If there were ghosts in the Beach Theatre, of flickering movie stars, projector operators, teenage concessionaires or the many thousands who sat in its rickety rocking chair seats for seven decades, they’re all gone now.
What remains, after nine years of inactivity, is peeling paint, worn red carpet, a sad-looking silent white screen and a floor covered with fallen ceiling tiles, cobwebs and tufts of pink insulation.
Christopher Scott knew the Beach Theatre was in … disrepair when he bought the vacant movie house in August.
And even though the native of Liverpool, England (“I used to tell people my mother dated John Lennon, but that’s not a true story”) had no personal history with the Beach, no cozy memories of a first date or of taking his kids to a Saturday matinee, he knew he wanted to preserve the place.
“I came in here and I saw an opportunity,” Scott said as he sat in a threadbare red seat, ignoring the strong musty smell and the stale heat that comes from close to a decade with the air conditioning turned off.
“That idea of ‘movie theaters being on the decline’ really interests me as an opportunity to see if you can somehow turn it around, and turn it into something different, or a multi-use facility,” Scott said. “It’s not a huge building, but it’s not tiny either, so it has potential to do a lot of different things.”
Scott has invited the community to talk with him about the Beach Theatre, to present ideas on what he and his wife Maria should do with the blue-and-white, 4,800-square-foot cinderblock structure at 315 Corey Ave. in St. Pete Beach.
The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the St. Pete Beach Community Center, 7701 Boca Ciega Drive.
Importantly, Scott said, he wants everyone to know he has not considered knocking the building down. “Never at all,” he insisted. “Not even a moment’s thought.”
The process of soliciting ideas began last week with the creation of an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think we’ve had hundreds of responses,” Scott said, “and that’s people that have taken the time to write to us, quite lengthy and detailed emails. Some people just sharing anecdotes. But other people actually wrote to us with specific ideas.
“And some people wanted to help. I’m a very inclusive person; I’ve run big IT companies in the past, with up to 200 employees, and one of my things was, I always wanted everybody to know my name in the company, and I always wanted everybody to have a voice in some way, by bringing people together.
“So that was first and foremost in our minds: Let’s see what the community thinks as well.”
Scott and his Austrian-born wife have lived in the United States since 2001, most recently in Bethesda, Maryland. They bought a vacation home in St. Pete Beach early in 2020; when the arrival of the pandemic dictated that their children had to attend school via Zoom, they relocated here permanently. Wherever the computer is plugged in, they reasoned, Zoom classes are the same.
It was Chris’ friend, real estate broker Hendrik Bisanz, who brought the shuttered Beach Theatre to his attention, suggesting it would make a good investment in his adopted town.
Scott paid $652,000 for the sturdy old structure, well over the asking price.
“Maria was in Europe at the time,” Scott recalled. “I texted her and said ‘We’re buying a movie theater.’”
Said Maria: “And I thought oh my God, what has he done now?”
What Scott has done, as he sees it, is made the first investment in his community.
“The initial thought was, we’ll fix up the building and turn it into a movie theater again, and then try and find somebody to operate it,” he said. “Now, with this injection of all of these ideas from so many people, to be in such contact with so many people from the community, I feel the weight on my shoulders almost, to actually do something and make a success of it.”
What that might mean, in the long run or even the short, is yet to be realized. That’s what the email address, and the Wednesday meeting, are for. The couple have been speaking with established small theater operators, including Mike Hazlett of St. Petersburg’s Green Light Cinema, to get a feel for what might be involved.
“Obviously it needs to stand on its own two feet, in terms of financial sense. It needs to make money, or at least run at a profit,” Scott says. “Another one of the thoughts, as to where we’re going, is to see if we can try and create a fund, or a GoFundMe page, or potentially creating a not-for-profit, and having the not-for-profit run it.
“I don’t have the first idea how you run a movie house, but I probably will be a good person to try and bring people together to make it happen. The way that I have it set in my mind is there’s going to be three stages: One is bringing people together and getting a collective idea of exactly what to do.
“The second stage would be then building the space, creating it to do that. And the third stage, which is once it’s built, is for somebody like Mike coming in to actually operate it. Who can make it run as a cinema, who can make it run as a live theater, or if bands could be put on.”
Above and beyond its suggestion-gathering purpose, Wednesday’s public meeting is for Scott to meet those with an interest in restoring and/or re-configuring the Beach Theatre.
“The idea,” he explained, “is to introduce myself, and look people in the eye, and let them see that I’m not some guy in a suit, a developer that’s come down and bought the building. And to tell them about the state of the building.
“Some people actually perhaps think that all I have to do is switch the lights on. And why aren’t we already showing Mad Max 4 or something?”
Whatever form it takes, it’s not going to be cheap, it’s not going to be quick, and it’s certainly not going to be easy. But Christopher Scott is intent upon seeing it through.
“If I can get people to get involved in helping with its restoration, then people will always feel that they were part of it,” he said.
“We both feel, as immigrants to a country, that it’s something to get involved in a community, and to be part of it. So it’s in some ways part of that American Dream story, isn’t it?”