to kids and be at least 10 years old. He looks for sponsors.
DOES IT HAVE ANY GHOSTS?
Don't all old movie houses? France says a local group of paranormal detectives checked out the Beach Theatre recently. "They said they picked up images of ghosts," France recalls. He says he hasn't seen any ghosts but acknowledges that some employees refuse to work at night "without all the lights on."