It doesn’t matter what time you drive along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District. Day and night, you’ll see the string lights strobing around the Playhouse Theatre doors.
The nearly century-old building sits tucked away next to the interstate. On one side, a black and white Marilyn Monroe mural towers above pedestrians. Vintage playbills are taped to the windows. A pair of Laurel & Hardy-esque statues greet passersby, their wooden feet bolted to the ground.
Just two blocks away from Tropicana Field, the empty building at 1850 Central is an enigma in an otherwise bustling district.
Why does it look like that? And what was it supposed to be, anyway?
A journey into offbeat St. Pete
The story begins in 1925, when the building opened as the Patio. The open-air theater was home to Vaudeville performances and a single screen that showed cartoons and newsreels. Depression-era double features cost just 25 cents.
The interior was decorated like a Spanish palace. When owners enclosed the space in 1928, they painted clouds on the roof and added lights that looked like stars.
Over the years, the name and form would change. There were movies. Plays. Burlesque performances. By the 30s, the Patio become the Reno. Daily motion pictures continued, but Thursday nights were reserved for wrestling and boxing matches. The Reno would go on to be known as the Ritz.
By the 50s, the grand historic building had become the Playhouse. Family-friendly features continued to be shown there. But by the late 60s, it had become a grimy adult theater that showed pornographic films on what had turned into one of St. Petersburg’s seediest streets.
“It was mostly just dirty old men in raincoats,” said musician Freddie Langston. “It was pretty dark. ... It was really kind of sad to see the old girl in such bad shape.”
Langston, a youth minister in St. Pete, hoped to use the building. But the city was planning on constructing Interstate 275 over where it stood.
To save the property, he pleaded his case with one of the head engineers on the project.
“I unpacked the fact that I wanted to use that as a place for kids to help them stay off drugs and keep their head straight,” Langston remembered. “He said, 'Well hell, fella, I’ll just move the right of way 4 feet towards Tampa, and you’ll be able to save the building!’”
Langston paid $90,000, and in 1974 he reopened the former X-rated theater as a new venue called, “Papa’s Dream.”
What was that dream, exactly? A Christian disco club and music venue for teens.
To make it happen, Noel Paul Stookey of the band Peter, Paul and Mary performed at the Mahaffey Theater and raised a quarter of a million dollars to renovate the Playhouse.
Stanley Arthur, a longtime St. Pete resident and the former Papa’s Dream house band drummer, remembers shooing pigeons out of the rotting building during repairs. They ripped out the theater seats and added a dance floor and DJ booth.
According to Arthur, the first band to christen the new venue was supposed to be Kiss, but the group’s hospitality rider bursted with requests fit for a “bacchanal feast.” The club tapped Canadian rock band Rush to perform in its place.
The opening weekend featured other fanfare, including a magician dangling outside the theater upside down in a straitjacket.
"We had homeboy up about 80 feet up in the air and he couldn’t get out of the jacket,” Langston said. “It should have been an ominous statement: ‘Hang it up, Freddie! It won’t work!’”
But Papa’s Dream did work, at least for a little bit.
The music venue featured a weekly Bible study. Friday and Saturday nights started with movies in the balcony and ended with live performances from bands like Iron Butterfly and Canned Heat. The snack bar next door, called Mama’s Nightmare, sold attendees “teen-oriented food, drink and pinball.”
"It was just an amazing experiment in adolescent entertainment,” Langston recalled.
The experiment lasted until the early 80s. Langston blames the club’s downfall on the death of disco and shifting cultural tensions.
By January 1981, the building had become the Golden Apple, a St. Pete branch of Sarasota’s already popular dinner theater. Guests chowed down on a prime rib buffet while enjoying musicals and the occasional burlesque show.
Theater critics blasted the “large, awkward” stage. In 1985, one wrote, “The entrance/ exit ramps from the right and left are very long — the cast must take a hike just to get on stage.”
By the end of the ’80s, the shows continued under a new name at the Encore Dinner Theater. Things got pretty bawdy. One 1989 Tribune theater preview reads, “If you like comedy sketches about golf and testicles, you’ll find it a laugh riot.”
After Tropicana Field debuted in the ‘90s, the space morphed again. This time, it became Extra Innings Ballpark Cafe, a sports bar complete with a scoreboard on the wall. A fire stamped out the already sluggish business there.
The building’s final form: Concert Central in the mid-2000s. Goodbye, kitchen and sporty decor. Hello, hip hop shows and martini bar. The venue was supposed to join nearby venue Club NV as a venue for reggae and rap shows. T-Pain and Plies even performed there. But it didn’t last long. The club closed and has sat empty for years.
Enter the Playhouse, present day
Go inside the Playhouse Theatre today, and you won’t find much. At least, not yet.
Nahakama Group, a local investment company, bought it a few years ago. Now, the vacant 14,610-square-foot property is up for sale or lease.
George Bernadich, COO of Nahakama Group, hopes to sell the entire block for $3.99 million. The Playhouse can fit up to 2,000 people and is “basically a rough vanilla box” waiting to be transformed, he said.
When he bought it, the historic building had been neglected and had a serious asbestos problem. Water damage, welcomed in by an outdated roof, crept up to the ceiling. Junk furniture towered in stacks 15 feet high.
Nahakama hired contactor Ronnie Pownall for exterior renovations so the old property could keep up with the rest of the flourishing neighborhood.
"It was pretty much an eyesore — in probably 30 years, no one had touched up the exterior of the building," Pownall said.
He replaced the plywood on the windows with vintage playbills and bolted three secondhand statues to the ground near the front doors (a vandal split one of the men in half, so only two remain). They changed the name back to one of its former monikers, the Playhouse Theatre.
During last year’s SHINE Mural Festival, St. Pete’s Vitale Brothers spent 12 hours painting Marilyn Monoe along the side. The choice was a nod to the building’s former theater days — Pownall said Monroe once performed there, though Bernadich said the St. Petersburg Historical Society wasn’t able to find proof of that.
As for the flickering lights? Pownall said that must have been an electrical short. But Bernadich insisted the flashing look was on purpose, to bring attention to the building.
"It’s not an electrical short. Those are LED lights and that’s the setting,” he said.
Several serious offers have been made. One developer envisioned a food court, others dreamed of music recording space or offices akin to Google. More renovations may be needed to bring the sprinkler system and other issues up to code.
Bernadich is not in a hurry to sell. He has faith that something great will come along.
"I think that's the next hotspot.”
Freddie Langston drove by recently on a trip to St. Petersburg.
When he saw how much it was selling for, he said, “Doggone, I should have held onto that bad boy.”