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Theater closing marks demise of dollar movies

Published Sep. 27, 2005

With Pinellas County's last discount theater goes the end of an era of an ice cream sundae and a movie for less than $5.

At Main Street 5 Theaters, the movie tickets were cheaper than the popcorn. Or renting a video.

The $1 theater house was a throwback to a time when an evening of family entertainment could be had with the money left over from filling the car with gas.

In a move that ended an era, Carmike Cinemas has shut down Main Street 5, the last theater in Pinellas County where all the shows cost a buck all the time. The nation's third largest movie exhibitor closed the building Aug. 25. The marquee where the Screen Two movie listing once appeared now reads "Closed."

"It's kind of sad to see it go," said Clearwater resident Beverly Williams, 75, who took in shows at the theater. "You can't do much for a dollar anymore to be entertained."

The Clearwater theater is one of numerous theaters around the country being closed by Carmike Cinemas of Columbus, Ga., as part of its effort to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code. The company, which specializes in "hometown" theaters in midsize communities, filed for protection from its creditors in August.

Carmike spokeswoman Suzanne Brown said Main Street's closure is permanent.

"Financial expectations were not being met," Brown said. "It was viewed in the best interest of the company to close it."

The theater was popular with area retirees, snowbirds and families. For as little as $5, they could enjoy a movie and an ice cream sundae with names like Carmen Miranda and Fluffer Nutter at the old-fashioned parlor next door.

Main Street 5 had plenty of regulars, said Ice Cream Corner owner Cindy Longfellow of Palm Harbor.

"A man would come in and get one scoop of ice cream, and he'd have all his coins counted out exactly," Longfellow said. "There's going to be a lot of low-income people this is going to affect. . . . I feel bad for the snowbirds who are going to come down. For a lot of them, especially Canadians, this was the one thing for them to do."

Most of Pinellas County's 13 movie theaters charge $6 to $7 for adults for evening shows, with a couple dollars off for senior citizens, students and children. The Clearwater Cinema Cafe is the exception _ admission is $2.50.

Marjorie Gustin said she preferred Main Street to the full-price theaters, especially since all the big films eventually made it there.

"It was much cheaper," the 78-year-old Clearwater resident said. "Since we're retired, we'd rather go there than pay full price. It was really sad to hear it closed."

Inside, the theater's two-tone-pink snack counter is empty, boxes litter the green carpet and the Coming Attractions posters are gone.

This theater didn't have a lot of flash, but it was nice, said Chris Messersmith, who would drive there from her home in Tampa just outside Oldsmar. The last movie she saw there this summer was Keeping the Faith.

"I'm disappointed," Messersmith said. "It was a nice little thing to be able to do."

Carmike bought the cinema from Cineplex Odeon in 1995 and initially operated it as a first-run theater. About two years ago, prices dropped to a dollar, and Main Street became a second-run theater, showing movies that had run their course at full-price theaters.

The last motion pictures to be shown on Main Street's five screens Aug. 24 were Center Stage, Boys and Girls, Frequency, Small Time Crooks, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Shanghai Noon.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, companies built theaters around the country to operate as discount houses. Richard King, spokesman for Kansas City, Mo.-based AMC Theaters, said other discount theaters began as first-run theaters. He said AMC has no plans to turn any of the seven theaters it operates in Pinellas into discount houses.

Not all discount theaters charged exactly one dollar. The Plitt Theaters at Sunshine Mall that closed in 1995 charged $1.25. Some companies have offered deals like $4 for a movie, drink and popcorn, King said. Pinellas County had several discount theaters _ one on Countryside Boulevard, one on Ulmerton Road, one at Seminole Mall _ that have long since closed.

"At one time it was pretty good business," King said. "Several things have worked against the discount theater business. . . . From a business perspective, I don't know how well they will prosper. They clearly have severely declined in the last few years."

The proliferation of first-run theaters around the nation means movies tend to stay on first-run screens longer, King said. For the discount houses, that means the movies aren't as new when they arrive.

Also, dollar theaters must compete with video stores because video versions of movies come out faster than ever before. At one time, movie studios waited for a year to release a film on video. Now, it's out on video within six months.

"It's not at all that unusual that a movie will only be available to a dollar theater for a couple of weeks before the video is released," King said.

And then there's the splashy new megaplexes popping up everywhere that charge top dollar for a movie. In March, AMC's state-of-the-art, 20-screen theater opened in Oldsmar just a few miles away from Main Street.

Even Carmike is following the national trend toward bigger, flashier theaters. Last month, it opened a 20-screen, stadium-seating theater in Bradenton. In fact, industry analysts said building too much too fast was the reason Carmike found itself in financial trouble.

King said initially, industry experts expected that the new megaplexes would not compete with discount houses, figuring they draw different audience. But that's not the case, he said.

"Given the decline in attendance at discount theaters, we have to now say some of the people are going to first-run theater megaplexes, and some have opted out of movies all together," King said. "Times are a little better now in the '90s than they were in the '70s and '80s when these dollar theaters prospered. More people have the ability to pay the price for a first-run theater."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to his report. Information from the Associated Press and the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer was used.