ST PETE BEACH – When the St. Pete Beach Theater on Corey Avenue opened in January 1940, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were taking moviegoers on “A Road To Singapore,” and audiences flocked to movie houses to see Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic psychological thriller “Rebecca,” which was destined to became a film classic.
Hollywood magic on its silver screen lasted for 72 years until November 2012, when beset by low attendance and financial difficulties, the operators were forced to shut the lights on its marquee and close its doors.
During their regular meeting July 10, city commissioners vowed to try and save the historic theater building, so it is not demolished by future owners. They envision the iconic building on Corey Avenue someday becoming an attraction for both locals and tourists.
City Attorney Andrew Dickman told commissioners the theater had become part of a lengthy probate process after the death of its owner and biggest supporter screenwriter Mike France. He bought the theater in 2007 and died in 2013.
Faced with financial and civil legal issues, the historic theater closed in November 2012. The theater’s Facebook page from that date shows its marquee with the message, “Thanks for the memories.”
It added, “We would like to thank everyone for supporting us over the years and making so many ‘Beach Theatre Memories.’ A sad day has come in the life of the St. Pete Beach Theatre. We will miss you all.”
At the request of city officials, Dickman contacted France’s estate to advise of the city’s interest in preserving the structure.
Commissioner Terri Finnerty said she has heard “an inordinate amount of people are interested in taking it over.” She said it is important for the city to be on top of the issue and have an action plan ready.
“It’s amazing how many cities purchase theaters like this and have been very successful,” she told commissioners.
Mayor Al Johnson questioned, “Do we want to own it?” The mayor added he would be in favor of the city helping a group interested in buying the theater to restore it, but “we would get involved if someone wanted to buy it and tear it down.”
“Us purchasing something like that would only be as a last resort,” he added.
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski noted the theater is “a valuable asset” and could “become a people generator for downtown.” He added the city should research what other cities have done with historic theaters and how they handled it.
He, too, added he would only be interested in the city acquiring the theater if it was in jeopardy of being demolished.
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher said a restored theater could play a key role in attracting people to Corey Avenue and complement the business district.
She said she hopes it is acquired by someone who has a true passion for independent theaters and will invest in its restoration. She added the city should only intervene as a last resort.
Commissioners noted a nonprofit or private group of investors could take advantage of tax incentives that comes with the theater’s historic designation.
The board told the city attorney and staff to work with the estate to attract interest of private investors.
“We are going to help the family sell the theater to someone we want,” Johnson said.
Dickman told commissioners he would contact the probate attorney to express the city’s interest in helping the estate sell the property and keep the board regularly informed.
In other action
Commissioners decided to do away with their invocation at the start of each meeting, after being threatened with a lawsuit from an individual who asserted the prayer discriminates against certain religions as well as those who are not religious.
Finnerty asked why a secular invocation could not be used.
Pletcher said she never felt comfortable with asking people to stand for the invocation. “Nobody does it, and we are getting threatened,” she added.
The city attorney said the safest stance to take would be to offer a moment of silence at the start of each meeting. He added he would be happy to consider Finnerty’s secular invocations, but what is secular to one may not be to another.
Finnerty told commissioners the person who had an issue with the invocation complained because someone used religious terminology and did not give a secular prayer.
Johnson said he favors just offering a moment of silence at the start of each meeting. He said he agrees with Pletcher that it becomes a separation of church and state issue and “no one does it anymore.”
Friszolowski said, personal beliefs aside, he doesn’t want to offend anyone and just wants to be cautionary.
The next meeting will be opened with a moment of silence and people can decide whether or not to stand, the mayor advised.